By Tenzin Palkyi
In the wake of the recent alleged rape of a Tibetan minor in the Mundgod Tibetan settlement, my girlfriends and I talked one evening about incidents of sexual harassment and intimidation we had experienced growing up in India. The fact that each of us had multiple stories to share is a reflection of how pervasive the problem is in both Tibetan and Indian communities. I was 18 when I first left India to pursue higher studies in the United States. Now as a 31-year-old, when I look back at my pre-teen and teenage years in India, I shudder to realize how close, on more than one occasion, I came to serious harm.
Silence is a Crime
My first recollection of inappropriate behavior includes a visit to the barber when I was twelve years old. The barber took me to a back room while my mother and her friend waited up front. The two rooms were separated by a flimsy cardboard box serving as a wall with a curtain drawn across the opening in the middle. I had always been a timid and shy kid, so I was too terrified to even call for my mother when the barber repeatedly brushed his hands over my chest under the pretense of fumbling with my hair. I was too scared to say anything. I silently walked out of that room after my haircut, waited for my mother to pay the barber, and never went back to that place again. I also never told anyone about it.
When I was fifteen and was traveling by myself on an overnight bus, I sat next to a Tibetan nun whom I met on the bus. In the middle of the night, the bus stopped for dinner and a bathroom break. I asked a man for directions and learned that the bathrooms were at the opposite end of the bus stand where it was darker and quieter. I went alone. As I was trying to find a cleaner stall to use, I heard the main door to the bathroom screech close. I turned around and was shocked to find the man who I had asked for directions standing inside the women’s bathroom. I screamed very loudly, ran past the man and pushed myself through the tiny opening he had left between the wall and the door. I was a scrawny kid and the man could have easily overpowered me if he had wanted to. I do not know what saved me that night, but I am grateful that nothing worse happened. The sight of the sleeping nun next to me calmed me a little bit, and reflecting the social norm that I had internalized over the years, I again did not discuss this incident with anyone. I did not go to the bathroom for the rest of the ride either.
The final incident I will mention here is when I was chased by three men in broad daylight as I was going back home from a trip to Nechung monastery to pray for high exam scores or something silly like that. Luckily it was on my downhill trip when they chased me. I kept screaming like crazy as I outran them. Finally when I reached a corner with some houses close by--and I knew they would stop chasing me--I turned around to see all three men smiling smugly at me. I was shaking with fear when I finally stopped running and felt safe enough to sit down.
I have listed only three out of the unfortunately many incidents of sexual harassment and intimidation I dealt with in the first 18 years of my life. Sadly, mine is not a unique story. In each case, my own response was to stay silent, never fighting back or seeking help from adults or authorities. Part of the reluctance stemmed from not having full confidence that adults around me would help me. I never felt comfortable enough to share these deeply traumatic incidents and always found a way to blame myself for creating these situations. It was only much later in life that I learned that this was not my shame to carry.
Touch Me and I’ll Expose You
After finishing my Bachelor’s degree in the U.S., I returned to Dharamsala to work in the Tibetan community in exile. A very important item I took back with me was my pepper spray. Luckily, I never had to use it on anyone, but every time I had late nights at the office, I walked home with the spray in my hands. I also noticed a change in my reactions to incidents of sexual harassment. I no longer felt shame for being attacked, but felt furious. I no longer felt like a victim who had no choice, but instead an independent woman who had a voice. While sexual violence is far from adequately addressed or prevented in the U.S., the time I spent there taught me a great deal about how individuals and communities can work to prevent, protect, and heal victims of gender-based violence. It was not one single moment that transformed how I felt. Instead, it was living and working in college in an atmosphere of zero tolerance for sexual violence, harassment, and intimidation. It was example of many strong female role models, be it professors or resource persons who are outspoken in their rejection of sexual abuse.
A few years ago, on a bus ride with a friend, the man sitting next to us kept touching my friend’s thigh. As soon as she told me what the man was doing, I stood up and loudly asked the conductor to seat this man somewhere else because he was touching my friend. I did not care if he was travelling with his family. He was deeply embarrassed and I have no doubt that he will think twice before bothering another female in such a way again. I think one of the most effective tools in discouraging men from such behavior is to expose them and shame them in public when they are doing something inappropriate. We have to remember that it is never our shame to carry.
