Why have women held back for years? We find out what has held women from speaking up, and how #MeToo has given a voice to the many repressed incidents of abuse - finally.
Why don’t women speak up sooner? Why don’t they quit their jobs? Why don’t they leave their abusive husband/partners? These are some of the questions often asked by too many people every time a woman comes out with her story of abuse.
With India’s #MeToo unfolding, I can see these plastered all over social media again. And as I come to terms with gut-wrenching stories of abuse, I started looking for answers to some of them.
To all those asking these questions, let’s pause and think for a moment.
- Do you remember when you underwent a surgery or a critical treatment?
- Have you forgotten your lost loved ones?
- What about the nasty office politics that drove you to quit that job?
- How about the important milestones of life - your first pay, the day you got married or held your child for the first time?
When we cannot forget some of the best and toughest moments of our life, how can you expect someone to write off an incident of sexual abuse and the pain that comes with it?
How can you expect someone to get over that trauma, that feeling of not being safe, especially when they know that they will be blamed, shamed and torn down if they open their mouths?
Here are some reasons why a woman or anyone for that matter, does not speak up against sexual harassment or abuse, and why it's important to hear them out when they do.
Imagine having someone harass you at work, and then threaten to tarnish your image if you quit or speak up. Jobs don’t come easy and this is reason enough for someone to keep quiet. Often at workplaces, women don’t speak up because they know they may not find someone who’ll listen. Remember the Uber engineer Susan Fowler? She eventually wrote a blog post that toppled the Uber brotherhood riding high on ‘bro code and sexism’.
Which begs the question - even if organisations have ICC committees and Vishakha guidelines in place, what do you do when your boss is a predator? When abusive men rule the roost, women have limited options - either report and face the flak, or fight it out and quit, or just grin and bear for as long as possible.
The world is full of predators in the workplace, and a change of job does not guarantee a safe working environment. Also, this only applies to women who work in organised sectors. Stories of garment factory workers, labourers or housemaids are far worse.
Women are not safe in their own homes. Sadly, a lot of us have been sexually assaulted or abused by our uncles and cousins, to even grandfathers and fathers. How does a woman speak up? There are many girls and women who are told time and again to hush up when family is involved. What can you do when the very people you should be able to trust abuse and harass you? Multiple women can tell you how abusers in homes enjoy unsurpassed freedom.
In one of the anonymous messages I received, a woman shared how she was abused by family members and trusted friends of her parents. “At one level I never wanted my parents’ relationship to go bad with anyone. But when it was out of my holding capacity, I spoke up but no one listened to me and that broke my faith.... and after that, I always remained silent and tried to handle it on my own.”
Another entrepreneur points out the dichotomy when it comes to abuse and harassment within the family ambit. “I had two stories to tell in the same house in two different situations and hence, reactions. We were given liberty to be comfortable with our parents and discuss with them if something of this sort happens! First was a boy from the neighbourhood whom we reported to mom and dad, and next they went for polite reporting to his parents and within a month they left the place out of shame. The second was our cousin. It was a repeat of the same incident and we discussed again with mom dad but we were asked to keep quiet. No more discussion on this because this will ruin family relationships. We meet them still as if nothing happened as a formality. This hypocrisy has led many stories untold, unreported, unbelieved, to maintain relationships superficially quietly!”
Many women or girls who have been abused or harassed never knew what they were going through.
“I think the older generation didn’t speak about sexual abuse so when it was happening most of them didn't even know what they were going through. They just suffered not knowing what to do. Especially when it was someone known, which is 80 percent of the case, because they knew no one will believe. Now when you understand what it was and you know you are not alone and it is important to bring this to light they decided to speak about it,” says Nidhi Abraham, a working professional at a global MNC.
Another story recounted to me anonymously is of a young woman who was abused by her own grandfather and uncle, but was too young to understand what it was all about. “I’ve been molested three times. The first was when I was really small. I used to sleep with my grandparents sometimes when we came over for the summer holidays. My grandfather used to take my hand and press it against his boner while he had his pants on. One night he took my hand and was skin on skin with his thing. And started rubbing it really hard. I remember getting scared and running to my mom in the middle of the night. I never spoke about it because I didn’t know what it was. When I was a teenager, my uncle kissed me on the lips several times and his hugs were always uncomfortable. These two times I never knew what it was and that it was wrong.”
And that was not the end. She was also abused by her friend and husband. How do you keep going with so much abuse being piled on you? How do you speak up when you want to protect your loved ones from the trauma?
Carrying all this within does not come easy. F5Escapes founder Malini Gowrishankar says, “This is the first time in decades we are seeing that we can ask men to not be predators instead of warning women to not fall prey to advances. That's a new thought process for both men and women I guess. Women are catching up faster with the change now, thanks to years of suppressed anger. Think about it, it took our country a Nirbhaya to even begin talks on sexual harassment as a topic! What do you expect women of yesteryears to do?”
Patriarchy is so steeped in our culture that not just men but women also fall prey to it. Mothers turn a deaf ear to abuse because they have come to accept the way things exist.
Malini points out, “Most of us have been brought up to believe that it is the girl's fault. Did you smile too much? Were you in the wrong place? Were you wearing a sleeveless dress? Did you not pin up your dupatta? Were you looking a little too sexy? Were you in a very crowded place? A few metrics change here and there depending on the place where the girl lives but more or less, this has been the definition for most of us.”
She adds, “Imagine, when an assault happens and one of the above were true, a teenager or a young woman would immediately think that it was her fault to have not followed the rules. That's one of the biggest reasons why young women and girls tend to take it on themselves and not pinpoint the perpetrator. Because they will know that the interrogation will start with these questions. And that the society is filled with predatory men and the onus is on the woman to protect herself.”
Remember survivor Suzette Jordan, who refused to be shamed, and lived on her own terms? All throughout her life, she sought justice and kept fighting against her perpetrator. She refused to conform to the stereotype of a ‘rape victim’ and be ostracised.
We live in a setup that does not make way for the ‘different’, or survivors or anything that upsets the apple cart and attacks the patriarchal way of life. Most victims/survivors don’t speak up because fighting back and moving on means not only taking up arms against the injustice done to you, but also face everyone who will look at you either with pity or disgust.
Case in point - MJ Akbar hiring 97 lawyers against journalist Priya Ramani, or Chetan Bhagat resorting to using Ira Trivedi’s emails to tarnish her public image so he can shift the attention from the abuse and harassment he has been called out for.
If there is one thing that the #MeToo movement has shown us, predators should know that their #TimesUp. Women will call out their abusers, harassers, molesters and rapists, and seek justice. And if you are lucky to not have a horror story of your own, you can use this to help and protect the ones who do.
And here’s where Maya Angelou’s words keep ringing in my years, reiterating that with the movement.
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.”
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