Family, in India, is sacred. And a woman who chooses to be single is often told that she cannot live by herself without its protection. A family is necessary for her to be cared for and protected from the evils of the world. However, when it comes to sexual harassment, families are typically more interested in protecting their name than the member undergoing the horror of it.
Take, for instance, this case reported by The Hindu. A senior railway official who inappropriately touched a woman and her mother when on a train journey will walk free after the woman decided to withdraw the case. The reason being that her husband and father were not "understanding". The woman has said that pursuing the case would affect her matrimonial life, even though she is financially independent.
Sexual crimes all over the world are under-reported because of victim blaming and the subsequent shaming that happens. In India, even if the survivor wants to fight back, their families are often unwilling to let them speak up because they are afraid that if word gets out about their daughter's experience, their "honour" will be lost. And these ideas are not limited to khap panchayats.
The women The News Minute spoke to are all from the educated middle-class. They are in a position to speak out but are reluctant to do so because they fear the repercussions, more from their families than from society at large.
Krishna* recalls the principal of her convent school abusing her when she was a young girl. "He would call groups of girls from each class to his office and press their underdeveloped breasts and bum. This would happen almost every day," she says. One day, Krishna decided that enough was enough: "I told my mother about it. I couldn't bring myself to say that it had happened to me, so I told her that I'd seen it happening. She told me not to talk about such dirty things at home." And that was that. Krishna finally managed to get out of the school when they moved houses.
Three months ago, Preethi* confessed on a family WhatsApp group that one of her uncles used to put his hand inside her underwear when she was around 10 years old. She was accused of trying to create "family disunity" and one of her other uncles, whom Preethi says is usually a rational sort, said, "Best way to say this is to say a friend suffered from her uncle...don't directly cause family conflicts." When a female cousin said that she'd undergone the same experience, a young male cousin retorted with a "let it go". Preethi quit the group soon after.
When Veena* told her then boyfriend that a man had groped her on the road, she was told to ignore it because the boyfriend didn't want a fight. This is a common experience for many women - the men accompanying them are either oblivious to the groping and letching or choose to ignore it because they don't want to intervene. A stark contrast from the world of films where a macho hero saves the damsel in distress always.
Four years ago, soon after the Nirbhaya incident, Charanya Kannan, who is currently at Harvard Business School, wrote a Facebook post about how she was harassed on a bus and decided to file a complaint at the police station. The post, which went viral, details the kind of comments she had to put up with at the time of the incident. Everyone around her thought she was overreacting and while her father was supportive of her decision to go to the police, her mother was not. Charanya says that the latter thought going to the police was unsafe and would make people think ill of her. Finally, the complaint was not filed because a woman police officer convinced them to just "forget it".
Many women internalize the guilt and shame associated with sexual crimes because of how their families view it. Some of them are unable to get over it and find it difficult to enjoy consensual sex. For Shweta*, who has been molested and harassed several times since childhood, sex was unthinkable. She's yet to open up to her husband about why she is so reluctant to engage in it. "What if he becomes paranoid about my daughter if I tell him what has happened to me?" she asks.
But will silence break the cycle?