Photo Courtesy of Aparna Gopan

INDIA: Let Us Address the "Elefant in the Room"

Aparna Gopan reflects on a culture that teaches double standards, silence, and shame.

I was taught not to get raped, but my brother wasn’t taught not to rape.

“It is okay to kill.” They taught me.

From kindergarten to college, nothing changed except the paint on the walls and the faces in the rooms. I was taught to be good. To always be the teacher’s pet. I was taught not to scream, not to shout, laugh, or even be seen happy. They told me these things were for boys.

I was asked to wear skirts that covered my knees and hid all the stains in between my legs. I was asked to not name certain body parts. I was told to not scream as I bled with pain. I was taught to paint within the lines, and to not let my dreams show. I was taught to keep my hair and my tongue tied.

Everywhere. And every time.

I was taught not to get raped, but my brother wasn’t taught not to rape. I was asked to be friendly and to be nice—and that’s exactly what I did all my life. Once, I even let a white-robed man on the bus talk to me about God and sex and what I thought of both. I didn’t let him touch me, but I was screamed at for letting him sit next to me. This, when all I was taught, my entire life, was to be nice and let boys and men be.

Another time, when my girlfriend pulled me behind the bush and showed me her blood stains, I was ashamed and replied, “We don’t talk about these things.” That’s what my Mum told me: not to talk about things like menstruation, blood, or why my breasts ached at times, or why I had to shave. I was taught that I wasn’t supposed to let my dad or my brother see the pads I used to soak up my blood. I was taught to hide the apparent shame I lived with.

My sex education was a PowerPoint presentation of flow charts that said NOTHING about sex. I remember how we laughed when we saw the word “menstruation” written on the first slide in tiny font. That’s all I remember from all the conversations we NEVER had.

On another day, a smiling man followed us on his bike. He was steering the bike handle with a hand while touching himself with the other hand. We saw him pull it out and rub it, and that’s the first time I ever saw a man’s penis. But we did not talk about it as I have been taught my lessons well. That’s what good girls do. We obey all the rules and we say sorry when these rules fail to protect us.

When I entered college, they asked me to wear a tag around my neck at all times, and they said it would protect me. I did as I was told like a lost puppy with a collar around her neck, failing to understand how this could help when I was chased by whistling men and barking dogs who were free to roam.

They taught me what to eat and when not to, what to wear and where not to, what to say and when not to, how to sleep and with whom to.

My first lessons on love were given to me by my friends, sitting on a dirty kitchen counter. So, I did love. And it failed, as it is with most first loves. However, I was asked to move on and when it did take time to move on and I couldn't sleep in fear of touching hands, I couldn't bring myself to go to a therapist or even scream out all that pain. Because, I was taught not to.

When I did move on, in trains and crowded buses I had junks pressed against my body, my body that I was taught was asking for it. I was told I should feel good for all the attention I was getting.

This is the story of how I grew up: seeing and feeling all that they failed to teach me. The night and the train. The sea and my blood. The man and his lust. A stranger’s cock and my breasts. The vagina and how it felt. My dreams and where they rest.

This is not just my story. This is your story.

This is a story that transcends gender. We live in tiny rooms with huge ‘elefants’ right in the middle of all of them. I know that you can see them, hear them breathing, and feel their uncomfortable presence. But you act like you don’t.

I write this knowing that I will receive a call soon after this from my mum. She might have heard about this "episode" from someone else who read it and passed on their judgments about her daughter who talked about the elefants that keep killing her. Again, I will be blamed. I will be blamed—not the unspeakable elefants who fling young people off bridges or under trains.  

Because through all those lessons over all these years, that’s all they taught us. That’s all they taught me: “It is okay to kill.”

How to Get Involved

Aparna started “Elefant in the Room”, a provocative movement which runs theme-based campaigns around the various uncomfortable conversations people tend to squirm away from. You can join her movement by visiting her website and following "Elefant in the Room" on Facebook and Twitter

Story Awards: After #MeToo: Stories of Change 17Send Me Love


Dear Aparna,

Very accurate accounting of a culture and society living in the frustrations and desperation of their own ethics and confused about which way to go now. Our ancient philosophies and ultra modern going global attitudes are clashing badly now. Social frustration comes out in the forms of abuse and hatred and women are on the receiving end all the time. Crime against women has become a norm a tradition now and we don't flinch anymore listening to it, watching it from sidelines, thinking and setting few mental guidelines FOR myself that how can I refrain, keeping me out of all this. 

These are the thoughts just occurred after reading your story and I penned them down.

Sending you love. 

All the best.

Dear Rachana

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. The whole idea is to share and get people to break self-imposed and externally enforced barriers around us . We need to speak up and affect change: from within and for others . 

I hear the revolution.

Dear Aparna,

You are turning the tides by speaking up, and by doing so strongly. It is a huge elephant in the room that everything is blamed on women and girls, with the expectation not only that we prevent violence from happening, but also that we remain silent at the injustice of it all. By continuing to speak out you face ridicule and denigration of character for even mentioning the elephant. This is to create fear of speaking, and to undermine our work to create change. With this story you do justice to all of us who are punished for speaking out. I hope across distances you never feel alone, instead a leader in your community for necessary change, being cheered on by sisters who feel the same way.

In sisterhood,


Dear Tam

True. There is a lot of enforced censorship on women, to the point that we resort to self-censorship in fear. And this, as a culture needs to change, across borders. And I am ever so grateful for the solidarity :) 

I hear the revolution.

Hey Alana, 

You very courageous talking about stuff that people are afraid to speak about.  We also come from cultures that are uptight about sexuality especially when it comes to women.  Although we cannot change what we have been through we can prepare for the future by educating other people about these things  that we did not learn from anyone but through bad experiences. You can mentor a girl (s) and teach them to take pride in their bodies

Thank You. I am sure there are means to help women break the culture of silence. Our projects are designed to help women and  marginalised sections of the society speak up and take charge of their own lives. 

I hear the revolution.

Dear Aparna,

Thanks for sharing your story. Its the same everywhere. our traditions have not helped women at all. They have always looked down on women and blame women for every irresponsible behavior of men.

By this, we will learn to bring up our daughters differently. Thanks for sharing




You are such a remarkable, REMARKABLE person, not only to have survived this horror but to openly talk about it. You are right. It is the story of many. But it is you who has the courage to speak up and out. And that is the beginning to making a difference. Amazing. Thank you



Wendy Stebbins


Ubuntu is a southern Africa word that means "I am who I am because of who we are".

Wendy Stebbins