Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Broken Windows

In a conversation elsewhere, Starry said something that struck a deep chord:

"A house with one broken window... is more likely to have stones thrown at it to break more windows.
The Mad Momma pitched in with a link to the Broken Windows Theory.


The conversation resonated on both personal and public levels. 

Personally, for a long time now I have resented how my parents never stepped in when my family decided to gang up on me. It is only in recent years that they have begun speaking up for my brother and me. I was a legal adult before I realised that everybody constantly complained about me not because I was an amoral, mannerless and unkind person, but because they could. My parents always said that we had to manage our own relationships ourselves -- with the caveat that we couldn't 'misbehave' with our elders. So my entire extended clan to could make insinuations and in some cases, outright accusations (about the most ridiculous things, too) and I was told to hold my tongue and be the bigger person while the 'elder' in question was placated to maintain peace in the family.

Last year I turned thirty and had just about enough of this, so I stopped taking it. Even my parents have stopped asking me to be the bigger person now. My father, depending on his mood, occasionally still thinks the fault must be mine (why on earth would people accuse me randomly?) -- and it doesn't shatter me. It used to bother me, how my parents always said I must have been at fault somewhere, somehow, even when I knew I wasn't. My morals, ethics and principles are in place and some things I just don't do. I believe in myself even though my parents don't always. Especially because my parents don't always.

Do you know what that is? It's a mended window.


In the public sphere, I feel that the Broken Windows Theory is something like
how a woman walking with her head down, looking scared of her environment seems more likely to be harassed than one who appears comfortable with her environment and walks with a purpose. One has fewer visible boundaries than the other.

I speak from experience, of course. Most women who spend any time outside recognise that it is not the clothes one wears that gets her unwanted attention -- it is their attitude, their body language. This, unlike the earlier lesson, was one I learnt early. My years in theatre helped me learn to project confidence even when I didn't feel it. As I grow older I learn to pick my battles -- I also learn to stand by whoever looks like they could use some help out in public.

My experiences with Blank Noise helped me work out ways to bridge the divide on the roads so that despite my appearance (well off, middle class, English-speaking) I can mostly make 'local' connections that help diffuse tension. Take the last seven days. In that single week I have blended into crowds of parts of the city where I don't really belong, yelled at and cajoled a truck driver and drummed up support from local youths to move his truck and make space for my car, yelled at and laughed with auto drivers who blocked my turn. These were often potentially very ugly situations, especially with the auto drivers where the two policemen on the scene were looking the other way. Somewhere I have learnt to temper my frustration with laughter, remember that I am NOT an outsider, that my being a woman is less relevant than my being a citizen on that street, in that situation. It helps that I can speak Bengali fairly fluently now. When I stop thinking of myself in terms of gender it's easier to focus on the problem than get distracted by the fear of what might happen to me since I'm a woman.

Does this work everywhere, diffuse every unpleasantness, ensure I am never harassed? No, it doesn't. But it cuts the number of episodes of street sexual harassment down to a figure I can contemplate without wanting to lock myself into my room and never stepping out again. It ensures that I interact a lot with other people on the streets, whether it is thanking another driver for making way, thanking a policeman for waving me on, thanking a taxi driver or an auto driver when I get down, chatting with a shopkeeper or another customer at the shop or indeed, merely smiling at the occasional stranger. I try not to frown out on the roads. There are enough frowns. I try to look non-intimidating but also not weak. Because that is the person I am -- not intimidating but not weak either. If I were different, I would try to project that persona.

Our streets need less anger, less fear, less uncertainty. Those are the broken windows that invite vandalism.


dipali said...

Brilliantly put, Sue!!!!

Sujatha said...

The last paragraph hits the nail on the head.

Sukanya said...

well written!

Cee Kay said...

Wow Sue! So well written!

Cee Kay said...

You know the part of this post talking about broken windows at personal level made me realize something about my own childhood. Just the other day I was talking to my SIL about how our relatives mostly left me and my brother alone during our younger years and we weren't subjected to much scrutiny. After reading your post I realized that happened because my parents didn't really allow any relatives to criticize us. They always praised us and took our side when it came to the extended family. They did expect us never to forget our manners and made us apologize if we misbehaved. But they also stood up for us on all other occasions. What a difference it made!

Hugs, The Sue.

Natasha said...

Thank you for this post.
I am the girl who was repeatedly asked: Why do these things happen to you only?
It was an unfair question. A big part of the answer was that I was actually outdoors and alone about 70% more than my peers. I went everywhere on my own.
But I also learnt over the years that I wore my vulnerability on my face. In my posture. I looked alone. And lost. And as I learnt to begin to rescue those parts of me...the anonymous attacks lessened.
Its a really cruel world out there.
I'm so glad to have read your post. Thanks.

