The Power of the Uncowed Woman

Social Commentary

The Power of the Uncowed Woman

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

was sitting in the accounts class of my design school, wondering why I was dealing with numbers when all I wanted to do was make clothes. The HR in-charge peeked in to inform the instructor that I was needed outside immediately. A little surprised, I followed her out. “He’s here,” she said. “He’s insisting that you see him right away. Please talk to him and ask him not to do this again.”

My faculties caved in. I knew I should stay put and tell her that she should ask him to leave. Get help if required. But no one knew what this was about.

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There he was, determined and deranged, yet looking as normal as possible with his chiselled features, broad shoulders, and a striking persona. The litany of abuses began as soon as he saw me. I walked away a little, wanting to get away from the school. He followed, still mouthing words that were meant to shame me. When we reached the end of the passage I turned around to face him. He showed me the little glass bottle in his hand, filled with a clear liquid. “This is what I have for you. Do you know what this is?” he asked. I didn’t. “Acid,” he said.

That was to be my punishment. I was a young girl, what would I be without my face, he asked. So either I agreed to be his willing slave for the rest of my life (he wanted marriage) or he would distort my face, claiming his retribution for rejecting him.

My stalker might have been deranged, but the truth is that it was less about him, and more about my transgression. All around us are women who are supposedly crossing “normal” men who expect and demand a code of conduct that suits them just fine. And when a woman refuses to comply with that code or rejects it outright, the consequences are disastrous.

Like it did in a popular South Indian movie star’s case. This actress – who has graced the Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu silver screens in over 100 films – had transgressed too. Her fault? Malayalam superstar Dileep held her responsible for the breakdown of his marriage. Her punishment? Abduction and a horrible sexual assault in her own car by a five-member gang who filmed the molestation.

She’s a woman, an actress, a face, a body. Take it apart, abuse it, shame it – then where would she be?

A case of attempted rape was filed the next morning that first implicated her former drivers Martin and Sunil. But after a five-month investigation, Dileep was arrested on charges of conspiring to the crime. For the past two years he had been diligently trying to sabotage the actress’ career, using his influence to deny her work. According to police sources, Dileep reportedly told them that it was the actress’ utter and blatant disregard for his wishes that had enraged him to no end. The final nail in the coffin of her career would be the circulation of the video evidence of the assault.

“A hurt man can be a handful – but a hurt man inspired by the conviction that he’s owed something can be dangerous,” writes Cord Jefferson in a Guardian article headlined “Men aren’t entitled to women’s time or affection. But it’s a hard lesson to learn.” What Dileep and my stalker share is an entrenched kind of narcissism. It leads to a sense of entitlement where they believe that their expectation of others is, in fact, their rightful spoils.

But what happens when the woman in question refuses to be cowed, despite these assaults? When the victim denies her victimhood?

Unfortunately for her assaulters, the actress decided to stand up and go on living her life normally. She fought back, filed a complaint the day after the assault, refusing to allow her attackers to get away with it.

The acid bottle did not open for me that day. I did not agree to be his willing slave either. While he stood there in front of me on that deserted passageway blocking my exit and my vision, hurling all those abuses, I had an out-of-body experience. I looked him straight in the eye, convinced that if I bowed down now, I’d never be able to recover from this. In comparison to that, the threat from the acid was a minor one.

He finally saw defeat when he saw my hand gently resting on his hand, which was still clutching the acid bottle. I was telling him that it wasn’t going to happen, that he needed to move on and forget me. That this would most likely destroy him more than me. I don’t remember much of what I said beyond that. But what I felt that day has never left me.

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What Dileep and my stalker share is an entrenched kind of narcissism.

In that one moment, I learnt a lot. I’d been dealing with the fear on my own for weeks, without a support system. Eventually, I came to the realisation that I was the only one who could take care of me – and that made me hold my ground. My fear had reached a point from where it could go no further.

I learnt to take the fear and the shame out of the equation. I believed that I had nothing to lose by standing my ground. So he lost instead.

Of course, I was lucky. Many women do not escape the fate that I did.

Dileep and his cronies were probably assured of their success as they concocted their vile plan. She’s a woman, an actress, a face, a body. Take it apart, abuse it, shame it – then where would she be? A distorted mangled soul.

They only thing they forgot to account for, was an unbendable spirit. They did not anticipate the possibility, that a woman might just be a little more than a distortable pretty face or a destructible body. The fates of Dileep and his co-conspirators are really insignificant from here on. Because the southern star has already vanquished the worst fear of all. She has already won.

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