ENOUGH: In the Shadows

By

ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

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In the Shadows
Akhila Kolisetty

As we began our long, bumpy drive from Makwanpur toward Kathmandu, I gazed out the window at the dusty valleys. The sun was slowly setting after a day of on-and-off drizzle, portending the start of monsoon season. Suddenly, the clouds parted to reveal a double rainbow stretching across the afternoon sky. We took a chai break, entering a rickety wooden tea shop at the edge of a bluff. Fog shrouded the valley, haunting shades of blue blurring into the horizon.

The last traces of the rainbow disappeared as we resumed our journey. My companions in the car were four Nepali men: a program manager at the non-profit I worked with, the driver, and two filmmakers who accompanied us to begin shooting a documentary on the justice system. I had come to Nepal a few months prior, a year out of law school, to work on advocacy to strengthen access to justice in the country. We had spent several days interviewing people: women seeking legal assistance, lawyers, judges, and administrators. We hoped to use this data to write a report on the challenges that poor communities faced in accessing legal services.

Soon enough, the drizzle turned into a downpour. The unpaved road was made of dirt, and the rainwater turned its dust into mud. Without warning, the jeep jerked forward, sliding in the sludge.  We yelled out, shocked by the sudden motion. My heart leapt out of my chest.

Close to the edge of a hill, we had almost driven off the road due to the slippery mud. Terrified, we scrambled out of the car as if our limbs were on fire. Adrenaline pumped through my veins. I’d almost died. Roadside accidents were common in Nepal, particularly when the weather was bad. We were lucky that the situation wasn’t even worse.

It poured rain as our feet squelched through the mud. I had no jacket, no scarf, and no umbrella. It even hailed, the white stones the size of my fingertip stinging my skin. My co-workers tried to pull the jeep out of the mud but it was stubbornly stuck. Other cars filled with men drove by and stopped. The passengers tried to assist, pushing and pulling to no avail. I stood at the roadside, nervous, confused, and wet. By this point, the night’s shadows had descended without mercy. My colleague, Prakash, came over to talk to me.

“We can’t pull the car out on our own,” he explained. “We’re calling a truck to help get us out, but it’s going to take a few hours given this weather.”

He pointed to a nearby van. “I think you should take this public bus. It’s going straight to Kathmandu.”

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” I hesitated. “I don’t know who these people are.”

“No, we’ll be waiting in the rain for hours. You don’t even have a jacket.”

“I’d rather just wait with you all. Don’t worry, I don’t mind.”

“Look, they’re going directly to Kathmandu. Please. I don’t want you to wait here all night.”

“All right… if you think it will be fine.” My fingers were numb from the cold, my nose was running, and my boots were covered in mud. I was a mess. Going against my instincts, I agreed to get into the minibus. After all, my colleague had worked in Nepal all his life. He wouldn’t steer me wrong.

In the front of the van were the driver and two passengers. In the back, I spotted two women who appeared to be asleep—perhaps a mother and daughter. I saw no way I could climb into the back, so I squeezed into the second row, where two men were seated. One was napping while the other was on his phone. I pulled my backpack into my lap as the car shuddered to life. I was surrounded by silence and complete darkness, punctuated only by the pitter patter of the rain and the dim headlights illuminating our path forward.

A few minutes later, I found the man sitting next to me staring at me. He was tall, in his thirties, and clean-shaven. He wore thick black-rimmed glasses and a faux leather jacket. I couldn’t see his face clearly in the shadows, except for the fuzzy outline lit up by his cell phone. I glared at him, but he continued to look at me. I could feel the pressure of his stare boring into the back of my head. Immediately, I felt uneasy. This could not mean anything good.

I looked away, trying to make out details of the surrounding villages in the mist. Then I felt his arm creeping up, closer to my back. A minute later, he put his arm around me completely, as if he was with me at the movies, or sitting on a couch. But this was as far from that scenario as I could imagine. Scared, I moved away, trying to put as much space between us as possible, but I was limited in my movement. There was no place to go.

Instead of loosening his grip, he tightened it, applying pressure to my shoulder. I felt a rush of fear. What was he doing? Unsure of myself, I pushed his arm away. But a minute later, it was back. His eyes were still fixed on me, a leer that caused my stomach to churn.

Soon enough, I felt his hand wandering downward from my shoulder. He started to touch my breasts. Before I could react, he quickly moved his other hand onto my pants. He was soon groping me everywhere. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Knowing that I couldn’t speak the language, that I was alone, that I had no idea who he was, this man decided to take advantage of me. My fear must have been apparent on my face. A predator, he probably felt that I was easy prey. I was stunned, in disbelief; for a few moments, I felt completely paralyzed.

A hundred thoughts galloped through my mind in a split second. What were the other people in the van doing? Most were sleeping or not paying attention. What would be the implications of saying something? What if I yelled, and the driver stopped the van? None of the passengers spoke English. How would I explain this to them? What if something worse happened? What if this man retaliated against me for speaking up? What if the driver decided to leave me behind? I was alone, in the middle of nowhere, in a storm in rural Nepal. Anything could happen. I was terrified.  I clutched onto the seat tightly and recalled prayers my mother taught me as a child. Trying to calm myself down, I focused on my breath. In and out, in and out.  

After regaining my composure, I pushed his hands away again. I told him, in a whisper, Stop. I indicated with my hands that I wanted him to stop. But he kept groping me. I moved his hands away, multiple times, countless times. I repeated to him, No. Nothing stopped him.

I willed my mouth to say something, to expel a scream, to yell, anything. Nothing came out. I was frozen in terror. I looked out the window, listening to the rain pounding down, waiting for it all to be over.

