Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The simple-impossible task of breaking the silence – and why it matters: Part I

My mother has been writing a sort of memoirs, a kind of autobiography, in serialised form on her FaceBook writers' group wall. It has been much appreciated not just in her many literary circles online, but among her friends as well – many of whom are much younger. She has always had a talent for putting her say across in simple, touching, easily digestible language and a fluid style that appeals to people across age, class, and educational segments, so her popularity is not surprising.

One of the more recent posts was about a couple of incidents of sexual harassment/abuse she faced in her childhood. The responses to the post have been interesting, to say the least, and have reconfirmed some of the things I firmly believe in, about issues relating to sexual harassment and abuse – of anyone, anywhere. How common it all is, is evident from the numerous women who have shared their own stories in response. The flip side is also highly visible – how many men choose to believe that these things don't really happen, or are isolated cases perpetrated by mentally ill or monster-like criminals – such that we need not even pay attention or talk about the issues at all.

It's not easy to talk about, especially for the survivor. Society, upbringing, conditioning, all succeed in convincing women, and girls, that not only is being the victim of a sexual crime something to be ashamed of, but it also, in most cases, her own fault. Add to that the trauma resulting from being on the recieving end of any kind of violence, as well as the intensely personal and intimate nature of sexual violence, and it is not surprising that women dont really talk about it.

And the men? Men, in India at least, are culturally discouraged from even wanting to know. If they also happen to face such an incident, it is all the more impossible for them to open their mouths about it, given the additional pressure of masculinity imposed by patriarchy. A man who is a victim or rape, or molestation, or sexual abuse as a child, teen, or adult, must bear the additional burden of continuing to prove he is a MAN, a MARD. The very incident causing so much trauma, in his own conditioned eyes and mind, as well as in the eyes and minds of a hetero-patriarchal society, makes him weak, makes him less than a mard, and no better than a woman. No wonder then that they do not talk about it, even with each other (least of all with each other actually, not surprisingly).

In my numerous years of being the social butterfly, of counselling, of connections to NGOs and dabbling in activism, it has become evident from my own experiences, both personal and heard/seen/dealt with, just how common this type of violence and abuse generally are, especially in India. Statistics from countries like the US, which are more proactive in recognising and identifying the problem, where people are far more likely to at least know of the issues, and where a much larger proportion of such crimes actually gets reported, estimate that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse. And this does not even include the daily Indian hell known as “eve-teasing” that every Indian woman faces, everyday, or sexual harrassment at the workplace, or at home, or outright rape. Given the fact that 95% or more survivors never tell anyone, and given the head in the sand, taboo riddled attitude we Indians have to anything even remotely connected to physicality or sexuality, one can imagine how bad things must be here.

After seeing some of the more ostrich-like responses on my mother's post, i made up my mind to write of my own experiences, which seem to be fairly extensive compared to some of the commentators who would rather ignore the issues altogether, or create a senseless argument for the sake of argument itself – in the process ignoring the real problem. And yet, it took me – educated, articulate, bold, don't-care-what-the-world-thinks, i-write-my-mind, i mince no words, me, the activist, politically aware, outreach oriented me, the agony aunt, confidant, and counsellor for so many survivors me, more than a month to even begin! THAT's how tough it is to talk about.

However, here it comes. This and a few following blog posts will examine some of the issues raised in the comments of my mother's post, some issues i think it is high time we really look at.

  1. Is this situation that i keep talking and ranting about merely in india? Or is it this bad elsewhere as well? (am i speaking from personal knowledge?)
  2. Is it unnecessary for me to comment on the topic simply because “everyone knows that these things happen sometimes, and accepts it”?
  3. Is it necessary to talk about it when we can't change things? Can something be done? What is the way to do it?
  4. Shouting does not solve any problems (why not? Its a start)

And a bunch of others, thrown up by the readers, and some things i wish to elaborate on as well, which just cannot be done in the limited canvas of a comment to a post on someone's timeline. It is going to be difficult – not just to pour out this seething mass of negative emotions collected over decades of hands on dirty work in the field in an articulate and comprehensible manner – but also to delve into personal history and use experiences as ways to illistrate, examine, and explain my stand, and some of the reality that being born female in India automatically lets you in for.

The reason i am breaking this up into individual posts is twofold. It makes the posts shorter and easier to read, rather than the enormous and involved narrative/critique it would be if i did it all in one go. However, it also gives me more time, and space, to ruminate, chew-the-cud, and properly formulate everything in a more logical than emotional manner. It is time to break the silence, time to shout about it, time to --- no matter how hard it is.

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