Tag Archives: harassment

The Venus Flytrap: Compliments For The Crime

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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that not only do you never get the one apology you deserve while it still matters, but in the meanwhile, all manner of crooks and creeps you stopped caring about will keep trying to get a foot beyond the padlocked door. Last week, Hawaiian judge Rhonda Loo delivered a sentence to one such super-persistent villain. Daren Young couldn’t take a hint, which led to his ex-girlfriend having to get a restraining order – which he then violated by sending her 144 nasty text messages and calls in under three hours one day this May. He served a prison sentence of a few months before this trial, where a Maui newspaper reported that Judge Loo minced no words, saying: “It’s so childish to think a grown man can be so thumb-happy.”

She went on, mincing even fewer words, “I don’t know whether I should cut off your fingers or take away your phone to get you to stop texting.” Instead of either the inhumane first option or the insipid second one, she devised an unconventional punishment. In addition to fines, a probation period following his prison sentence and community service, Young was also instructed to write 144 compliments to his ex-girlfriend. One for each text or call that had harassed her. The extra catch (I like this judge!) was that he could not repeat any words while doing so. What fun – like something in a creative writing class! He has 144 days to complete this punishment. Imagine – a haiku a day keeps the handcuffs away.

I can’t speak for the ex-girlfriend, but I’d have absolutely no interest in the wordplay of someone with no respect for boundaries or for why people even set them. The criminal in this case has promised the court that he will stay away from the woman in question in future, and I hope he does. This would be a more sordid story if it wasn’t for Judge Loo, and I hope she gets a good chuckle from his list of compliments. She deserves it, for the levity she’s brought briefly to the very sinister, extremely common crime of stalking.

Most of our stalkers don’t wind up in court. It’s easy to say more of them should – but inherent in that expectation is an increase in the trauma we must first go through. It’s easier to use the block function, easier even to change our numbers than to take something to a justice system. This is all the more challenging when one has had a personal relationship or friendship with the stalker at any point, and private or intimate communications become legal evidence. That’s why I haven’t named the ex-girlfriend in Young’s case, although the news reports have. She doesn’t need to be permanently associated with a protective order she was forced to take out. Only the potential employers and future dates of the man she had to protect herself from need to know about it.

If Young happens to Google himself and see this, he could definitely use this as one of his 144 court-ordained compliments: “You, woman whom I hurt and harassed, are so very brave.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 9th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Smile Or Snarl

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The photoshoot had a brief I’d never encountered before: Don’t Smile. Instead: look angry, displeased or exasperated. I was to look, in short, like the difficult woman society thinks I am. The task should have been easy. But standing there in my pretty make-up and my prettier fabrics, hoping the sun would neither make me sweaty nor wash my dark skin out on camera, I hesitated. Forget looking intimidating or pissed off. I was just going to look worried. Worried that I wouldn’t look good trying to fulfil a rather wonderful opportunity, that is: to defy the expectation that women should smile more. Smile always. Smile through everything.

The gendered regulation of smiling came up often during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, when she was first criticised for not appearing cheerful enough, then for “smiling like she’s at her granddaughter’s birthday party”. Russian President Putin said this in his International Women’s Day speech last week: “We will do our outmost [sic] to surround the women we love with care and attention, so that they can smile more often.” His speech did not mention how the Russian parliament recently voted 380-3 to decriminalise domestic violence that does not result in injury. Or how a newspaper responded to this decision by telling women to be proud of their bruises.

I’ve been told that my face at rest is a sad one, but most women are told they look angry. Hence the phenomenon of “resting bitch face” (RBF), which became a buzzword a few years ago. A woman can be thinking deeply, waiting, being stoic rather than emoting, listening intently – doing anything but smiling, basically – and she has RBF. All because she is doing something other than transmitting signals of acquiescence, agreement or availability through a smile.

Here, I must interpolate a cultural issue. Certain places are known for the friendliness of locals (unsurprisingly, tourism tends to be major economic source in these places). I grew up in two such places, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, where it is true that people generally smile more, to strangers and known people alike – at least, as compared to Chennai. This remains a source of lasting culture shock to me, and I clock it as one of the ways in which I misunderstand others, and in which I am also misunderstood. This may be why I couldn’t really fulfil the photoshoot’s requirements, to be the Nasty Woman (thanks, Trump) I am. I don’t personally get told to Smile More. Instead, the fact that I smile frequently – habitually, and through conditioning – is seen, not unlike what happened to Clinton, as being condescending or cunning – at best, coy. And often, sexually available.

But once, browsing transfixed in a bookstore, I didn’t pay heed to a man who seemed to always be hovering nearby, muttering under his breath. The moment he managed to grab my attention, I automatically smiled at him, unaware I was being harassed. He looked utterly taken back, and fled. It’s funny, isn’t it, what people will find scary in a woman? A snarl or a smile, it’s all the same to someone who seeks only to control a woman’s reaction – and fails.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 16th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.