 

Prior to coming to Nepal, I had spent many hours working to combat violence against women. After graduating from college, I enrolled in a domestic violence advocacy training with an Asian/Pacific Islander support group. We discussed the cycle of domestic violence—how it comes down to power and control. I worked with a survivor from India and saw those same patterns play out systematically in her life: the isolation, the way she was made to feel worthless, the control and jealousy, and the physical and financial abuse that drove it all home.

I continued this work in law school, realizing that survivors of violence often encounter tremendous difficulty finding compassionate, affordable, culturally sensitive lawyers. As a law student, I helped survivors of domestic violence obtain restraining orders against their abusers. I also worked with a professor who provided legal counsel to victims of campus sexual assault. During internships, I researched sexual assault in the military and the sexual assault of undocumented women crossing the US border. My work took me to far-flung regions of the world: Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, and now, Nepal. Through these travels, I saw how violence against women was strikingly similar across contexts.  Rich or poor; white, black, or brown; able-bodied or disabled; in America or abroad: no one was exempt.

 

It was midnight by the time the van reached Kathmandu. When getting out, I paused, questioning whether to speak to this man. At the last minute, I hesitated. What would I say? Ask his name? It seemed like a ridiculous, almost mundane, thing to do after what had happened. Instead, I hailed the first taxi I saw, praying that this man would leave me alone.

Throughout the taxi ride, I was overwhelmed by paranoia. I kept looking out the side and rear windows. Could that shadowy figure in the street corner be him? Could he be in the vehicle trailing my taxi? He might have figured that he could corner me in the darkness before I entered my building. Thankfully, when I got home, I was alone. My hands shaking, I opened the gate and quickly padlocked it behind me.

Exhausted, I collapsed and sobbed. The nightmare was over for now.

 

In the days afterwards, I found myself replaying this night in my mind again and again. Despite my years of working to end violence against women, I hadn’t been able to react and end the violence against me. What did it say that a lawyer and women’s rights advocate, so intimately aware of the effects of sexual harassment and assault, could herself be so powerless?

I knew things could have been much worse. But I blamed myself. How had I been so idiotic as to get into a van in rural Nepal at night? Anyone with a shred of common sense would have refused, especially given how replete the news was with stories of rape on public transit across South Asia. I wondered why I had been so paralyzed during the assault. Why didn’t I yell or ask the driver to stop the car? Why didn’t I shame him publicly? Perhaps I should have enlisted the help of the other people in the minibus. At the very least, I should have taken down his name, snapped a photo of him, or written down the vehicle’s license plate number. A lawyer myself, and I hadn’t managed to gather any evidence—how stupid could I have been?

I knew all too well how a “perfect victim” would have responded. My reaction was far from perfect. I was scared, alone, and did not know the language of my attacker and the others in the car. And when the mini-bus stopped, I was so focused on getting as far away as possible that it didn’t cross my mind to obtain evidence.

When a woman is harassed or assaulted, the first response is usually: How did she react? If she didn’t scream or physically resist, the questions follow: Why didn’t she do something? If she didn’t fight back, she must have wanted it, right? She didn’t scream, so how can her words be trusted? Why did she wait to report this crime? If it really happened, wouldn’t she have gone to the police immediately? In our victim-blaming culture, the onus always falls on the subject of assault to speak up, when it should fall on the perpetrator for abusing her in the first place.

Historically, rape law has reflected such victim blaming attitudes, requiring women to show they physically resisted in order to prove that they did not consent. Most US states have moved past such blatant resistance requirements. Yet, the law—and social attitudes—have never reflected the reality of survivors’ experiences. While some survivors fight back, this is not common. In fact, a 2017 study from Sweden showed that of 298 women who went to a rape crisis center over a month, approximately seventy percent responded to the assault by freezing or experiencing temporary paralysis—a phenomenon known as “tonic immobility.”  One survivor recalls her body “freezing up,” describing feeling “the scream in [her] throat” and just “lay[ing] there and… hoping it would end soon.”

The reality is that not all victims of assault or harassment can scream out or fight back when a violation occurs. Like many others, I took the actions necessary to protect myself. I reasoned that if I didn’t yell, perhaps the harasser would leave me alone and I’d be able to escape safely. If I raised the alarm, I worried that even worse harm would befall me. I, too, was frozen in terror.

If someone like me, an advocate working to end gender-based violence, could have been paralyzed by panic, I can only imagine that anyone might react in this way. Logically, this is a perfectly rational human response to trauma and fear. Expecting women to resist with all their might, in fact, might be much more of a leap.

 

The next day, I woke up and willed myself, somehow, to return to work. Too nervous to take a tuk tuk, I fought Kathmandu’s dust and pollution to walk across the city’s choked roads.

In the office, I gathered up the courage to explain what had happened. My colleagues had put me in a vulnerable position, and I wanted to make sure they would be more careful in the future. Although Prakash initially responded defensively, he eventually came around, realizing that he should have explored other options before putting me on that minibus alone.

I exhaled, a long sigh of relief. At the least, I had gotten this off my chest.

 

Despite my relief, the reality is that my attacker remains free. I had no way to identify him, so we couldn’t hope to track him down across Kathmandu. And even if I could identify him, there would be no guarantee he’d be held accountable for his actions.

I can’t help blame myself, knowing he got away with my assault and probably would assault someone else. He, like countless others, would continue to use his anonymity as a cloak to harass women on public transportation.

Sometimes, I still find myself shaking off a nightmare, jolting awake in the middle of the night. I try to remember what he looked like, but all I can see is a face, blurry and in shadow, protected by the darkness.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

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