After a while she added, “Lots of bad things happened, but it was good also. You won’t be able to handle it if I tell about it."
I was shocked but I tried to stay calm on the surface. It was a moment of bittersweet irony for me. After years of laying the ground to try to be the kind of parents our daughters will always be able to trust, I was hearing my child tell me that she wasn’t ready to speak to me about what had bothered her. She did not want my reaction to take away her agency to process what had happened to her. She took her time.
This is a recurring teachable moment in our lives as we grow older and seemingly more powerful. It doesn’t always make our company a safe space for those who feel vulnerable. Our first response to what befalls others isn’t always as measured or as wise as we had assumed it would become.
As more and more women on social media continue to share their personal stories of having been abused by men they had trusted, #MeTooIndia is an extraordinary phenomenon to see unfolding in real time. Women have been sharing screenshots of abusive and harassing texts, they are writing accounts of having been stalked, harassed, repeatedly solicited and raped. These are all social and workplace interactions and the extent of the harassment is sickening. Sadly, it is not hard to believe.
Because a majority of the accused men are journalists, authors, stand-up comics, actors and film-makers, I have known many of them in professional contexts. It is simultaneously horrific as well as cathartic to read the fearless accounts of women calling out abuse on a public platform. Others immediately surround them with solidarity and support.
Journalists have shared anonymous first-person accounts and resurfaced the next day to own their stories. They are revealing names of victims and perpetrators that have been protected for years. Each person’s testimony has a cascading effect, inspiring others to name their harassers. Stories as old as 30 years ago are being recounted with power and rage. Collectively women are letting go of the fear and shame that had muted their voice for so long.
Amidst all this are also those expressing doubts on the process. How do we know she is speaking the truth? How can social media play judge and jury? What about the possibility of wrong accusations? What is the evidence?
Sometimes we are blinded by a generational or a cultural gap, we are simply not in touch with the contexts in which other people live, even when they are staying and working with us. Sometimes it is the chasm between our privilege and the lack of the others’. Most often it is simply internalized biases that we have normalized over the years because they no longer hurt us personally. For many of us, the stories of others trigger our own repressed memories of past trauma.
In the beginning I had also caught myself categorizing incidents according to my own sense of whether they seemed bad enough or not. I spoke to a close friend about my own discomfort. And then it dawned on me that my first role was to listen. Listen only. There would be my own stories to reflect upon and tell. We have normalized abuse for too long.
Change is always messy, confusing and disorienting. It threatens our privilege. Whether we are trying to reform how things work in our family, our workspaces or social environments, we cannot influence anything outside of us unless we are ready to re-examine our own role in the power structure. Be prepared to apologize to those who we wield power over. Learn to listen while others speak up.
As we climb the hierarchical social ladder, we also internalize etiquettes and norms that are stacked against those who are underprivileged within the system. We start speaking the language that has been monopolized by the oppressor and used to silence victims’ testimonies. Our insistence on model behaviour from the victim clashes with our ability to empathize.
“Amazing how most people are more angry at imperfect feminism than they are at systemic misogyny," tweeted Namaah, a graphic artist. This short sentence has found resonance with many grappling to explain why this new form of expression is extraordinarily relevant to turn the tide in favour of victims and against perpetrators.
Social media has been misused and abused abundantly, yet it is also a flexible platform for personal stories to be shared, to be believed and to inspire. As the voices of survivors continue to amplify, many Dalit women are sharing their own perspective on the toxic intersection of caste and gender oppression. Parallel narratives don’t have to cancel each other out. When we hear each other with humility and openness, we empower each other.
Rage that would have been dismissed in offline spaces has channelized itself online. Behind the public timelines on Twitter and Facebook, women have organized together to use sharper, more nuanced tools to address sexual harassment within workplaces. Anger will make space for the power of information, strategy, wisdom and compassion. It is all happening right now. Find a way to join. To listen to those who have been unheard for generations. This wave will not leave anyone untouched.
Natasha Badhwar is the author of the book My Daughters’ Mum, and co-editor of Reconciliation—Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey Of Solidarity Through A Wounded India.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar