During my first trip to India in 2012, I was sexually assaulted twice.
For years I defined my experience as sexual harassment. I wasn’t entirely clued up on the difference between ‘harassment‘ and ‘assault‘ and figured as neither of the men raped me, neither of them physically hurt me, how could it be assault? How could I put myself in the same boat as the countless women and men around the world who had experienced the unimaginable? When what happened to me, in my eyes at the time, really wasn’t that bad.
It was a long time later, during a conversation with my friends, that my thought process changed. One of them mentioned how they’d been ‘sexually assaulted‘ by a man in a club and I, with thoughts of what had happened to me, was horrified for them. I asked what happened. He brushed past her on the way to the bar, put one hand on her side and suggestively winked at her as he squeezed past.
That was it.
And I say ‘that was it’ not to belittle what happened to her, because unwanted physical contact in any scenario is not cool, let alone when you’re probably a little intoxicated and not fully aware of yourself and your surroundings. But I say ‘that was it’ because I waited. I waited for her to continue her story. I waited for her to say he stuck her hand up her skirt, he put his hands on her bare skin, he tried to force himself on her.
But nothing else came. That was it. That was the end of her tale of sexual assault.
And it actually made me a little angry. Because to my understanding at the time, what happened to her wasn’t assault, but harassment. Which in itself is pretty shitty, but defining somebody winking at her in a bar as ‘assault’ diminishes the severity of actual sexual assaults.
Especially as, until that point in time, I’d been describing what happened to me in India as ‘harassment’.
On hearing her story, and her insistence that what happened to her was, in fact, assault, I took to the Internet to try and find out where the line is drawn between sexual assault and sexual harassment.
And to this day I still don’t know.
The Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment as: “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them“. According to the Guardian this covers indecent or suggestive remarks, unwanted touching, requests or demands for sex and the dissemination of pornography.
To me, what happened to my friend falls under that umbrella. As do the suggestive comments and looks I frequently get from men in my place of work. As does the occasional catcall or wolf whistle in the streets. As does the very few occasions in work when a drunk customer has inappropriately touched me or one of the other waitresses.
It’s sad how many actions can be defined as sexual harassment, and it’s even sadder how many women (and men) experience these on a day-to-day basis. And it’s sad that it’s only now, in light of the whole Harvey Weinstein situation, that the true magnitude of this problem is coming to light.
I’ve been extremely hesitant about publishing my experience for a while now, and it’s not because I’m uncomfortable talking about what happened because that’s not the case at all. It’s more because it never quite felt like the right time. It’d be dead weird, in the middle of all of my happy-go-lucky posts about amazing destinations around the world, to slip this little gem in.
It’d also seem like a massive contradiction, given how much I absolutely rave about India, to then publish a piece about how I was sexually assaulted not once, but twice in the space of 24 hours. I’m extremely protective over India, and the distasteful comments and assumptions that are made about it thanks, in the most part, to fear-mongering in Western media.
Finally, my very best friend in the whole entire world is an Indian man. He was born, brought up and still lives in India, and just so happens to be one of the kindest, gentlest and most sincere people I’ve ever met. In all honesty, I’m kind of a little bit in love with him. If I thought for an instant that something I wrote would contribute to the prejudice he faces in Western cultures every day because of a combination of his race, culture, and gender, I wouldn’t dare publish it.
But this isn’t about the fact that what happened to me happened in India. The same thing can and does happen right here in the U.K., supposedly one of the most advanced countries in the world. The bottom line is I was sexually assaulted by two people who should have known better, irrespective of the country they call home.
Right now social media is filled with people sharing their experiences. From catcalling and unwanted advances in the streets to absolutely horrific stories of rape and assault, it’s unsettling how many people are coming forward to share their experiences.
And here I am with mine.
The first happened on an air-conditioned ‘first-class’ bus from Gorakhpur, where I’d spent one night after crossing the border from Nepal. I was heading to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. My friend in the UK, who was originally from India, had contacted one of his friends, Rishi, in Gorakhpur to arrange everything for me. I stayed in a lovely hotel, ordered room service for the first time in my life, and checked out without having to pay because they thought I was a British diplomat.
Rishi picked me up to drive me to the bus station, grabbing an iced coffee and walnut cake on the way, despite my repeated protests that he really, really didn’t have to. I absolutely despise coffee, but he thought I was just being an over-polite Brit and insisted I drink the whole thing there and then in front of him. I nearly cried. He’d purchased me a ticket for the ‘ladies only’ section of the bus, for my own safety, of course, helped me put my luggage in the storage section and then gave me an awkward handshake goodbye.
There was nobody sat next to me on the bus at first – one lady got on a few stops later and I think she was supposed to sit next to me, but something about me didn’t sit right with her and apparently she felt more comfortable sharing two seats with the three ladies sat two rows behind. About an hour into the drive another lady got on, sat next to me and offered me some of her snacks. We had a very stunted conversation for about 20 minutes, using up all the English vocabulary in her brain, until at some point I dozed off.
When I woke up it was dark outside, and the lady next to me was having a whispered conversation with a man who’d just got on. She ended up moving seats and he sat next to me. He introduced himself as Hari. He was a businessman and, dressed in a grey suit and carrying a briefcase, I had no reason to doubt this. He spoke very good English and told me that sometimes he goes on business trips to Singapore, where he has an American friend who he takes out to dinner.
He said that they’d overbooked the non-ladies section of the bus, and so he had to sit next to me as the nice Indian lady from before wasn’t comfortable next to a man.
“You don’t mind?” he asked.
I was tired and he seemed nice enough so of course, I said no, I didn’t mind.
After a few minutes of awkward conversation, I fell asleep again.
When I woke up again almost the whole bus was fast asleep, and Hari’s hand was on my knee. I glanced over at him but he seemed fast asleep. His briefcase was positioned on his lap, and his other hand was hidden beneath it, on top of his crotch area.
I brushed his hand off me and tried to position myself in a way that I knew, if his hand ended up on me again, it would not be accidental.
About a minute later he let out a deep sigh (the kind of heavy breathing you do when you’re trying to pretend you’re asleep but are definitely, definitely not asleep!) and reached his hand across to my leg again. This time higher up, this time a tighter grip. I pushed his hand off again and pulled my legs up onto the chair, hugging them to my chest. Seconds later his hand reached out again. He squeezed it in between my stomach and my thigh (an impossible task for someone fast asleep, as he was feigning to be) and somehow found his way to the innermost part of my thigh.
He squeezed, and the best way to describe the situation is by using one of Donald Trump’s most infamous sayings. I looked over at him and the briefcase on his lap was subtly bouncing up and down.
The sight of what he was so obviously doing beneath his briefcase made me feel sick to my stomach and I shouted “STOP” as loud as I could, and made as if to stand up. He withdrew his hand as fast as he could and let out a “snore” loud enough to make anybody who’d been disturbed by my outburst believe he was sleeping.
I didn’t tell anyone on the bus what happened.
I didn’t feel safe telling anybody, and I didn’t feel safe not telling anybody. I didn’t ask to move seats. I just sat there, trying to make myself as small and unreachable as possible, for the rest of the journey.
That was sexual assault number 1.
This man inappropriately touched me (albeit through my clothes) while pleasuring himself on a public bus. Which is so disgusting and bizarre I can’t even begin to think of the right words.
The second incident happened less than 24 hours later.
My bus pulled into Agra at around 4am. I took a tuk-tuk to my hotel which, again, had been arranged by my friend. I won’t mention the name of the hotel, simply because of what happened there, but it truly was a lovely place. It prides itself on being a family-friendly hotel, run by a family with extensive experience and knowledge of the hospitality industry, and that experience and knowledge really does shine through.
They let me check into my room 6 hours early, and I went straight to bed. I slept until midday and then got up and got ready for the day, excited to head out and see the Taj Mahal and the many other wonderful sites in Agra.
This is where, I’m ashamed to say that when I tell this story to some of my male friends, they ask what I was wearing.
As if a woman’s choice of clothing should ever make a difference anyway, but in this case I kind of get it. A lot of people in India will never have met a Western person before, and the only idea they have about how British people are and how they act, is from TV. So what we may perceive to be pretty casual wear (skinny jeans, short-sleeved t-shirt) may be considered risque to some.
But for anyone who is genuinely curious as to what I was wearing – this photo was taking exactly the same day, a few hours later, and I was dressed as in this picture, except I was holding the red hoodie shown to be tied around my waist.
There is no way, in any world, that my clothing choices for that day could excuse what happened next.
I was leaving my room, hoodie in one hand and room keycard in the other. I stopped outside of my room, door still slightly ajar, so I could put the hoodie on before walking through reception. A member of the cleaning staff was a few doors down and, on seeing me, he pushed his cart towards my room and said “Clean. I clean now!”
I told him that I really didn’t need any cleaning. I’d only checked in a few hours previously and had done nothing but sleep. He didn’t seem to speak much English, and I thought that maybe he wasn’t understanding me. He frantically pointed into my room, at the towel that was on the end of my bed.
“Fresh towels!” he exclaimed.
He seemed insistent so I told him okay, he could go ahead and replace my towel. I stood where I was, half in and half out, not wanting to leave this man alone in my room.
I was 19 years old and naive.
Despite having already travelled around Peru and Nepal before this, I had no idea how hotels worked. It sounds silly, but I didn’t. I was always more of a homestay or hostel kind of girl, and this was the fanciest hotel I’d ever stayed in. I didn’t know that housekeeping had a key to access your room without you there. I didn’t know I could have left him to it. Even if I had known, I doubt I would have left because (and this sounds so incredibly ridiculous I kind of want to laugh) I didn’t like the idea of this strange man touching my stuff.
So he walked past me, into the room, and picked the not even dirty towel off the bed. He held it in the air like it was some sort of trophy and grinned at me. I smiled back. He walked back the way he came, as if to retrieve a fresh towel from the trolley he’d left out in the corridor. I moved a little further into the room, to give him more room to pass through the door. My back was up against the wall, facing the sliding wardrobe when he stopped right in front of me, reaching his hand out towards me to shake.
