New Delhi, (WFS) - Men are not born violent. But contemporary society seems to consider their violence innate. Aggression in boys is condoned, even encouraged. Little boys have to harden their hearts, to shape up to the requirements of being 'tough' and 'manly'. Girls on the other hand learn - through family behaviour and media role models - that they should be soft, gentle and docile.

India has witnessed a growing climate of violence in which the victims are women, the poor, dalits and minority religious groups. Those in power maintain positions of dominance through the exercise of brute force, set within hierarchical structures. Sexual abuse takes place through routine, systematic gender conditioning and exploitation, within which men exercise privileges at the expense of, and in order to control, women.

It is important for us as women to reclaim our voices and the right to defend ourselves. As in every other form of injustice, in the case of women too, there is never total silence on the part of victims. Women do speak up, but psychological and social conditioning makes it doubly difficult for them to voice their anger. Women who speak out run the risk of being ridiculed, lampooned and called 'unwomanly'.

But women do not grow safer by remaining silent. Take 19-year-old Sheena Zaidi, who reaches college in a foul mood, picks a fight in class and bursts into tears. Later she explains, "I was in a bad mood because in the bus this morning a man kept falling on me. I kept shifting but he kept on troubling me. I don't like to fight, so I didn't say anything." Zaidi decided to give up travelling her 20km run by this particular bus because that man travels on it, and despite the fact that the bus timing is very convenient for her. She has some friends on the same bus - girls and boys. Why didn't they help her? "They wanted to, but I told them not to say anything because I don't like a fight."

Experiences and research across the world suggest that a violator is encouraged if a potential victim seems voiceless, scared and weak.
Zaidi did not raise her voice despite grave provocation. She avoided confrontation. Like most women in patriarchal society she is brought up to be quiet and adjusting - qualities systematically nurtured through primary socialisation within the family. Likewise, a girl's ability to assert her will is repressed. Anger and frustration remain within, boiling and becoming self-destructive. This is clear from Zaidi's misdirected plan to change her bus, even as there is no guarantee of safety in another bus. Moreover, she would lose the support of her friends in the first bus. Zaidi would be better advised to speak up next time, loud and clear - telling the violator to move away. If he does not, she should build on the collective support available to her.

Experiences and research across the world suggest that a violator is encouraged if a potential victim seems voiceless, scared and weak. By avoiding unsafe buses or spaces, women actually restrict their activities, and limit their own worlds. Meanwhile, the parameters of what is 'unsafe' keep growing.

Within the last year, public spaces like Delhi's Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, Buddha Jayanti Park, and the Siri Fort auditorium parking lot have witnessed brutal violence against women. So have countless neighbourhoods, workplaces and homes. Do we need to prepare a list of all the spaces women are to avoid? Shouldn't we, instead, go for an alternative line of action: Take strong action to make every place safe?

Cases reported in the media are obviously limited. Says Sheela Devi, a grassroots activist in 'Samudayik Shakti', a women's organisation in Ambedkar Nagar, "In our colony most houses do not have bathrooms; people go to the fields. Women and girls go in the dark to avoid being seen. Some boys or men lurk around, watch them, and often they trouble the girls.... Recently, a woman came to us with her face scratched and bleeding; a young man harassed her while she was out in the fields. She reported the crime to the police. She didn't want the stress of a court case, so the police beat him up and let him off with a warning."

In February 2004, the Delhi Police advertised 'Dos and Don'ts for Women' in leading newspapers. Women were advised to avoid dark and lonely spots; not talk back if somebody passed lurid comments; and to make sure their parents/spouse have their mobile phone number. This well-meaning advice is fraught with patriarchal values. Women have to go out, and have every right to do so. They cannot always choose their routes or timings. It is for the police and civic authorities to ensure that there are no dark and lonely spots in public areas. They cannot shift the onus for protection on to the victims.

Besides, victims qua victims cannot stop a crime. As long as they remain victims, the crime will carry on. Silence further encourages crime. It is when victims create strategies of struggle that they begin to change the way things are. Finally, not all women have parents or spouses close at hand, or indeed a mobile phone!

While women have to systematically defend themselves, they must also draw the attention of neutral bystanders. Training in verbal as well as physical self-defence helps. Verbal self-defence refers to well-worded darts countering harassment. The victim turns the situation against the perpetrator by drawing attention to his misbehaviour. She challenges others around to take sides. The bystanders are converted from indifferent passers-by to active agents. Their apathy is revealed, or else their empathy with the victim jumps to the fore.

Self-assertion by the woman breaks the circuit of power, for the victim no longer epitomises powerlessness. Confides Mani Bedi, who travels daily between Ghaziabad and Delhi, "The other day, in a crowded bus, a man was pressing against me. Shocked and angry, I raised a hue and cry. I told him, 'Take your gun somewhere else, you shameless fellow!' The bus conductor caught him and told him to leave the bus." Humour - black humour in this case - is effective. It relieves the stress, and people join in more readily to support the victim.

Some women carry safety pins or umbrellas as effective shields against routine harassment. The notion that a person can simply get away with harassment - or even the myth that 'girls enjoy it' - is eroded. All women should be conversant with basic self-defence, including how to punch the solar plexus and kick at the crotch. Men too are physically vulnerable, and all women should know this, so they can hit back if assaulted.

Laws against sexual harassment have been refined over the years, including harassment at the workplace. Like changes in the rape law, these refinements have come about as the result of lobbying by women's groups and feminist lawyers. At the same time, there is unlimited scope for awareness building at the community level.

Recalls Amita Dave, a journalist, "In the university about 20 years ago, we mobilised students in various colleges to form vigilance committees against sexual harassment. Just before Holi (north Indian festival of colour) the harassment would intensify. We went to Kamla Nagar, near the campus, where little boys routinely hit women with water balloons. We went to homes and spoke to mothers about teaching their sons how to respect women rather than enjoy hitting them. One or two mothers were moved; they saw our point and began instructing their sons then and there. But one or two made excuses, saying, 'Boys will be boys'.

So long as families allow 'boys to be boys', men will continue to grow up violent. Women must be encouraged to speak up, express their own truths and create solidarity networks. Otherwise, new injuries will continue to be inflicted everyday, while the old wounds fester.