Another time, when a man grabbed my behind on a crowded street, I held on to him immediately and told him I was taking him to the police. And I would have done exactly that, except my girlfriend got involved and slapped him hard across the face. Eventually, I had to let go of him as I thought my friend might get in trouble for hitting him. I understand that we do not always have the time or energy to stop and take every one who grabs our behind on a crowded street to the nearest police station. However, it is worth our time to do so when possible, and we should at the very least call attention to their inappropriate behavior and disempower the perpetrator, however briefly. I also call on other women who have suffered similar incidents of sexual harassment and intimidation to share their experiences as well and break the silence on this issue.
Deeper Solutions Needed
Informal ad hoc remedies can only go so far in fixing deep-rooted problems of gender inequality and gender-based violence in the Tibetan and Indian communities. Instead we need systemic institutional changes that acknowledge and address sexual harassment and gender-based violence issues. Public outrage in India last year in the wake of the Delhi gang rape that killed a 23-year old medical student brought women’s issues to the forefront. Soon after the Delhi gang rape, Indian police issued advisories for women to go straight home after school or college and to wear decent clothes and not invite attention. However, the younger generation rejected such patriarchal efforts to blame the victim. The Indian government quickly formed a committee to recommend amendments to the criminal law that will allow the legal system to deal more swiftly and effectively with criminals accused of sexual assault against women. The committee produced a 600-plus page report containing a long list of recommendations, some of which have already been enacted into law. It is an encouraging trend to see that the number of complaints made in relation to molestation and rape have also increased in the last year. Sexual assault and rape under-reporting is a major issue in India.
Although creating laws to safeguard women is a promising first step to addressing sexual abuse cases in a serious manner, social prejudices and biases cannot be reversed by laws alone. Instead, we must change society’s attitudes about women by deconstructing and eliminating the patriarchal values that are deeply embedded in the religious and cultural traditions of both Tibetan and Indian communities. It is only through conscious effort and dialogue at all levels of society that we can alter the social environment that trivializes sexual and domestic violence. In particular, the education system, institutions and the media can play an integral role in transmitting new value systems and setting social norms that respect women’s autonomy and reject gender-based violence.
The Delhi gang attack raised India’s national consciousness on sexual assault and intimidation that women face regularly and highlighted the crucial need for a change in the national discourse surrounding women’s rights. This national awakening presents a unique opportunity for the Tibetan community in India to also critically examine sexual assault and cases of gender-based violence that occur in our society and to create space for dialogue about such issues. The Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA) has an ongoing project that is geared towards raising awareness on women’s legal rights in India. Such empowerment is necessary for both the women and men in our community. The Central Tibetan Administration’s (CTA) Women’s Empowerment Desk also continues to implement series of workshops on women’s empowerment including raising awareness on sexual harassment and laws put in place to protect victims. It was also highly encouraging to see the CTA’s Home Minister, Gyari Dolma, display personal commitment and visionary leadership in the urgent and proper handling of the alleged rape case in Mundgod. The department of home also issued orders to all Tibetan settlement offices to report such cases to the local authorities without any exemption. To build on this momentum, the CTA and other educational and business institutions and civil society organizations can initiate or further strengthen its awareness programs on ‘sexual harassment at workplace’, and adopt a clearly defined zero tolerance policy on it with specific mechanisms put in place to penalize the perpetrators.
We must, as individuals and as a society, categorically reject sexual harassment and intimidation, and end the culture of impunity and secrecy surrounding it. Sexual offenders do not deserve anonymity. We should cultivate an atmosphere at home, at work and in public spaces that does not trivialize or tolerate sexual harassment, intimidation and assault. Let us empower our women and men to stand firm against perpetrators of gender-based violence.
This article first appeared in Tibetan Women's Association's Dolma Magazine, 2013 edition.
Republished with author's permission.