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A punch for courage

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HANGING ON: Despite Banu's (in pic) persistence, the men who assaulted her on Kochi's streets a year ago are yet to be punished

There is a certain fatigue in Thasni Banu's voice, a hint of defensiveness though it is certainly not despondency. It is the aural equivalent of dark bags under the eyes and it's the price any young woman in Kerala who dares confront deep-set male prejudices has to pay.

The thing is, Thasni says, one has to enter this battle of attrition prepared for a long haul. "It's not just external assertiveness, you need inner strength, " she warns. Thasni should know. Things only got worse for her after she made it to the headlines one late evening in June last year.

She was on the way to her office at the IT Park on the outskirts of Kochi and, since she had time before she swiped in for the night shift, decided to stop at a snack kiosk. She had been riding pillion on a male friend's bike and the two were having tea when a couple of youths started making lewd comments.

At first she ignored them but when she got on to the bike to resume the ride to her office one man made a particularly derogatory remark. Her hackles raised, she got down and confronted him. As the verbal duel hotted up, the man drew courage from the crowd of onlookers - all reassuringly male - and construing her defiance as some primordial affront to his manhood, punched her on the face.

"I still don't know why they targeted me. A modern young woman in Kerala always feels threatened when she sets out of her home. It's as though men feel that their physical body faces a threat from women in public spaces, " she says.
With her friend's help, Thasni managed to get away from the scene without suffering serious physical harm but in her mind the battle had just begun. She filed a police complaint and in the public hue and cry that followed, the chief minister had to intervene and assure action. However, as for actually punishing the men concerned, nothing, predictably, has happened so far.

Meanwhile, the confrontation has continued through other means. When her detractors had exposed themselves through their shrill self-righteousness - they even filed a counter case where they said she was the one who attacked them - they turned to defaming her through rumour and calumny. Even sections of the media which had fully stood behind her earlier began to dither as the insinuations began to have the desired effect.

Male chauvinism, Thasni realised, was not scattered islands, it was a continental mass. She wasn't new to the situation. Born into a conservative Muslim family in Malappuram district, she had had very early lessons on the pernicious hold of patriarchy. As an independent minded young woman, she was determined to find her own life partner but her family and community leaders weren't amused.

Thasni, however, resisted coercion. At one point the community leaders put her under house arrest but she eventually married her lover in a civil ceremony (she is separated now).

"Women still do not enjoy freedom in Kerala which is a highly hypocritical society. Any non-traditional relationship between a man and woman is considered a sin. While men enjoy themselves as they wish, women are forced to remain inside the four walls of their homes, " she says.

But to take the fight forward, women need support, sometimes traditional and intimate forms of support. "For a woman, support from her family is crucial. Though my family initially objected to my wilfulness, they later started to support me. They understood that I have a personality which cannot be dictated by others. This was crucial, " Thasni says. It has strengthened her resolve to soldier on.

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