A lot has been said and written about the #MeToo movement that started in the US and then spread to other countries, where women who had faced sexual harassment and assault spoke up and started sharing their stories publicly. It first began with a few celebrities who spoke about these issues in Hollywood, motivating other women to follow suit. As more and more women have started speaking up, perpetrators of such crimes have felt the impact and many heads have rolled, with more to follow. Women are finally breaking their silence and realizing that they can speak the truth and that the truth will indeed set them free.
For other women around the world, it has been great to witness the impact of their words. I am, however, surprised and disappointed to not see this movement take off in India yet. While our celebrities are delighted to hog the spotlight and willing to adopt the latest offerings on the Western cultural bandwagon, they have been mysteriously silent when it comes to #MeToo. Either we are all blessed to be living in a society where we don’t need to worry about such issues or we are living in a society where women, even powerful celebrities, are afraid to speak up. I truly wish it was the former reason for the silence all around.
We once had a maid who was being physically abused at home by her husband soon after getting married and when she showed up with bruises the first time around, we offered to speak to her husband and counsel him. She refused. When the abuse continued, we offered to take her to the police station so she could press charges against him. She refused. When he took her baby and fled to his village, abandoning her in the city, we offered to get her legal help. She refused. I remember feeling frustrated at that time at her silence and unwillingness or inability to put up a fight. If only my maid, and all girls for that matter, had the opportunity to go to school and study from a young age and were more aware of their rights this would not happen, I remember thinking. If only her husband, and others like him, also had an education and were taught to treat a woman with respect and love, these patterns of abuse could change, I remember thinking. How naïve I was then.
Today, GurgaonMoms, the group I founded in 2011 has over 26,000 moms, who connect with each other every day and share their life experiences with each other. We keep seeing even intelligent, highly educated women from financially stable backgrounds and leading “Instagram”-able lives face physical and sexual abuse at home and at their workplace but are afraid or unwilling to speak up about their experiences. Many of them just accept their situation and deal with it while others are afraid to speak up in a society where such behaviour is rampant but the one who speaks up is pilloried and criticised and slathered in shame, disgust, and gleeful lust. Rather than receiving support, the woman is attacked for being where she shouldn’t have, for wearing what she shouldn’t have, for drinking what she shouldn’t have, for encouraging the man when she shouldn’t have, for making a scene by speaking up when she shouldn’t have. And the roars of “shouldn’t haves” drown her voice when she screams and drives all others to silence. And if this is how an educated professional modern woman is treated, what chance does someone like my maid have?
It is said that people get the leaders they deserve. It is also true of the police forces and the legal system. Because we don’t speak up enough as women, we end up with a system where the police often lack the empathy and compassion when a woman has been harassed or beaten or raped. We end up with a judiciary that is slow, dominated by male lawyers, and a place where women can spend many years fighting for a justice that may never come. I must mention the stories of two members of our community who took the legal route – one filed a domestic abuse case against her husband who was constantly beating her. Another member, who holds a senior position in the corporate world, was molested by a colleague and reported it to the police. Both have been fighting their cases for quite a while now but nothing much has moved. Could this be also a reason why women don’t come forward?
But how do we fix these issues?
We must stand against rapes and the rapists. It should not be a fight fought by the victim only. We must ensure that there is a strong support to help them through the trauma. We need speedy hearings and true justice for the victims in cases that involve sexual abuse or domestic violence. Justice delayed is justice denied.
There are stories of women such as Bhanwari Devi who was gang-raped in 1992 but decided that she would not stay quiet and let it go, as people around her asked her to do. Her long struggle ultimately led to India’s sexual harassment law. Sunita Krishnan was raped when she was a young girl and today helps many such victims by being their voice and extending whatever support they may need.
We and our system need to work towards a society where no more Bhanwaris are wronged. And while we are marching towards that future, let us become a sensitive and supportive society that helps the women fight their battles with dignity and hope.
This article has been written by Neela Kaushik –Founder GurgaonMoms and was published in Hindustan Times on 16th July 2018