I Was Assaulted In India, and I Was Victim Blamed

by Vaidehi Joshi

It was early morning in Mumbai, a city that is just as deafening as it is dense. As I walked down the street, I passed groups of college students clad in school uniforms and young housewives jogging past elderly men out on their morning walks. Jet-black crows pecked at garbage strewn on street corners as taxi drivers slowly awoke to the November sunlight.

Morning used to be my favorite time of day. It's quiet enough to hear yourself think, calm enough to feel the breeze rustle by, and clear enough to see the Indian sun rising up into the descending smog. In a city with a population teetering on 13 million, quiet moments like these are few and far between.

People were passing by, staring in awe at the scene that was taking place in front of them. Their heads turned sideways as they glanced back at me in horror and surprise. A few people even slowed down to watch him throw me to the ground. But not a single one of them stopped. No one came to help. I was alone.

Every morning, I walked down these city streets before catching a rickshaw to work. I had been living in Mumbai for six months, working as a teacher in a small private school in Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia. I was just beginning to feel like I belonged to this island city metropolis. I walked through its streets and alleyways confident and unafraid.

On this particular day, as I made my way towards Sion Circle — the major intersection in the neighborhood with a guaranteed flow of traffic — I noticed a man leaning against a tree. The closer I walked in his direction, the faster his demeanor changed. When he was 50 feet away, he appeared uninterested in the pedestrians that crossed in front of him. At 40 feet, he seemed lost — I half expected him to ask someone for directions. At 30 feet, he caught my eye and turned to face me. At 20 feet, he stood directly in my path, and I stepped to the right to veer around him. He followed suit. At 15 feet, I stepped to the left to try to get by. He again veered in front of me. At 10 feet, I saw the knife. It flashed like a silver dart, a fleeting image that could easily be missed. And at five feet, I finally realized what was happening to me. I was being attacked.

It happened quickly; lasting no more than a minute, but dragging on like a nightmare you can’t wake up from. The man took a six-inch blade and aimed it directly for my stomach. I fought back, grabbing his wrist and pushing his towering frame away from my petite one. He tried to stab me again, this time with more force. I don’t remember feeling pain as the blade sliced my palm, but I do remember grabbing the knife-edge and forcing it away.

I started screaming, but I couldn’t hear the sound of my own voice. I kicked my attacker in the crotch as hard I could without losing sight of the knife for even a second. As he tried to grab my chest, I yelled louder and louder, and glanced around to see who was coming to help me.

People were passing by, staring in awe at the scene that was taking place in front of them. Their heads turned sideways as they glanced back at me in horror and surprise. A few people even slowed down to watch him throw me to the ground. But not a single one of them stopped. No one came to help. I was alone.

A split second after being thrown to the ground, I felt my stomach sink. I didn’t know what my attacker would do next, but I knew I was as my most vulnerable. Don’t let him rape me, don’t let him rape me. That was the only thought running through my head.

But instead of coming at me again, he jumped on the back of a motorcycle that had pulled up on the side of the street during the attack. Another man was waiting for him with the bike, and they both sped away before I had a chance to register what was happening. He hadn't uttered a single word to me, or even tried to take any of my belongings. And just as quickly as it had started, it was suddenly over.

The street where I was assaulted.

I stood up and started running, trying to find a crowded place, somewhere safer than where I was. I somehow managed to pull out my phone and call my co-teachers, who were supposed to meet me at the rickshaw stand. I gasped for air, sobbing in the kind of way that little kids do when they can’t express what’s happening. As I ran, I tasted the salt from the tears streaming down my face. But I didn't notice the blood streaming down from my palm.

I don’t remember everything after the attack. Parts of it stick out to me, like memorable scenes from a movie that you saw many years ago. I do remember the blood streaming down my hand, and my friends rushing me to a doctor to get checked out. I remember sitting on the curb, trying to catch my breath. I remember the group of men who surrounded us, asking what had happened, and why I was bleeding, why I was crying.

One of them asked me why I didn’t scream, why I didn’t ask for help. He asked me how I had provoked my attacker, because I must have certainly done something to bring this upon myself. I remember shouting back at him through my tears, “I did scream! I did shout! No one did anything!”

The victim blaming continued in the days following my attack. I soon realized that the only thing worse than reading about victim blaming is experiencing it firsthand. I also learned that being in shock is a kind of sedative — you know things around you are happening, but you can’t feel them, you can’t process them.

I spent countless hours describing my assailant at the local police station, reciting the attack and its details again and again, until it felt like it hadn’t even happened to me. By the time I filed my official First Information Report (FIR) and set my investigation into motion, I was completely detached; numb from repeatedly reliving the very scene I wanted to forget.

