At 6:30 am today (Tuesday), I was on my usual morning walk, along the quiet, tree-lined streets around my home in south Chennai. Suddenly, I heard a low voice, as of someone calling out. I turned around and there, skulking next to a car, was a young man, perhaps in his 20s. He had exposed himself and was, as the slang goes, wanking off.

My usual response, as it has been all these years, would have been to ignore him, avert my face, keep my eyes on the ground, and walk away hurriedly, ashamed that I had been subjected to this sight.

This time I decided I would stand my ground. I turned around fully and faced him. I put my hands on my hips. I kept my eyes on his face and I challenged him, “Who are you? What are you doing here? Shall I escort you to the police station?”

The reaction was remarkable. It was he who averted his face. It was he who lowered his gaze. He mumbled something, then zipped up quickly, and started to sidle off. Now I raised my voice a bit and asked him to Get Out. Now. He walked faster, the Dalmatian in the house next door started to bark, I let loose the few foolish cuss words I know in Tamil. He began to run, turned the corner and disappeared.

I don’t write this to garner Likes on social media. Or for readers to say they think I am brave. I write this because I want my daughter and all the other daughters out there to know that when this happens to them (note I say when, not if), I want them to stand their ground too. Remember, it is not you who has to be ashamed. It is the man who must be shamed.

If you walk away today, he will come back. He will stand there everyday. This man, who breaks every rule of decency, of civil or normal behaviour, will own the street at 6:30 am, when the cuckoo is just beginning to sing on the mango tree and the milkman is doing his rounds. He will own the space and you, who have done nothing but go for a walk on the street where you live, will retreat into the walls of your home and stay there.

I did not learn this courage on my own. My husband taught me. I remember coming home years ago and complaining. He told me then that I must learn to confront. He told me to stand there and laugh in the offending male face. Ridicule, he said, will squelch him like nothing else.

Because remember sexual assault is about power. The man this morning was not excited by the sight of a greying woman in her 40s wearing baggy track pants. He was excited because he thought he had the power to humiliate me. I took that power away from him.

I want all my daughters out there to know that. To know that they don’t have to be ashamed of their beautiful bodies and their beautiful clothes. The shame in these encounters is entirely the man’s. He must be laughed at, derided, ridiculed, sent away. Look in his eyes, laugh in his face, own your bodies, own your space. Get the power back.

(Vaishna Roy is a deputy editor with The Hindu)

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