When women decide to speak up
I have been reading with increasing dismay, despair, frustration and anger the accounts of dozens of women with the hashtag #MeToo. This collective raising of hands is not a joyous desire to join any exclusive club; it is to tell the world of assaults—verbal or physical—on their bodies and dignity.
The incidents are so many and so frequent that they seem commonplace and routine, as if what’s happening is natural. Many have spoken, but it is worth bearing in mind that many more women haven’t—it is not easy to step up and say they have been subjects of physical or verbal interaction they had neither sought, nor desired, in a society which is often unforgiving of women who speak up. Recall the recent incidents at the Banaras Hindu University and its patronizing establishment; recall that we live in a society that needs movements like Pinjra Tod (break the cage) and an assertion of the right to reclaim public spaces (think of the book Why Loiter? Women And Risk On Mumbai Streets).
The #MeToo accounts are short statements written simply and clearly, which gives them an honest eloquence. The women writing these accounts include lawyers, journalists, doctors, bankers, development activists, managers, teachers, students, and the list goes on. They have been whistled at and leered at, brushed past and pawed, groped and squeezed, humiliated and embarrassed. Many have written of being surprised and shocked when it has happened the first time, and then their responses have varied—from learning how to use their elbows to thrust back sharply, to steer away from situations and conversations, to cross the road, to get off a bus and take another, to shout, to scream, sometimes to strike back, and often taking days, weeks, to process what has just happened to them. Each such occurrence undermines their freedom to be themselves.
The conduct of these men—and there are many of them, men they know, men they don’t expect to behave in this manner, men who may be their relatives, colleagues, bosses, sometimes from their families—make the women learn a bitter lesson: that you can’t trust anyone. Some of the women have recalled being harassed when they were young girls of 5, 7, 8, 9—at ages when their most vivid memory should have been of learning to swim, or ride a bicycle, or the first ride on a Ferris wheel, acting in a school play, or acing a math exam—but the memory that lingers is of the uncle who touched them and told them not to tell anyone.
The men doing it are not always strangers. Sometimes they are friends they’ve known, even teachers, their managers, and people in authority. However well-meaning and nice the man might sound, when his inner demon will seize his brain and his words and actions might stray, simply cannot be predicted. And so the women stay on guard.
These men abuse trust. Their actions are unconscionable, unacceptable, and even criminal. They debase themselves. They are the perpetrators, but they leave the women to live through the consequences. The men strut around as though innocent, as though they have merely exercised their privilege, which is not at all a privilege; they believe possessing a different set of chromosomes makes them somehow superior and grants them the right to act with impunity, and that societal acceptance of their behaviour makes their conduct unexceptionable.
It isn’t. Elders don’t condemn them, many films celebrate such behaviour, politicians say, “boys will be boys,” and other elders—judges, principals, bosses—tell the women how to dress, what not to eat, when to go out, when to return, with whom to talk. And don’t use the cellphone.
Instead, women develop their own survival mechanisms. So many women have now written how they have learnt to react, by yelling, sometimes striking back; at other times, developing strategies to avoid physical contact: leaning forward while watching a film with a friend to prevent his wayward hand trying to encircle them once the theatre lights dim; nodding and smiling with a namaste, to prevent the awkwardness of his lunge to hug.
Dozens of women I know have spoken, from all parts of the world, from many nationalities, religions and languages. And these are only women from a particular socio-economic class, with access to social media. And social media abounds with particularly vicious misogyny; the woman who speaks is the one picked on more viciously, she is the one ridiculed: She is subjected to sexually suggestive insults and faces rape threats. The imagination boggles at the thought of the many, many more who are still processing what happened, who recall the last humiliation, and wondering if it is worth speaking up.
I am glad many are speaking out and shaming men, forcing us to speak up, as we should. I look with astonishment at the excuses—can the women be believed? Why didn’t they speak out sooner? Are they trying to bask in the limelight because of the sensational case of Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood? Don’t they realize how important that man is, how critical that man’s work is, for “the larger cause”, “the greater good”? Wasn’t it just “harmless banter”, wasn’t it “just a joke”?
Those are excuses. Fact: It takes courage to speak up. Speaking out should not be a heroic act for women; behaving decently should not be a heroic act for men.
Lesson: Instead of curbing the freedom of their daughters, parents should be warning their sons and teaching them how to behave. It is that simple.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Comments are welcome at email@example.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi