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The anatomy of silence

There are many reasons why women don’t come forward to complain about sexual abuse; don’t judge them for it. Judge the abuser

brunch Updated: Oct 23, 2017 12:50 IST
Seema Goswami
Women keep quiet as they are either ashamed or feel they will be blamed, fear losing their jobs, or are too strong to accept it
Women keep quiet as they are either ashamed or feel they will be blamed, fear losing their jobs, or are too strong to accept it(istock)

As I sit down to write this column, around 25 women have come forward to accuse Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, of sexual harassment and abuse. And among the ladies who have gone on record to charge Weinstein with being a sexual predator are such A-list stars as Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Somewhat predictably, the reaction on social media has been: hey ladies, what took you so long? After all, both Jolie and Paltrow are from influential Hollywood families. What did they have to fear from a man like Weinstein? Why couldn’t they come right out and condemn his behaviour the moment it happened?

But I am not here to hold forth on Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood today. What I really want to focus on are the many Harveys that every woman comes up against as she makes her way through the world. And how difficult all of us find it to speak up about their behaviour no matter how grown-up, mature, rich, famous and powerful we get.

I am sure that all the women who are reading this column will have their own stories, but I’ll go first. Though now that I have said that, I really don’t know where to begin.

Do I start with the ‘Uncle’ who routinely pulled me on to his lap in a show of affection when I was a pre-schooler? I was too young then to even know why it felt so wrong but it makes my flesh crawl now every time I recall it. Do I begin with the neighbour who would ‘jokingly’ press himself against me in the staircase if he ever found me there alone? I still can’t forgive my 10 year self for never saying a word about it to anyone else.

Speaking up, making a scene, standing up for myself, none of it even occurred to me. I just wanted whatever this was – harassment, molestation, abuse, call it what you will – to end.I wanted to draw a discreet veil over these awful episodes in my life and move on.

Do I mention the many times I was groped on public transport as I made my way to and from college? And how I don’t remember ever calling out the men with the grasping hands, for fear of escalating the situation further. I didn’t want them following me off the bus and targeting me on a deserted road instead. So I told myself it made more sense to move away, get a different bus, choose another route. I convinced myself it was better to stay quiet rather than give voice to the scream rising within me.

Was that the wrong way to handle these situations? Perhaps it was. But that is how I felt best equipped to handle them at the time. Speaking up, making a scene, standing up for myself, none of it even occurred to me. I just wanted whatever this was – harassment, molestation, abuse, call it what you will – to end. I wanted to draw a discreet veil over these awful episodes in my life and move on. Maybe if I could ignore them, brush them aside, in time I would forget that they ever really happened.

So, I pretended that none of this was real and went on with my life, blocking out these traumatic memories as best I could. Not very brave, was it? No, it was downright cowardly. All I can offer in my defence is that I was scared and, yes, ashamed.

In fact, I was consumed by a sense of shame so acute that it rendered me speechless. And even today, decades later, the words stick in my craw as I try to articulate the hot mess of feelings that engulfed me in those fleeting encounters: helplessness, panic, embarrassment, the feeling that I had somehow brought this upon myself. And yes, of course, those old companions of every woman who had ever had such an experience: humiliation and mortification.

Those feelings accompanied me as life-long friends, as I went through my teenage years, passed through college, started working in journalism, and stayed close as I negotiated my 30s and my 40s.

They surfaced when the first politician I was sent to interview as a cub reporter asked if we could continue the interview while he went for his usual walk around India Gate. Alarm bells started going off the moment he tried to hold my hand and tell me how his “wife doesn’t understand” him. And from then on, matters only got worse.

To my eternal shame, though, I didn’t call him out on his behaviour. Instead I engineered an argument – on the Shah Bano case, of all things – to ensure that he lost his temper and whatever sexual interest he had in me in the bargain. I felt that he would take this better than outright rejection. Because I still needed that story. I didn’t want to be that girl who went off for her first interview and came back crying sexual harassment. And I certainly didn’t want to enter the territory of he said-she said controversy.

Wven today, decades later, the words stick in my craw as I try to articulate the hot mess of feelings that engulfed me in those fleeting encounters: helplessness, panic, embarrassment, the feeling that I had somehow brought this upon myself

Now that I am much older and wiser, I often look back on that day and wonder if I would handle things differently if that happened to me now. Perhaps I would. Or maybe I’m just kidding myself. It’s always easier being wiser and braver in retrospect.

But I write this today to try and explain to people why women who are sexually harassed, molested, abused, or even raped, often don’t come forward to confront their abusers. Sometimes they are ashamed. Sometimes they feel they will be blamed (what was she wearing; how much was she drinking; was she asking for it?). Sometimes they fear losing their jobs or their careers. Sometimes their self-image of being strong women prevents them from admitting (even to themselves) that something like this could happen to them.

There are a hundred different reasons why women stay silent about the abuse they suffer. Don’t judge them for it. Judge the men who actually abuse them.

From HT Brunch, October 22, 2017

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