Annah Betth said...

Nice post! Loved the beginning.. Could completely relate to it! The unwanted pressure can be done away with.. And it's within us to do that.. :)

Sue said...

Dipali, Sukanya, Cee -- Thank you!

Sujatha -- A friend thought I was being simplistic so I'd like to reiterate that none of this is simple; it can, however, be helpful.

Cee -- It does make a difference. Oh well, at least I've stopped blaming my parents over it. It happened and now it's over and things are now in my own hands. Let's see how that goes.

Natasha -- Oh, how many times have I heard that question myself! I'm glad you found something that works for you.

Annah -- I do believe that we can start the change within ourselves, yes.

Annie said...

I am touched by this post- its the true story of many a middle class girl who is instructed to be 'good' and 'docile' and never fight back in fear of dirty retaliation. We teach our girls to live in fear, to be submissive & learn to adapt and not protest...hope this acts as an eyeopener for many

Sunita said...

You are dot on Sue. In a different way, but this is something I have been thinking about for the last couple of weeks because I probably am the mother who criticizes or downplays the achievements of my kids in public and rarely praise them in public. The reason I do that is I was of the opinion we never should blow our own trumpets. Its hit me a couple of times when other mothers make light of my childs achievements or even downright criticize them while making comparisions. I let go some but defend at times when I hear a unkind comment. I realize the reason why people think they can say so is probably because I do it in public. A few events in the recent past has made me more aware about it and I am making a mental note about being more careful about what I say. While I dont want to go around defending silly notions of superiority and intelligence people might have but definitely want to stop unkind comments coming our way.

Sachita said...

"how a woman walking with her head down, looking scared of her environment seems more likely to be harassed than one who appears comfortable with her environment and walks with a purpose." - loved this line.

starry eyed said...

I agree Sue. One thousand percent. It's not the one-hundred percent solution to avoid harrassment, abuse or any crime or mistreatment, but I've been discovering this on my recent journey of freeing myself from all the crap that's been fed in over 3 decades.

I started wearing the trendy, normal, well-fitting clothes I wanted to wear all the time to places like contruction sites and hardware stoes...I was not harrassed AT ALL. Before that I wore dowdy salwar-kameezes and got harrassed to was just what was in my ind...fear and awareness of my vulberability

I've learned to look puffed up, to walk 'big' and tall, to stop ALWAYS giving way on stairs, the street and the road...and learned a lot about body language there. My daughter is petite and gets bullied a lot, but a classmate who is even shorter looks so tough and walks and talks to tough...she learns Taekwondo, it shows in her body language.

I've been driving for 20 years, but always with hesitation and fear about the bullies and dangers out there. In the last 2 years that has changed...and it one dares mess with me on the road anymore...and I have a good mix of compassion, courtesy, confidence, assertiveness and clarity that really helps in the wilderness that is Bangalore traffic

Sorry for the long comment and multiple links, but these are current and fascianting advances I have made in my life, and my kids are not going to take close to 4 decades to learn these things!!!

Saya said...

Loved this

Sue said...

Annie -- We need more laughter on the streets.

Sunita -- Here's something I impose on myself: if I've criticised or punished in public, I have to apologise or make amends publicly too. I don't necessarily do this for a tantrum or when Rahul was warned and still went ahead with his misbehaviour; I do this when I feel the situation could have been dealt with more calmly by me, when I reacted to him so strongly more because of my own stress than his behaviour. Do you see what I mean? It's something I try to teach him as well. If we're not prepared to apologise or praise publicly, we have no business blaming or criticising openly either.

Sachita, Saya -- Thank you. :)

Starry -- Well, thank you for the links. I hope people read the posts, because they are all very helpful. Loved your second comment. It's very true, and I regularly encounter men these days who are startled at how casually I talk to them and then, because I am neither threatening nor threatened, most of them fall into that same casual conversational give and take. It makes interactions a lot simpler when I can work this. Easier on me, easier on them and the job is that little bit likelier to get done, maybe.

Preeti Aghalayam aka kbpm said...

My mind is in turmoil. It is because I am realising that whats good for me ought to be good for my child as well and that scares the living crap out of me. Loved your post, as in, it made me think some more. Thank you dear Sue.

Sue said...

Preeti -- I don't really know about that any more. Theoretically, in the long-term, what's good for me is good for my child, but in the short-term, results appear more mixed. That's when I give up and just go ahead with what feels right. You're welcome if this post helped.