The author is a member of the Dangerous Women Project team, and the silhouette featured in the website banner is hers!
I grew up surrounded by males. I am the only girl in a family with three brothers and a load of male cousins. Throughout my childhood and teen years, the majority of my friends were male. In fact, I had so few female friends that I could have counted them on one hand. The males in my life are wonderful people. With the exception of the occasional idiot hollering degrading nonsense at women on the street, it is safe to say that I grew up not knowing misogyny. I had read of it, but I had not experienced it or seen it up close. In that sense, I did not know it. I even imagined it to be a thing of the past in the modern world. It didn’t need to be discussed or debated. Unless you’re bitter, I guessed.
At 18 years old, I left my home and moved to New Delhi, India for several months. What transpired there is difficult to speak of, even now – a few years later.
Along with some other responsibilities, I was there to write curriculum, teach English to a group of students, and train them to use the curriculum to teach others. I lived in a house with other staff members and students being trained for different professional skills. Within the first two weeks, a young man in the house decided that he had a romantic interest in me. Without consulting me, he formally approached the head of the project, my senior supervisor, and proposed marriage, with the supervisor assuming the traditional role of the father. I was shocked when a coworker whispered to me what was happening. The supervisor responded that this was impossible and that I would not be interested in such an engagement, even saying that I would never be interested. This blunt proclamation caused significant problems for the months to come. And I note: I was not a part of this conversation; I was not able to speak for myself. Like an item to be bartered, I was discussed like an object to be had or given away. No one seemed to see a problem with this.
Following that event, the young man appeared to think that the engagement was only “impossible” due to his status as a slum-dweller. Over the next few weeks, he harassed me, and it was unavoidable. He was the designated driver. He would point out buildings and tell me that one day, he will live there and that I will be his wife. After repeatedly informing him that I was not interested and that I was uncomfortable, his tone changed. He told me that he knows he will marry me whether I agree now or not. How? A voice in his head, he said, told him so. “God” told him so. Even today, this claim causes shivers to run up my spine.
I began to carry pepper spray and constantly watch my back. His behavior vacillated. At times, he tried to put on a show – sleeping all day, neglecting responsibilities, moping around in my presence in attempt to garner pity. Other times, he was boastfully confident telling all those around that he would marry me whether I liked it or not, which he knew because of the voice in his head. I was harassed.
A few months later, another young man expressed interest in me. He communicated that he saw me cleaning the kitchen for the students late at night, he noticed my light on when I had to grade student’s work late into the night, and he felt that I truly respected the locals as friends without condescension. He said that he loved me, took out a small ring, and asked me to accept it. I turned him down and truly felt sorry for ‘causing’ him pain. He became despondent, and it did no good that we all lived in the same house and that the other young man was repeatedly informing everyone that I would one day marry him. The environment was toxic. My requests to live separately were denied. My requests to use another mode of travel such as by public transportation were also denied.
One day, my senior supervisor came to visit from the United States. After invading the privacy of the female teachers’ bedroom as there was apparently nowhere else to speak, he began to make a series of remarks that would traumatize me for years to come. He spoke in condemnation as though it was my fault – the way the young men felt, the way they behaved, the problems arising. He said I MUST be doing SOMETHING to actively try and seduce the boys. It was MY fault. In fact, it was strongly suggested that I was “playing games”, so to speak, for entertainment. I was painted as a seductress, a femme fatale.
I was only eighteen. I had been homeschooled my whole life. I had never been in a relationship. All I knew of relationships and such drama came from novels, and most of my favorites were from the Regency and Victorian period – a time of intense obsession over rules and morality. What did my sheltered self know? Only this. That the seductress is the evil woman. The moral-less woman. The seductress is not the woman that we aspire to be. It is the title we give she who lures men and whom we despise. She is manipulative. She is wrong. “Seductress” is what we call she who uses her precious femininity for evil. It is a title reserved for those in the depths of depravity who merit only shame and scorn, for the woman who betrays her womanhood and deserves condemnation. A seductress is the worst kind of woman. She is dangerous.
I sat there trembling and shocked, as he hurled accusations and condemnation at me. At 18 years old, I was speechless. Nothing had prepared me for this. I tried to defend myself, to answer the accusations, but shock bound me, as well as a voice that overpowered my own. He finished his tirade by declaring that he is considering “sending” me back to the United States. I would return in shame to face all the family and friends that had supported me as well as all those who had sponsored this endeavor. I was an object, and others would decide my fate. This is the penalty for seductresses, don’t you know? To be dehumanised is my sentence, and I must pay my penance. I was told I had no say.
In the end, this plan was canceled. Though I continued to be held hostage in that workplace with similar threats, this particular threat’s realization was avoided because someone else vouched for me. A seductress may have no voice. She will not be heard. Someone else must speak for her.
Eventually, after several months in India, I finished my work, the contracted period ended, and I left. A year later, I began to see how I was still affected. When a friend of a man I was starting to get to know informed me that she believed I was “giving him signals,” she thought she was protecting a friend. She did not know she was triggering a panic attack. I was suddenly filled with fear. I was afraid of being accused of leading him on with no intention but to hurt him. I was fearful that I would once again be called the seductress. I quickly cut off all communication with the person. I continually lived with an anxiety, a monster I could not control – ready at a minute’s notice to point fingers at me. To condemn me. To threaten to steal my voice, my independence, my dignity. To silence and objectify me. To paint me as an object to be discussed, a problem to be fixed, a thing to be shipped away. Even as I write this piece, I feel the need to provide the reasons the second young man gave me when proposing marriage, because I worry that some may make the same accusations.
When people say that we need to “overcome the patriarchy,” I think they are referring to more than a social system in which men hold primary power. I think they are referring to a culture where men are afraid of women, where men are quick to condemn and blame them, where men feel the need to hold women down, where men see women as manipulative and conniving and therefore dangerous. I did not know misogyny at 18. With my privilege and ignorance, I thought the patriarchy was the myth of angry women. I thought there were no deeply ingrained cultural attitudes against women anymore. There were only bad men that we occasionally encounter; they do not represent the whole of society. After all, I grew up surrounded by amazing guys who supported me, respected me, and held me and my opinions in high esteem. I thought that there was no culture of misogyny – only bad individuals – until a person that I trusted, a man who purportedly dedicates his life to empowering people of poverty in forgotten places, held me responsible for the internal emotions of boys I hardly even knew. I was seen and treated as a dangerous woman for being nothing more than a woman. Not every man has internalized this cultural toxin, but many “good” men have, which makes it something we must talk about. Even good men might see a young girl as dangerous for reasons beyond her control.
Sometimes, being a dangerous woman does not mean being a brave hero who has everything right. Sometimes, being a dangerous woman requires nothing more than being a woman. We are not all heroines with fists ready to fight, strong feet, and powerful voices. Sometimes, dangerous women are calm, quiet people who were seen as dangerous not out of their own volition. Sometimes, the dangerous woman is a young girl just trying to use her skills to do something good when she catches the fancy of a deluded young man. Sometimes, the dangerous woman is a broken woman, beginning recovery, and just learning to survive. Sometimes, the dangerous woman is the woman merely fighting to be happy when someone else does not want her to be.
After the events that took place in India, including the harassment and severe workplace abuse of other forms, I battled post traumatic stress disorder for a long period of time. Not anymore. While my experiences may shape me, they do not define me. I am so much more than my history. I am a videographer and a photographer. I am a university student, preparing to go back for international development work. I am an artist and a thinker.
And maybe I am dangerous. But if I will be described as dangerous – not out of my own volition – then I will choose to be dangerous and reclaim my independence. See, if someone wants to silence me, objectify me, ship me away, then I will stand my ground. I will speak and not allow hurt to be the last sentence written about me. What can be more dangerous than a condemned woman? A woman who overcomes the condemnation and denies it power over her.
For those young girls and women who have been abused, maligned, hurt;
For those young men who may have to overcome the cultural toxins they have grown up with;
For those “good guys” who thought they were innocent but have hurt women;
For those women who have a restricted definition of what it means to be a woman and a dangerous woman…
…there is a lot to overcome, and discussion is a first step to healing. By sharing our stories, our inspirations, our research, our art and by listening to what each other has to say, we can begin to change perspectives, worldviews, culture. That is why the Dangerous Women Project is so important.
I hope you will join the discussion by sending your own contribution to our year of dangerous women!