Opinion | ‘Does your mother-father know?’
The Indian family is the reason why young ladies are pressured into succumbing to hostile workplace environments
When young women get sexually harassed or assaulted, the assaulter often has an unexpected ally: the victim’s parents. Just as so many of us lie about the price of things we buy to our parents (it was on sale; I got a company discount; it really is only ₹50), we halve and discount the assaults we face in the world.
This week, 38-year-old S remembered bitterly her thoughts as a small child when she was sexually assaulted at her grandparents’ home for nearly a year by her college-going cousins. “I thought if my parents found out they would be enraged and there would be a family feud. I was six years old! And trying to protect my parents!” In her 20s when she did tell her parents, needless to say, nothing happened and no family member or relationship was injured.
Several of the detailed #MeToo accounts from this fortnight mention parents in a couple of different ways. One way is when women say they have chosen anonymity because, like S’ younger self, they wish to protect the families from the pain. The pain of learning that their daughter/sister/cousin was tortured at work by gross men.
It is the other kind of invocation of parents in these accounts that we should pay closer attention to. In journalist Ghazala Wahab’s account of alleged sexual harassment at the hands of her then editor M.J. Akbar, she tells us how powerfully aware she felt that her family finding out about the harassment would mean that her first job would be her last job. That no girl from her family had worked outside the home before. That she had fought to leave Agra and come to work in Delhi. That if her parents found out, she would be called home forever. The ever-present threat of “come home and get married” looms large in the stories of women like Wahab who went to work in the 1990s (or earlier).
The complicated negotiations women make to fit in or even be invisible at the workplace are not things they tell their families about. And this is what exploitative men bank on. Does Your Mother Know is the name of a song by that parental favourite ABBA. But “does your mother-father know” is the internal calculation of the man who is harassing you for months at your workplace. When you can’t tell your parents about simple heartbreaks and disappointments in your life, what are the chances you will tell them about the seemingly “grey” zone of sexual harassment or date rape or revenge porn? Because if you are afraid of being blamed by your family for doing something that in your judgement is a normal thing to do at work or with a colleague, then what are the chances you will tell them about the abnormal thing that happened next?
It is this confidence in the chasm between young people and their parents that allows the police, for instance, to harass lovers. At 19, when I got “caught” walking with a boy in Cubbon Park, I decided in a heartbeat that I’d rather go to jail (for prostitution as the cops threatened) than tell my family where I had been. It is what Mumbai constable Atmaram More banked on in 2005. Arrested for raping a teenager he had “caught” on Marine Drive with her “lover”, he is reported to have told the police, “I put fear in the girl’s mind that if she does not let me have sex with her, I will let her parents know about her actions. I then forcefully raped her.”
While I am happy to see the clear-eyed involvement and warm support of parents to many survivors of sexual assault and harassment now, the chasm has not been closed. The double life is not a thing of the past. Just as girls have always double-dressed (your actual outfit of the day worn under the outfit that your parents deem acceptable to leave the house in), adult working women now have double social media accounts. The co-opting of parents is what allows the continuous functioning of that old and evil practice (notionally banned) in Tamil Nadu, the “Sumangali scheme” in which unmarried women are conned into bonded labour under the guise of it being a marriage assistance scheme. When the broker has assured your loving parents that you are earning your dowry in the textile mills, who are you going to complain to about your enslavement?
But the parent-child relationship envelope had been pushed sufficiently since the 1990s, I’d foolishly assumed. Women like Wahab becoming the first ones in their family to leave home made room for the rest of us. I don’t hear, “my parents are pushing me to get married” among 20-somethings as ubiquitously as I did in my own 20s.
Yes, yes, I was very foolish to assume things have changed that much.
This week my 20-something friend A came to hang out and talk about the 20-something literary prodigy Sally Rooney, the always prodigious Elif Batuman and other women she had been reading. When it came to her recent year at a foreign university, A made a face. She had spent a good chunk of her time abroad fighting with her uber-liberal university to set up a mechanism to deal with sexual harassment. “When we suggested they form an internal complaints committee, you should have seen their faces—as if they had never ever heard of such a thing. They just keep pushing us to go to the police.” And as A pointed out, women students who have come abroad for a year on scholarships and education loans are hardly likely to go to the local police. And some of A’s friends, a group of immigrants, who had faced assault at the hands of a fellow immigrant, also said that familiar thing. “If my parents find out, they will call us back home and get us married.”
So perhaps foreign universities also know that “does your mother-father know” will keep us in line.
Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.
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