I hesitantly took it and shook feebly. He introduced himself. I don’t remember his name but it either began with or had a Z in it.
Nice girl, pretty girl,” he said.
He pulled me in for an awkward hug and, quite bizarrely, put his head on my shoulder as if we were slow-dancing. I remember my body going entirely stiff, trying to signal how uncomfortable I was. He lifted his head up, right by my ear and again said “nice girl, pretty girl“.
He pulled away and pointed at my chest which, as is shown in the picture, wasn’t even “on display”.
Very nice, very nice,” he said, pointing.
He pointed at his own cheek and said, “One kiss?” I shook my head, frozen to the spot. The door to my hotel was open, and I suppose I could have shouted for help, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t open my mouth to whisper, let alone scream. He repeated his request again: “One kiss? One kiss?” while moving closer to me. He put one hand on the top of my arm, pinning my right side against the wall, the other on my hip and again put his head first on my shoulder, then my chest, all the while mumbling “nice, very nice“.
The hand on my hip moved, finding its way to places no hand should ever go without permission.
Then it was as if a light inside me was switched on, I yanked his hand away before it could go any further and pushed him as hard as I could away from me. The shock made him loosen his grip on my arm, and he fell backwards against the door of the sliding wardrobe. I took the chance to side-step him and hastily made my way out of the hotel.
I got in the first tuk-tuk I saw and asked the man to take me to the only place I knew: the Taj Mahal. I texted my friend back home – the one who arranged for Rishi to take care of me in Gorakhpur – and told him what happened. He called me straight away and told me to turn around and go right back to the hotel. I asked the driver to turn around and take me back to the hotel, stopping at a small stall on the way to buy some bubblegum and coke (I needed sugar).
In the time it took us to get there, my friend had called Rishi who, in turn, had called his cousin in Mumbai, who then called two other cousins who happened to run an ice-cream company in Agra and stayed just five minutes away from the hotel. They phoned up the hotel in advance, demanding the manager be there ready to meet them.
They arrived in a big black car around the same time as I rolled up in my tuk-tuk, introduced themselves to me as Kamal and somebody else (I cannot for the life of me remember his name!) and profusely apologised for what had happened. These men, who I’d never met before, knew what happened was wrong. And they believed me. Which is more than I could have asked for given the circumstances.
As we walked into the lobby of the hotel, I could see the man who was in my room at the end of the corridor, just by the stairwell. He glanced between me to these two very foreboding men in fancy suits, and I could see the terror in his eyes. He turned with his mop and walked out of sight.
That was the last I saw of him.
The manager met us, and we all went into his office to discuss the situation. After a few minutes, an elderly, quite portly man entered, and everyone in the room bowed down to touch his feet as a mark of respect. Despite not knowing who he was, I followed suit and did the same. He insisted I get up and, instead, bowed down to touch mine.
It turned out he was the owner who, on being told what had happened, insisted on coming to the hotel himself to apologise to me in person and “deal with the criminal” on my behalf. His words, not mine.
I couldn’t tell you what was said in that office – most of the conversation was carried out in Hindi and, quite frankly, I was incredibly embarrassed and somewhat ashamed to be creating such a fuss that I zoned out for most of it. What I do know, though, is that the owner promised the man would “never set foot inside the hotel again” and, for reasons I don’t want to think about, they requested I not contact the police about what happened until after I left the country.
The entire bill for my stay was wiped, and I was invited to make as much complimentary use of the restaurant and room service as I desired. Kamal and the other man insisted I not venture outside of my room alone, and became my unofficial bodyguards for the rest of my stay in Agra. They took me to Taj Mahal and we went out for pizza.
This is us (Kamal is on the left):
That shouldn’t have happened to me.
But it did and, despite the confusion and shame that the event caused me, I’m not angry at the man (or men) who assaulted me. Well, I’m angry at Hari because he was middle-aged and definitely, definitely old enough to know better. But the second guy? The one with a Z in his name. He was barely the same age as I was at the time and I’m not saying he shouldn’t be held responsible for his own actions, but he should have been taught better.
He should have learned, from his own relationships and through the media, that women are not objects, solely existent for the pleasure of man, but people in their own right who deserve to have full rights and control over their own bodies. Women are not inferior, and women are not sex toys. Women are not there for you to touch (unless, of course, they want you to). Women are not there for you to use and abuse.
Before being considered sexual figures, women should be thought of as mothers, sisters, aunts and wives.
I dare to think what Hari would say if he had a daughter and a man acted with her the way he acted with me. Likewise with the second man, the one with a Z in the hotel; if someone had done to his sister or mother what he had done to me, how would he react?
Sadly, although by far the most serious, these two experiences aren’t the only two encounters with sexual harassment and assault that I’ve had. There have been, as is the case with probably 99.9% of the female population, unsolicited gropes in public places, catcalls in the street and workplace banter gone too far. I’ve also had partners who haven’t always known the meaning of the word no.
People turn a blind eye to all of the above because LOL it’s just banter, don’t be so sensitive. But sexual assault and harassment is never a laughing matter, nor should people reacting as such be considered ‘sensitive’. Since when is sensitive a bad thing anyway?