Each passing day, we are appalled as more and more events of sexual assault make the headlines, throwing light on the catacombs of human depravity. It shows us that women can be subjected to instances of sexual assault not only behind closed doors, but at just about any place. Less than a month ago, we heard about a Malayalam woman actor being sexually harassed in a shopping mall. And we are all aware that such incidents are rampant not only in public places and public transport but also in classrooms, office pantries, and even at our own homes. Though the disclosure of these episodes has become more frequent than before, it is also a fact that we get to hear only a fraction of all such events. In India, a woman supposedly gets raped every 15 minutes, so imagine the case of a grope!
Three years ago, the #MeToo campaign erupted on social media, and then spread like wildfire all over the globe. The movement grew after actor Alyssa Milano tweeted #MeToo in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Women came out and posted â€” in 5 letters and a hash â€” openly declaring the fact that they have faced sexual violence at some point in their life. And just like almost all of my women friends, I too did.
It is commendable that we women could find strength in the collective, which we couldnâ€™t as individuals. I prefer to refrain from articulating the many incidents over the years since childhood which led me to write #MeToo. Instead, Iâ€™m pondering this one time when a colleague, my teammate, groped me in an office meeting room â€” one of the seemingly safest spaces of all, one would assume, (with the cameras in every other nook) â€” and to my utter disbelief, I found myself dumbstruck. I was unable to move or say a word for the first few minutes. My tongue felt like it was glued to the roof of my mouth, my hands seemed stuck to the flanks of my body, my senses frozen. In hindsight, my inability to react at that precise moment was the bigger shock than being groped itself.
So, what happened to the bold, liberated, free-spirited woman I presumed myself to be all the while? What was this inertia which suddenly consumed me beyond my own belief? Was it because I was transported back in time to a period when I found myself in similar predicaments, but did not know how or if I should respond? Or is it that despite all that I had surmised about myself, I too was just a weak, feeble, hapless woman like the millions to whom I doled out pity over the years?
If so, who was responsible for my complete incapacity to react, despite being a non-conformist who has been relentlessly vocal about justice and its paraphernalia? Why did I let him walk out the meeting room with a puffed-up chest like he had conquered something prodigious, instead of hanging his head in shame for his abominable behaviour?
The fact is, I felt disgusted. I am not sure who is responsible for that â€” him, my upbringing, or the society as a whole. A revolting, repulsive feeling overtook my entire being; that I was ashamed of my body, ashamed that I have breasts. And made me freeze like an Arctic iceberg. Thankfully I was able to come to my senses post the initial reluctance, lodge a complaint with the HR department and the punishment he deserved was meted out â€” immediate termination.
The myriad of #MeToo hashtags that had been swarming the internet showed us the unbelievable number of women who have been and are being preyed upon, right in our vicinity. Iâ€™m sure it was surprising to all of us that most of the women we know have all been wronged in some way, but none of us know as many men who have been in the wrong.
This thought reels in two incidents, of two women, both from varying backgrounds, who had to undergo tribulations of the same order, and who stood up against the atrocity they were faced with.
One is a colleague at the same office, who had an exactly identical experience from her co-worker. She promptly filed a complaint to the HR team. She had to attend multiple hearings and discussions for months, which led to them deciding to move the person to another location as a disciplinary action. She expressed her disapproval that this sort of trivial penalising would not suffice. The worst part is that one of the leads in Human Resources advised her to forgo the case, lest it create more issues and more ignominy to her than anyone else! And it took a whole year of battle for justice till it was finally delivered, and he was terminated (whether termination is a punishment commensurate with the crime is another question altogether). The difference between my case and hers was that I had tangible evidence that proved the manâ€™s culpability, while she had no proof of the incident. Whatever happened to â€˜no questions asked for harassment redressalâ€™, I wonder!
Another incident that I would like to cite is that of the daughter of an acquaintance who comes from the suburbs and with limited financial means. Her childhood friend and a person she had forever considered a brother, spied on her while she was in the bath and recorded a video of hers. She caught him red-handed, and made him delete the video from his mobile.
But thanks to the advances of technology and to corporate moguls who have bestowed us with data packages that allow large files to be shared at the snap of a finger, the video was already on its way to viler hands. Ever since, people in her village â€” men and women both â€” have watched the video and have been spreading tales, and giving her side-eyed glances as if she was the one at fault. She, of course, did her share of elucidating what actually happened, but in vain. She has since then put on a brave face, and has been trying to move on, but the hushed voices behind her back have not stopped. I wonder who fashioned these definitions that have placed a womanâ€™s dignity in her body parts, for if it is even â€˜accidentallyâ€™ seen or touched by someone it is completely obliterated! Oh â€˜dignityâ€™, you petty frail thing!
And isnâ€™t this precisely the reason why most women do not speak up against the men who violate them? That feeling of being or becoming â€˜dirtyâ€™ and the enforced culpability has become ingrained in the psyche of us women that we dare not speak about it, for it will supposedly hurt us more than the crime or the men. It is so innate in us that even women who are breaking glass-ceilings and chasing the stars take time to digest such an act of a perpetrator and to respond appropriately.
There is a question that gnaws my insides: When a woman is treated like she is a run-down wall any passer-by could scrawl scruffy graffiti on, it takes every shred of her strength from every crevice of her being to tear herself open, lay out her entrails and scream aloud of how she was trespassed; and when she manages to do that, if the law, the organisation she works for, or the society that includes her kith and kin look at her as if she is a piece of defiled meat and even a culprit, with whom lies the onus of proving the veracity of the transgression and as someone who needs to be ashamed of what transpired, what is she left with? Furthermore, when she tries to stand tall and cry her lungs out, of the horror she endured, where would a woman draw strength from, if her trembling shins are kicked down?
And there lies the answer to why women end up thinking, â€˜It is okay to let this trauma die down inside me, after all, itâ€™s not a rape, itâ€™s just a grope.â€™
This is precisely why we women need to rise from being lambs who find strength just in herds, and be lone tigresses who hold their heads high even while facing the storm. Let fingers be pointed with no shame, even if itâ€™s the only one upright, at those who think they can hide in the safety net of anonymity endowed by the silence of women.
Views expressed are author's own.
Mother, tech consultant and entrepreneur by the day, aspiring writer by night and passionate globetrotter through all seasons of the year. Aarathi Panikkar lives in Thiruvananthapuram, and works as an Innovation Strategy Consultant with Ernst & Young.