Journalist and actress Parvathy talks to TNM about how much things changed since she loitered around Thiruvananthapuram streets to check on women safety eight years ago

Flix Friday, January 16, 2015 - 05:30
The News Minute| December 23, 2014| 5.20 pm IST Recently, after a New York video showcased a girl being catcalled by a number of men as she walked around the city, many news channels did similar investigations to find out how safe their streets were for women, and was telecast to the country on the second anniversary of the 2012 Delhi gang rape. In the aftermath of the Uber rape case, the focus on women safety has never been more pronounced. However, not many know that long before all these videos became the trend of the day, a similar investigation was conducted by a female journalist in Kerala eight years ago, at a time when 24x7 news channels were just making a foray in the Indian market. In 1996, Parvathy T, a 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.  Men would deliberately brush against her, leer at her from afar; one followed her, while another held her hand and asked if she would spend the night with him.  Castigated and praised for her courage at the same time, this woman unwittingly set the wheels in motion towards awareness about women safety in Kerala, at a time when a topic like this was not given even a cursory second glance. Eight years after her investigation, Parvathy feels things have become marginally better for women in the streets of Thiruvananthapuram, but the story is not the same in many other parts of the state. But she points out that many sexually frustrated men have mostly moved away from the streets, to sexual harassment online. She staunchly believes that a protest like Kiss of Love, though started with good intentions can do irreparable damage to Kerala’s psyche. Parvathy speaking to The News Minute recounted her experience of those days, how the idea for the investigation sprung, the terrifying experience and her scathing reputation after the investigation went on air. Here’s her story. How the idea for the investigation was born In 2006, 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 Trivandrum 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 just two conditions then. One that the paper would not reveal the faces of the men I came in contact with and two, which I would walk near the Trivandrum Medical College. I used to live near the medical college, and I have seen the trauma that women go through. They are at the hospital facing a personal crisis and are too numb to even react to the men harassing them. They agreed to the set conditions, but accepting the challenge soon became the easiest part of the whole investigation. It was a terrifying experience The day I set out on that investigation however, became one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. According to the plan, I was asked to walk beginning from the statue 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 realized 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 call girl. It was not just me terrified of what could follow because immediately I got a call from the Manorama bureau chief asking me frantically if I was wearing a gold chain. Perhaps they were scared I will get mugged, in addition to the harassment.  Even they sounded terrified as they watched the boys hang around nearby leering at me at the bus stop. The gang of boys wasn’t 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. This was eight years ago, then we didn’t think of using video cameras to capture proceedings as it happened. We made 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 call girl waiting for someone or a person easily attainable by them. Also read- I abuse, I feel powerful: Confessions of abusive Indian trolls Suddenly, a lot of people hated me That day changed everything in my life. I became the ‘woman who sullied Trivandrum’. 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. After my investigation, an author called Punathil Kunju Abdullah wrote asking if a woman was decked up in a silk saree and wearing flowers and walking in the 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’ 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, perhaps not That one investigation I did changed mine and Trivandrum’s future forever. The then Chief Minister V S Achutanandan was one of the first people who had called me after Manorama put out the story. Trivandrum got streetlights in residential areas, women friendly autos started plying. Today, you see a tangible difference in the city, at least people are more sensitized. I cannot call the atmosphere safe for women, but its surely better than what it was then. But sadly, that is not the case in all parts of Kerala . Thrissur, for example is a city I feel has become unsafe. The harassment has shifted 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. Kiss of Love took us backwards. Many of us have been working on the field of woman emancipation for long. In fact the work done by many people in this field had come to a point when a large chunk of the population was beginning to yearn for change; they wanted to oppose moral policing. Suddenly, you have a protest like ‘Kiss of Love’, and what has it achieved? I do appreciate the thought behind the protest, but it was perhaps not well-thought out. It has even pushed the moderates away. Tweet Also read- I feel powerful: Confessions of abusive Indian trolls Read- For the last 10 years this man has been looking for his daughter washed away in the tsunami
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