I didn’t think I had a significant #MeToo story until I read this recap by an American woman who spent 10 months living in South Asia; then I realized I’d experienced harassment every single day for 2.5 years of my life. I’ve shared this story with very few people in the past because I wanted to honor my Azu’s wishes not to give his area of the world a bad reputation. However, this story is not a reflection of Azu’s town but rather of men worldwide who have not learned to respect women. As I thought about writing this story, other incidents came to mind, including those that happened in the US. I became angry thinking about how I was told to deal with them, or rather, not deal with them. My silence has shouted my complacency, and complacency perpetuates societies that tolerate abuse. So I share to raise awareness as I cry #MeToo
It wasn’t really an accident. But that’s what I told local people who noticed scars on my hands.
It was the summer of 2010 and I had returned to visit South Asia, spending about a week of my two months traveling in what had previously been my remote home town. The night before catching a bus to return to a large city, I traveled across town to spend my final evening with my former project translator and her twin daughters. Afterwards, she, her daughters and house helper accompanied me to a CNG* stop. We bid one another goodbye in her indigenous language then I boarded a CNG. My Bengali driver noticed us speaking the local dialect and struck up a conversation, curious about me.
Unlike when I lived there and wore local attire, I was sporting jeans and a waist-length top, hand-woven by the indigenous women of the community. I knew I looked like a tourist wearing jeans and toting a suitcase—a small, carry-on in which I had transported games and gifts for my translator and her daughters. I also knew if my driver regarded me as a foreign tourist, he might expect me to pay steep fairs for my trip. Throughout most of the country, passengers haggle over the price of a taxi before hopping in, but this little town was different. Situated between various bodies of a government-made lake, a single road served as the only thoroughfare from one end of town to the other. There, CNG’s functioned more like a bus than a taxi, allowing people to hop on and off for a set fee per leg of the trip. So when my driver refused to pick up others waiting at stops along the main thoroughfare, I asked him why.
He ignored my question and instead tried to flirt. He asked if we could be friends then attempted to shake my hand. I refused, knowing that unless I was among a progressive crowd in a place like Dhaka the capitol, shaking hands was a completely inappropriate gesture between men and women in Bengali culture. As if that wasn’t enough, he asked to kiss me—repeatedly—then started stroking my knee. We were nearing a stretch of road that served as an isthmus between two sections of the town and the power was out, leaving us enveloped in the dark. If this guy wanted to hijack, rape or mug me for my money, now would be the time! I told him I was going to get off. He was driving slowly so I thought I could just step off, but as I moved out the door he sped up, turning my easy step into a hard fall as I hit the pavement on my hands and knees. My first thought was that he would argue with me about payment or try to convince me to get back in.
“Tumi karap manush!” (you’re a bad man), I yelled in Bengali.
Scared, he took off. I was so shaken I didn’t even think to notice his license plate. I immediately called my host, my former landlord’s son, to come get me on his motorcycle. Then I hobbled across the street to a shop lit by a generator’s power. My hands and knees were bleeding and my jeans ripped. Several men sat in the shop smoking cigarettes and chewing beetle nut. They brought me a plastic chair and I sat down, my head still spinning. I didn’t say anything until I heard them discussing the fact that I didn’t understand Bengali.
“Amar malik ashte kobe.”
I told them in Bengali that my host was coming to get me and explained what had happened. They said they thought I had been in an accident, that I had fallen from the CNG. When they heard how my driver had treated me, they became angry and said if I had gotten his license plate number, they would have ensured he suffered consequences for his actions!
My landlord’s son soon arrived on his motorcycle. Hearing what had happened and upon seeing my condition, he hired another CNG for me to ride in and drove behind it to ensure I got back safely. My landlord called my translator and minutes later I was surrounded by about a dozen people, my indigenous family who loved and cared for me through difficult times. My landlord, whom I called Azu**, insisted that I not tell people what had happened. He said that their area already had a negative connotation in many people’s eyes, and if word got out about what had happened to me, foreigners would not want to come there. He particularly did not want me to tell my parents or they would never let me visit again (never mind that I was a grown woman, but I agreed at the time).
I had planned to leave the following day, but now was in no condition to do so. My mind and body were exhausted from days crammed with visiting as many people as possible, conversing in languages other than English. God knew I needed a day of rest and even though I had not carved one out for myself, gave me one through this incident. Plus I had gotten to spend precious little time with my host family, so my time of rest recovery gave me an opportunity to spend a couple days with them. I still recall sitting on the back veranda with Azu trying to carry on a cohesive conversation while his adorable grandchildren played at our feet.
For the next week, I was dependent on someone to help me clean my wounds and had to apply antibiotic cream for several days. When I arrived in India a couple weeks later, my wounds were still visible as I began the next phase of the summer: a project in the red light district of Kolkota. I entered with a heightened sense of empathy, the marks on my hands as I ate rice creating a tangible reminder of the sliver of horror most of the women had experienced.
* A mini taxi the size of a golf cart that runs on compressed natural gas—called CNG for short
**Azu is a term for “grandfather” in the indigenous language of the people I had lived among