Raising a boy in times of rape

Last week, I was woken up one morning by a text from a friend in Dubai. It said, “Adi came and asked me, mamma, what is the meaning of gang rape?”

She has two boys; Adi, 8, is the older one. The child was obviously reacting to newsfeed from Mumbai, a city he lived in before they moved to Dubai. She told him it was an important question, but she wanted to think through the answer so that it would justify the question.

Owing to the time difference, she got restless waiting for my answer and hence told him, ten minutes later, “Rape is the worst form of bad touch that one person does to another, and gang rape means many people doing bad touch to one.”

Understandably, he looked disgusted. And then she told him that these things wouldn’t happen if boys stopped thinking that girls were silly and instead, treated them as smart.

She didn’t want to probe into the source of his questioning, but she wasn’t sure if she said the right thing, and so she reached out to me. She felt that as a mother to two boys, she should really start worrying about their attitude towards girls.

My son, Re is four. He hasn’t started asking such questions yet. But I think it’s about time I started thinking of the answers too.

Call me paranoid, but I can’t help notice that after he started school and began mingling with boys and girls I don’t know much about, Re has started sounding slightly divisive about gender. He has started saying things he never said. Things like, “You take the pink one, because you are a girl!” I can’t track the source of this, much as I can’t track the source of him telling me one day that boys don’t wear bangles.

A few days back, his school celebrated rakhi. Re (and other boys at school) were asked to bring a small gift. They were told that the girls would tie them a rakhi and the boys would have to give them a gift. A friend asked jokingly on Facebook if that meant that the girls in his class were now his sisters. I resisted explaining the significance of rakhi to him — that girls tied rakhi to boys, and the boys promised to protect them.

I didn’t like the word ‘protect’. I thought I’ll wait till I come up with a suitable alternative. May be I never will. It doesn’t matter, really. He doesn’t have a sister and never will. The word ‘protector’ screwed up rakhi for me, and I didn’t want to transfer the angst onto him.

When the Shakti Mills incident occurred, and once again the focus was on the brutes that raped and the mothers who raised them, it sent shivers down my spine. It scares me, this. It raises alarm bells of a kind that I never knew could. The questions are always, “What is their upbringing? Which mother has raised such a son?” It is never “What did their fathers say or do? To them, to their mothers, sisters, wives?”

But the fact remains that almost everyone is under the radar.

Every man or woman who makes a joke about rape is guilty of rape.

Every man who thinks his nobility comes from protecting women (sister, wife, lover, friend) is guilty.

Every parent who says, “Boys will be boys,” is guilty. Every time you use a bangle metaphor for a ‘weak’ man, you are guilty. Every parent who thinks that a daughter should be married off lest she falls into wayward ways, is guilty. Every parent who has different bars for sons and daughters is guilty of rape. Every time you are told you need a man to complete you, you are raped.

Every time you think a woman needs a man to protect her, whether it’s her father, husband, brother, the Khap Panchayat, the police, or the State Home Minister, you are guilty.

Because there is a very thin line between protector and perpetrator.

When I was 13, a tall boy in a white kurta-pyjama who was walking behind me, grabbed my breasts. This was at Teen Murti Bhavan. I was trailing behind my parents while looking at the exhibit, and the boy decided to take his chances. I was so shocked, I picked up the nearest thing I could to hit him. It was a stool. The security came charging (they were more worried that I might break the glass), nabbed him and made off. I was left trembling with fear as my parents found me. What happened, they asked? “He physically assaulted me,” I said, not realising how the words came out of my mouth. My parents didn’t pursue the case. “It’s Delhi, it’s notorious” my father said. I remember feeling very angry that day. I still remember the boy’s face.

I remember another incident from my youth. I was 16, and used to attend college, a two-hour commute from home. On days I had practicals, this meant leaving my home at 5.30 am. I used to walk to the station alone; a 20 minute walk. One November day, when it was darker than usual, I heard a bell ring behind me. I turned around and recognised our milkman. “Why are you walking alone in the dark? Can’t your father or brother drop you?” he asked. I was already on the verge of being a feminist, and brushed him off. “I can look after myself, and this is none of your business,” I said.

But that conversation spooked me out. I told my mother about it when I got home. She vented on my father. “How can you sleep when your young daughter is walking alone on the street early in the morning?” I remember feeling very angry that day too.

A few days back, my husband, who works in advertising, was on his way to Delhi to pitch for an account. The client ran a girls only boarding school. I don’t remember the exact words, but the campaign was positioned around female foeticide and how we needed to empower our girls; hence a girls-only boarding school. I don’t know why, but it made me angry.

But I still don’t know what I am going to tell my son. Perhaps I can tell him the story of the rape survivor, the girl who didn’t just stay angry, but did something about it. She continues her fight for justice, her fight to get her life back, to work, travel, and live free. Her parents continue to support her in her fight.

For all I know, Re may cry over something in school tomorrow and someone is likely to say, “Why are you crying? Are you a girl?” And then I’ll have to start all over again.

This piece originally appeared in the Mumbai Mirror on 3rd September, 2013