India: Mission Fight Back – Safety in Our Own Fists

Publication

Jul 11, 2019

By Vedica Mishra
Mission Fight Back

In India’s mythological magnum opus “Mahabharata,” Draupadi, the main female protagonist of the literary work, is insulted and disrobed in the King’s court as her five husbands have staked and lost her on the gambling table. Lord Krishna’s divine intervention saved her honor. But until Krishna intervenes, nobody rises to save her or to speak against the disgraceful act. Even the elders watched in confused silence.

In today’s time, Draupadi’s pain remains a large part of what it means to be a woman in India and society stays largely silent. However, Krishna, the saviour, is missing…

Safety in Our Own Fists

My parents would never allow my brother and me to watch violent programs on television. My father, an officer in the Indian army, had seen enough of it during the counterterrorist operations he was part of in the disputed territory of Kashmir and during his UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. Yet, that one day, he didn’t even notice us as we were staring at the screen. This is how immersed he was listening to the breaking news about the horrifying rape of a 23-year-old girl. I was nine years old at the time, studying in a co-ed army school. Initially I couldn’t process what I saw and heard. It was December 16, 2012 and the entire nation was either glued to their TV screens or protesting in the streets.

On that fateful day, after going to the movies (to see “Life of Pi”) Nirbhaya (meaning “Fearless”), just another girl like me and my friends – a physiotherapy student – and her male friend boarded an off-duty bus. Inside, there were six other men including the driver. After beating the young man unconscious, the six ruthless men gang-raped Nirbhaya multiple times as they took turn driving the bus. They also tortured her: biting her body all over, inserting an iron rod through her vagina and anus, and pulling out her intestines using their bare hands. If that wasn’t enough, she and her male friend were then thrown out of the moving bus, naked. The horror was further compounded by the callous passers-by who remain apathetic, looking at the two naked bodies without doing anything to help them until a police van finally came to their rescue. Nirbhaya died thirteen days later from her internal injuries.

That fortnight, I remember the school discussions, the living room debates and candlelight marches centered around women’s safety issues. And then it was over and forgotten, life was moving on, but we, young children, kept feeling scared and vulnerable. So, one day, I took my father’s hand and asked him to teach my friends and myself to fight. To fight back rather, and to learn how to defend ourselves. My father was surprised, but, as always, he allowed me to express myself. I told him about the way young girls like me were followed by men and about the lewd comments thrown at us, the cat calls, the body shaming by senior boys, and the general air of insecurity that we felt, especially the girls in middle and senior schools.

Four years later, my father, now retired from the army, was discussing the grim situation of crimes against women in our country with his friends after the news of yet another horrific child rape had surfaced. Statistics were being thrown around – 120 reported rapes every day, add an estimated 400 more that go unreported. 10,000 assaults a day, sexual harassments (or Eve teasing, as it is known in South Asia) and acid attacks are a constant. India now holds the sad record of the most dangerous country for women, especially for young teenage girls. That night, my fears came back and I asked my dad again to teach me how to defend myself. I explained that most girls I knew were terrified to venture alone outside of their homes. What I couldn’t bring myself to tell him was that I too was being harassed and stalked by a senior boy from my school. He had slapped me once because I wasn’t listening to him and had threatened to physically harm my ten-year-old brother if I didn’t pay better attention. My teacher, though a heavily-built man, who was a witness to the incident, had turned around and disappeared in the hallway. He could have stood up for me and ended my ordeal, but perhaps he was more concerned about his own safety or maybe he was just indifferent, like most men in my country. I was being psychologically and mentally harassed each day and, for the first time, my grades started to go down.

Most parents and schools only taught girls to ignore such incidents. In my household it wasn’t so, still I couldn’t bring myself to speak out. I felt weak, helpless and ashamed.

One night, driven by the need to tell my father about my tormentor, I laid down, unable to find sleep. I was angry at my own helplessness and kept wishing that I would be trained enough to defend myself. By morning, the idea of training other girls in combat techniques had started taking roots in my mind. Over breakfast, I told my father that I wanted to develop a mobile application which would be voice activated when a girl was in danger. Controlled by a command center, it would mobilize trained girls to come rescue the person who had triggered the panic alarm.

He listened to me with an amused smile on his face and asked questions. Meanwhile, I finally mustered up the courage to tell him about the harassment I had been facing daily for the past year. I cried, but telling him made me feel lighter. I had never see my father so angry before.

He immediately spoke to the school principal over the phone and filed a complaint with the police. The reaction of the school was shocking, as the next day, I was met with hostile stares, sarcastic comments, and lectures from teachers and principal. Surprisingly most of the negative reactions came from female teachers. My harasser went missing after the principal and management warned him in an attempt to buy time. The police were less callous as a respect to my father’s army rank, but they remained noncommittal about future actions. My father carried out the complete investigation alone, and managed to track and apprehend the boy in two days. He handed him over to the police. My brother and I were moved to a different school.

For the next week or so, my father kept talking to me about girls, boys, school, teachers, about the nature of our fears inside and outside the school and so on. He spent a lot of time talking over the phone.

A month or so later, my father and his friend Raj Khatri, along with two other friends from the army, called to ask me if I wanted to be part of a new program called Mission Fight Back (MFB). My father had brainstormed about my idea with Raj and together they had decided to develop the women’s safety mobile app, and also to start training girls across schools and colleges pan-India. Further, Raj felt that training wasn’t the only solution; he wanted to broaden the scope to include psychological well-being.

The problem was that women were not speaking up, and if they were, they weren’t being heard.

We also needed to change the way boys and men treat women. Social stigma, societal shame and family reputation played a big role in keeping incidents under wraps. In some cases, the girls were even married off to their tormentors. Burning women alive for dowry was still rampant, as were honour killings based on castes and religious backgrounds. All this with the tacit support of political parties and law enforcement agencies.

So far MFB has trained nearly 3,000 girls in various schools in India, and has been able to identify future victims and potential perpetrators, thereby preventing rape, molestations and harassment at an early stage.

Mission Fight Back was like a vision a daughter had one night without realizing that her father would convert it into a mission. I am in my tenth grade now and I keep myself occupied with the program besides my studies.

It is alarming to find that girls younger than me have so many psychological issues. MFB helps identify them and provides support. I keep the team abreast with the latest in the teen world, which helps them connect better with the teenage girls. I also help out the team as a part-time photographer.

Knowing a teenage girl like them started the MFB program helps young women open up and get comfortable with the team. Working with the team of MFB is what I aim to do in the future. I dream to take MFB around the globe to save girls and women in whatever manner I can.

I want every young girl to be an ambassador of my mission. To the girls of the world, I say this: love yourself enough to stand up every time you are pushed, fight back hard for yourself, fight tough, speak up, speak up, speak up, shout at the top of your voice until you are heard, stand up for each other. Learn to attack before defense, do not outsource your self-defense to men, learn to fight for your own safety. This is our world too, and we will claim it.