Initially, the majority of the detectives and officers seemed to believe that I had caused my own attack. Some detectives were convinced that I had rejected this man, and that hence he had a motive to stab me, ignoring completely the fact that I had never seen him in my life. (The idea that if I had rejected him that would be a reasonable motive, of course, is insane.)

Others asked me what my parents did for a living and what I was wearing when I was attacked, in order to determine whether I came from a respectable family or not. Two female officers even took me into an interrogation room and told me to stop lying and admit to them how I was involved with my attacker.

In between the interrogations following my attack, I also visited the hospital. Doctors told me that I was lucky to have had walked away relatively unharmed, with only a fracture on my tailbone and some deep cuts in my hand. But while I had escaped extreme physical trauma, the psychological trauma was yet to come.

For weeks after my attack, I refused to leave my house alone. I carried pepper spray with me wherever I went, regardless of however many people were accompanying me there. It took me almost two months before I could walk past the exact place where the incident happened. When I finally did, I held my pepper spray that much tighter. And in my dreams, I relived my attack, where that switchblade haunted me night after night. For many months, I lived in fear.

The police station where I reported the crime.

Even today, the motives behind my attack remain a mystery. I don't know why my attacker chose me, or what he wanted to get out of it. But what I am sure of is that what happened to me could have been a whole hell of a lot worse. And for so many women, it has been.

In December of 2012, a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi was gang-raped on a moving bus while coming home from seeing a film. Just like me, she fought back. Similar to my attack, no one came to help her when she lay bleeding on the sidewalk. But unlike me, she did not survive the trauma of her attack. Perhaps if someone had stopped to help her, she would still be alive today.

Unfortunately, the "Bystander Effect" — the lack of people coming to help an individual in need of help — is much more common than you'd think. In India alone, numerous cases of molestation and rape in the past 12 years have occurred outside of bars, hotels, and even on public transportation.

Time and again, people have stood by and done nothing. Though this phenomenon can partly be attributed to simple apathy, there is also a deep public distrust when it comes to authorities in the Indian judicial system. Many citizens fear the consequences of being pulled into a police investigation. And the few who do try to help are often assaulted themselves.

Two men who tried to intervene when their female friend was being sexually harassed were stabbed on a Mumbai street. More than 50 witnesses stood by and did nothing to help as they bled to death. The fear of police harassment coupled with the absence of a law that protects those who help survivors of violence from prosecution and harassment are unacceptable. As The Hindu explains:

The few witness protection procedures currently available to safeguard victims and witnesses include transferring criminal trials to safer venues, preventing the accused from confronting a witness in court; allowing courts to use screens to separate the accused and survivor in rape trials, allowing police to withhold witness identity, prohibiting intimidating questions during cross-examination; and allowing witnesses to testify remotely by video.
But the authorities are often unaware or reluctant to use these procedures. In some cases the response to victim protection can be callous or deadly. For example, a judge trying the Kandhamal communal riot cases in Orissa responded to a victim’s plea for protection by saying, “I am not your bodyguard. If you do not want to depose, why did you file a complaint in the first place?”

After the 2012 Delhi rape case, the world was quick to tag New Delhi as the "rape capital" of India. But the truth is, assault doesn’t happen only in the dark alleyways or the unmarked buses of societally-deemed "unsafe" cities.

It happens to high school girls in Steubenville, Ohio, where other students actually stood by and watched with cellphones as their peer was assaulted. It happens to college students on Harvard’s campus, where inaction on the part of the university administration forced a survivor to face her attacker every day. Harvard's statement reads as too little, too late.

...anyone in our community who hears the reports of those who have experienced sexual assault must share my sense of urgency to do all we can to address this issue. We must do better.

But it's not just on college campuses where we must do better. Because sexual assault happens in homes and marriages across the globe, and is even considered by some U.S. politicians to be perfectly legal. Contrary to popular belief, it happens to men and boys. And, as I’ve learned, it can even happen in broad daylight, on a busy street, in the so-called "safest" city in India.

Too many cases of assault go unreported and even unrecognized. And after having to defend myself during my own investigation, I’ve come to understand why that is. We are still very much a society that blames the survivor for being assaulted, rather than questioning the perpetrator of the violence itself. It comes as no surprise then, that very few survivors are reluctant to report cases of assault.

In many ways, it was not the attack itself that hurt me most. It was the absence of action. It was seeing the people who walked by without saying a word. It was hearing the accusations and finger-pointing from those whom I expected to support me. It was the lack of empathy from others that was the most painful.

One friend advised me not to speak up and share my story. Another looked me in the eye and stated blankly, "This is India, and you need to accept that this is what happens here." It was this exact indifference that made me feel most helpless.

On the day of my attack, I lost a part of myself. I am still working to get it back. But I am grateful to have survived so that I may pick up the pieces, no matter how many there are.