Tales of torture, survival and bravery: Four Me Too survivors speak out

There’s a common theme here, of women having to negotiate the most toxic work spaces that seek to repeatedly silence them.
Tales of torture, survival and bravery: Four Me Too survivors speak out
Tales of torture, survival and bravery: Four Me Too survivors speak out

It was called one of the most important conversations of the Bangalore Literature Festival. Four women, all survivors of sexual misconduct and prominent voices in India’s Me Too movement, took to the stage to speak openly about their experiences of assault and harassment at the hands of powerful men.

In a wide-ranging discussion moderated by journalist Barkha Dutt, the women —  Vinta Nanda, Sister Jesme, Sandhya Menon and Tushita Patel — discussed the backlash they faced in first coming forward with their stories and the fight to create safe workspaces where women can thrive. Most of the women on stage had faced significant hurdles in their careers in the wake of abuse against them.  

But even before the MeToo talk began, the necessity of uncomfortable conversations around feminism and womanhood was established, on the main stage of the annual literature festival on Sunday. In talking about her new book “Feminist Rani,” SheThePeople founder Shaili Chopra urged women to find their own definitions of feminism. Though there is often a discomfort around the word “feminism,” it’s only through repeated discussion that this unease with fade.

“This was a conversation that needed to happen. That uncomfortable silence had to be shaken up,” Shaili said.

In the MeToo talk, television writer, producer and director Vinta Nanda, who has accused actor Alok Nath of rape, spoke about the first time she had opened up about the attack more than a decade ago. At the time, she received little to no support or response from anyone, she said. “That’s where the torture for me really started.” After the attack, her career suffered and she struggled to find steady work. When she finally got the opportunity to work as a director, she was forced to work with her alleged rapist again.

“I had to direct him on the sets after he had raped me,” she said. “For me, it was gathering every piece of strength inside me and going to my sets.” Though she hoped Alok would be respectful of her this time, he instead worked to “create this atmosphere of power and stress for me.”

Even though she has received much more support now, with the help of India’s Me Too movement, she still says she’s been unable to reread the Facebook post in which she shared her story. “It’s like I can’t confront it even now.”

The second speaker of the talk was Sister Jesme, whose Me Too moment came years before the current wave of allegations against men in media, entertainment, Bollywood and many other industries. Ten years ago, after a priest harassed her with inappropriate questions and asked her to strip in front of him, Sister Jesme walked away from the church following 33 years of dedicated service. Like so many other women, her work had been derailed by abuse.

Sister Jesme’s story echoed the ongoing case involving Bishop Franco Mulakkal who has been accused of rape by a nun. Though her own incident occurred years ago, she still understands the kind of stories that the nuns in the Mulakkal case have shared. Nuns, she said, are terrified of speaking out because they often lack financial, familial and societal support. “They are not daring enough to come out or to speak out,” she said. “They are voiceless.”

It’s not uncommon for women to face isolation in a workplace after speaking out against a male superior. Sandhya Menon, who kickstarted the recent wave of Me Too stories with her own personal experience of assault and harassment, said she was ignored and dismissed at work after she complained years ago. “I started to get isolated at work, I was given nothing to do” and superiors were told don’t assign stories to her, she said.

The treatment was enough to make her give up her dream of being a journalist for years. “We shouldn’t be ignoring a woman’s ambition,” she said. “My ambition is so much a part of my identity.”

There’s a common theme here, of women having to negotiate the most toxic work spaces that seek to repeatedly silence them. Barkha Dutt said that despite her own experiences of misconduct and harassment with men, she never spoke out for fear that it would jeopardise future assignments or jobs. Tushita Patel, one of the many women who had shared a Me Too story involving former minister MJ Akbar, has written about an incident in which Akbar once opened a hotel room door wearing only his underwear. But even at the time of the abuse and assault, Tushita did not think about quitting. Rather, she thought about how to get the best out of MJ Akbar’s newsroom.

Vinta Nanda had to work with Alok Nath after he allegedly raped her because despite everything, she needed to support her life and career.

“If that’s not bravery, I don’t know what is,” Sandhya said.

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