My Journey Into Women’s Rights

Seeing the truth

Born into an upper-class family in a third world country, I wouldn’t exactly say I witnessed blaring disparities in the ways women were treated in my society. Disparities were blaring – only I did not see them.

It was only around high school when I began to notice

  • a majority of domestic workers were women while a majority of manual laborers were men
  • a majority of broken families were parented by a woman while a majority of “complete” families were parented by men and women
  • a majority of stay-at-home spouses were women while a majority of the working population was men
  • a majority of deserted spouses were women while a majority of abusers were men
  • a majority of the high school business and arts class was women while a majority of the high school science class was men
  • a majority of nurses were women while a majority of doctors were men

– you get the point.

This coming from a country which

  • hosted its first female president of the UN General Assembly in the 1950s
  • its first female prime minister in the 1960s
  • its first female police officer in the 1970s
  • its first female judge of the Supreme Court in the 1980s
  • its first female cadet of the Indian army in the 1990s
  • its first female Olympic medalist in the 2000s

– and the list goes on.

Most would see this list and think that women are making huge progress. But if you look at the number of women in each of those fields, you would realize that is far from the truth.

Learning from my mother

By the time I hit law school, I realized that abuse was everywhere – my domestic help was abused and deserted by her alcoholic husband; my friend’s family was made to pay dowry (a price-tag for a girl given in marriage); my mother was never given the cheque at a restaurant when my father was seated with us; and I carried around a pepper spray on my walks to the grocery store.

Women live in a society where suppression is so ingrained, it doesn’t even seem like suppression when you ask most women. It’s just the way it is. Rape is rampant, violence is rampant, discrimination is rampant, suppression is rampant. Yet, most women would decline to call themselves feminists, let alone fight for women rights – after all the world was progressing in their eyes.

As a child, I always took pride in the fact that I had a working mother – my mother worked for more than twenty years as a country manager in a Fortune 500 company, but when she quit due to the “gendered politics” in the system, she masked her reasons for resignation as “its time to take care of my adolescent kids”. I couldn’t fathom why my mother needed to stay at home while my father could continue work. I couldn’t comprehend why men could have it all while women had to choose between a career and a family. I couldn’t believe my ears when an old man on a flight asked me why I chose to be a lawyer and work sixteen hours a day at the country’s top law firm, when I was a woman and I had to be wary of my future responsibilities as a wife and mother.

The final straw

For me, the last straw came when I was on a hiking trip with a girlfriend in the Himalayan mountains. We picked a quiet valley, which ended up being the last valley in the mountain range, located at an elevation of nearly 8000 feet with a population of 650 people and hosted exactly five livable motels. Our motel was the finest of them all, costing us a meagre $10 per night.

We trekked about half hour from the nearest road with our bags to reach the motel. The motel had a magnificent view of the snow capped mountains, with most rooms occupied and the rooms seemed just livable for the night’s stay. By eight that night, my friend and I went indoors and locked our doors, drew our curtain and sat on our bed, doodling into my coloring book.

Little did we know what would come next – at 1 am, we were woken by heavy knocking on our doors and we immediately sprang up and asked who. The intruder refused to say who it was or what he needed but simply tried breaking in, all he kept saying is “just open the door, its none of your business who this is”. Our brains, bodies and mind froze. I had a pepper spray but it took me 15 minutes to hunt for it in my little purse, because well, my hands were shaking. We considered screaming for help but were afraid we would trigger the intruder. Once the doors didn’t give way, he began to try our windows and that’s when we heard other male voices saying “these girls aren’t going to budge tonight, let us try tomorrow”. There were six men outside our door, drunk, high, and ready to rape. It took us a total of twenty minutes from the start of the torment to realize that we could make a phone call for help.

We escaped unhurt. The men were staying in the adjacent room and reported to the hotel staff that in all honestly, they got their room wrong. We were angry, furious, belittled and helpless. As 24 year old lawyers, we were unable to chase after them. We were unable to lodge a complaint of sexual assault because well, there wasn’t physical sexual assault. Which court would accept a claim of psychological violence on the scale of sexual assault?

The trauma that followed haunts me to this day. I had already been battling depression for eight months by this point, and this incident multiplied its intensity. Why? Only because they were men – they had the right to storm in the middle of the night, consume us with fear for our bodies and lives, destroy my ability to sleep alone until this day, bring forth a PTSD diagnosis and still, walk away scot-free, simply because they were men.

That was the day I decided to give everything in me to causes of women’s rights, violence, abuse, harassment, discrimination and all that follows. I was a lawyer and I was helpless – what more can be said?

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Ranjani Jagannath is currently pursuing her Masters in Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and focuses her research on psychological impact of violence and discrimination against women. Battling through her own mental health struggles, she also launched whatwakesmeup.org to help people find meaning to wake up. Music, driving and Po (her little cavapoo) make up her top three favourite things.

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