“The day I set out on that investigation became one of the most terrifying days of my life,” Parvathi told TNM.

11 yrs before DCP Merin another woman walked Keralas streets to probe womens safetyParvathi and Merin Joseph.
news Gender Violence Wednesday, December 13, 2017 - 11:09

DCP Merin was in the news last week for conducting an undercover investigation with a team of women officers, to find out exactly how safe Kozhikode is for women at night. But the police officer is not the first woman in Kerala to have conducted such an operation. In fact, 11 years ago, a similar investigation was conducted by a woman journalist in Kerala, at a time when 24x7 news channels were just making a foray into the Indian market.

In 2006, Parvathi T, a then 36-year-old journalist and former TV anchor based in Kerala took up the challenge – but the effect of it was something she had to endure for a long time after the investigation.

Castigated and praised for her courage at the same time, this woman unwittingly set the wheels in motion towards awareness about women’s safety in Kerala, at a time when a topic like this was not given even a cursory second glance.

Many years after her investigation, Parvathy feels it has become safer for women in the streets of Thiruvananthapuram, but the story is not the same in many other parts of the state.

She points out that many sexually frustrated men have mostly moved away from the streets, to sexual harassment online.

Parvathy speaking to The News Minute recounted her experience of those days, how the idea for the investigation sprung, the terrifying experience and how she was viciously targeted after the investigation went on air.

How the idea for the investigation was born

I was no longer working for television news, but since I was working for a PR company, I used to visit media houses quite regularly.

One day, I was at the Malayala Manorama office in Thiruvananthapuram and the bureau chief, who was just heading into a meeting, asked me to wait for a while. When I complained saying that it wasn’t safe for a woman to travel alone post 6.30 pm, my assertion was met with protests from many men in the newsroom, who said that it was just upper class Malayali women who faced that sort of problem, while girls from other states were going on with their routines every day.

Having faced the brunt of sexual harassment just like any other young woman walking on the streets in Kerala, I didn’t keep silent. In that office that day, I loudly challenged everyone in that room that I could prove what I was saying about the lack of safety for women.

Two days later, I got a call from the newspaper asking if I was serious about my challenge. At first, I did not think of the repercussions, and immediately agreed.

At that time I strongly believed that most men felt that a woman walking alone after sunset was their own property to touch, misbehave or even take home. So I didn’t really need to think twice about going ahead with it.

But then, I had one condition: The paper should not reveal the faces of the men I came in contact with.

They agreed to the condition, but accepting the challenge soon became the easiest part of the whole investigation.

It was a terrifying experience

The night I set out on that investigation became one of the most terrifying nights of my life.

According to the plan, I was asked to walk starting from the Statue Junction in the city. From the word go, the staring began.

While many men boldly stared at me, as I walked briskly ahead, some others followed me.

By the time I reached Ayurveda College, I realised that a man was clearly tailing me so I tried to shake him off.

Near the Padmanabha theatre, as I stood waiting alone, a group of men came and stood next to me. They did nothing except stand there and look at me. Soon enough, families waiting at the bus stop slowly began distancing themselves from me, assuming I was a sex worker.

I was not the only one terrified of what could follow, because immediately, I got a call from my Manorama photographer asking me frantically if I was wearing a gold chain. (Why gold chain? Safety?) Even they sounded terrified, as they watched the boys hang around nearby, leering at me at the bus stop.

The gang of boys was the least of my troubles. There were more waiting as I walked further towards Gandhi Park. Suddenly, out of nowhere a man started talking to me and held my hand.

Before I knew what was happening, one photographer nearby rushed to the scene, and we moved out of the area as we went about our investigation.

Back then, we didn’t have any video cameras on phones to capture proceedings as they happened. We just had to make do with simple pictures using cameras.

At the Thampanoor bus stand, I asked a man on the road if the bus to Karunagapalli had left. He answered, “I have a car. I can drop you. But stay the night with me.”

By then, I was shivering from head to toe. In a matter of two hours, so many men had accosted me that I had lost count. Each one obviously thought that a woman who walks after dusk has to be a sex worker waiting for someone, or a person easily attainable by them.

The blowback

That day changed everything in my life. I became the ‘woman who sullied Thiruvananthapuram.’ At weddings, people would distance themselves from me. On the road they would tease me saying, “So can we speak to you? Or will you go to the media?” At the Asianet talk show called ‘Nammal Thammil’, many said I simply wanted to prove to the world that I was beautiful and very much still desirable. I was thirty six then.

However, those days, every action was responsible for bringing along with it an equal reaction. After my investigation, an author called Punathil Kunju Abdullah wrote saying if a woman was decked up in a silk saree and wearing flowers and walking at midnight, who wouldn’t want to pick her up?

I was hated, castigated and ostracized. It was only after five years, in 2011, following the gruesome murder of a girl called Soumya on a train that women’s safety became a big issue that warranted discussion and news time. Suddenly, I was a celebrity who had made the right noises about women’s safety.

Perhaps things have changed, or not

That one investigation I did changed my future, and that of Thiruvananthapuram, forever. The then Chief Minister, VS Achuthanandan, was one of the first people who had called me after Manorama put out the story. Thiruvananthapuram got streetlights in residential areas, women friendly autos started plying the roads. Today, you see a tangible difference in the city.

The harassment has become online now

With new laws and government crackdown on lax regulations, our streets appear safer for women. But the sexual frustration in men expressed in various forms has moved from the streets of the country to take on a more violent online presence.

This is a land that does not encourage any creative outlet. We don’t celebrate our art or culture, there is no place for people to even listen to musical concerts. Compound that with the already existing levels of sexual frustrations amongst men, what do we get? We get the vicious online community that we are seeing now. They are everywhere now. Sexting, downloading porn, sex phoning or abusing people on social media. That’s where you now find the sexually frustrated Malayali man. It also reflects a lot in our movies, TV shows and the much successful mimicry shows in the state.

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