“What is this stalking rubbish? Stalking is just ‘talking’ with an ‘s’ added to it!” My friend declared as we walked out of the school campus after the bell rang. He headed towards his bicycle for what had become a near-daily ritual — following his “crush” on his bicycle as she heads home, shooting her frequent, suggestive grins along the way.
In my school in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu — and many others besides — such actions and conversations were what passed for “dating”. The very act of saying “hi” to a person of the opposite sex was, for us, an adrenalin-filled activity, often accompanied by days of planning in huddled groups, as well as the assignation of a ridiculous number of friends to keep an eye out for school staff and parents. As we worked our way through the years, as moral science turned to painfully awkward and inaccurate sex education lessons, as school uniforms turned from shorts to pants, as modes of transport changed from school buses to shared autos, cycles and bikes, one thing never faded — the feeling that to even engage with the opposite sex was to commit a morally bankrupt, socially unacceptable act.
In a political climate where “anti-Romeo squads” to prevent the “harassment of women” was pitched as a valid poll plank for the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election by the now-victorious BJP, love and attraction are rarely dealt with in themselves. More often than not, politicians instrumentalise these feelings to play on fears and ideologies, such as love jihad or as in Union minister Maneka Gandhi’s recent comments on hostel curfew timings acting as lakshman rekhas.
In this context, the resource material released recently by the Union health ministry under the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) comes as an almost dizzying departure from tradition — commendably so. It normalises attraction — regardless of orientation — and brings to the forefront concepts such as consent, trust, transparency and respect. It stresses that “no means no”, and encourages dialogue so long as personal spaces are respected.
That this programme even chose to acknowledge some of these things is a huge step. It also provides a far more updated alternative to subjects such as moral science or social science, which too often choose to focus on abstract ethical and moral ideas, placing them in a vacuum rather than providing context.
However, it will need to be expanded beyond a peer-based system, targeting teachers as well as other adult figures in children’s lives, as they are equally (if not more) likely to evoke negative feelings and thoughts on these issues These negative feelings were reinforced by the creative range of punishments we faced as children and teens when we did make attempts at engaging with the opposite sex — public humiliation at the hands of teachers, reciting lines, corporal punishment, the summoning of our parents, suspension or even expulsion. Many parents, far from protesting such unhealthy separation, instead, encouraged such punishments and suggested even sterner ones to ensure we weren’t “distracted”.
This robbed many of us of reliable adult figures to turn to for help in dealing with and understanding the many changes we were going through, physical and otherwise. Teachers were more likely to take a ruler to our knuckles than explain concepts such as consent or respect for personal space. Any schools that did bother to appoint counsellors did so to check boxes that added to the overall appeal of the institution. Advice was, more often than not, centred not around us as evolving human beings, but around academic performance — what would compromise it and what wouldn’t.
The space within a school can be both uplifting and oppressive. Finding people who share your interests and passions can indeed be a growing experience — but in many cases, with the caveat that these interests fall into the “acceptable” zone based on your gender. Any deviation from the norm can result in bullying, gender-based insults, such as “sissy” or worse.
It was, for me, important to accept that there were times when I participated in actions and conversations that fall under such categories as misogyny and sexism. It is equally important to recognise that it was exposure that allowed me to move beyond that stage. In a society that largely seems content to accept portrayals of stalking as “romantic”, this exposure is precisely what is so hard to come across. And what exposure we do get — by way of films and TV shows, which reach places even governments effectively can’t — merely reinforces the message that stalking is done “out of love”, and persistence means bulldozing past personal space and consent.
It’s easy to imagine an “us vs them” divide to reassure ourselves that we could never behave or speak the way “they” do. In reality, however, that divide may not be as wide or deep as we’d like to think. Some of us were fortunate enough to receive the right kind of exposure — be it through books, movies or the people around us. Ensuring that more students and the adults in their lives receive this exposure will be one of the crucial steps in denormalising and tackling stalking and its escalations.