How much emphasis can be laid on due process when the lived realities of many women are so ghastly?
The outrage over the Weinstein disclosure has ignited a debate on sexual harassment worldwide. The ‘Sexual Violence Hall of Shame’ list put forth by Raya Sarkar has ignited several responses from feminists in India, including one on the progressive blog Kafila. Their concern about accountability when naming a harasser is valid as is their larger concern about taking forward the fight against sexual harassment. We all believe in fairness and principles of natural justice. But how fair is it to sexually harass a woman without ever getting caught? Besides, a woman undergoing sexual harassment may not be empowered and educated about legal protection or legal recourse. After all, we live in a patriarchal world. I want to share my own experience of sexual harassment to show how there are no textbook rules for a woman who undergoes such harassment.
I was young and vulnerable when I walked out of my first marriage. I began my life as a single mother entering into an exciting but uncertain world. I was helped by many people around me, specially those whom the world classifies as ‘progressives’. These included academics, Gandhians, human rights activists and of course, feminists. Although I must confess, I had no inkling at the time about what is feminism or even human rights. Of course, I had my sense of right and wrong as a middle class woman with reasonable education. But despite my several jobs in well-known organisations, including one teaching students in a graduate college, I had never been face to face with any feminist or humanist discourse. There was not much internet in the 90s and well till early 2000s. I just liked my ‘progressive friends’ whom I suddenly got introduced to following the communal riots of 2002 in my state. I began to like them for their liberal worldview and their pro-humanity opinions.
In the course of my work, I met one such ‘progressive’ in the early years. He was a textbook ‘progressive’ who talked all the politically correct things and enjoyed some reputation in the state. He was married and had kids. He posed as a friend and I was quite happy to have him. Frankly, I was quite impressed whenever he talked big things like social change, social transformation and caste annihilation. As an ordinary woman who was naive and uninitiated in the field of social activism, I was an easy prey. I genuinely believed that he was my friend and well-wisher and I went about putting a good word about him wherever I could for over two years till one day, he made a direct vulgar sexual advance at me. I was horrified, confused and traumatised. Here is a person who is my friend, a regular guest at my home, my child knows him well, his wife and kids know me, he is a respected figure. Could I have done something wrong? Maybe I gave off a wrong vibe? Maybe something in my behaviour misled him? But then, he is a married whom everybody seems to like! At least, nobody seems to doubt him for such unwanted behaviour. Maybe this whole episode is one-off; maybe I need to forget that it happened; let me make a fresh beginning as though nothing happened. My mind was full of thousand thoughts and doubts. I had no answers, nor could I talk about it to anyone. I was struggling with my life even otherwise as a single mother. I had no clue about what life had in store for me. I didn’t want any trouble nor had any idea that I had a legal recourse. Remember, I was not a feminist then.
It was only when the incident repeated after about six months that I categorically told him to get lost. I told him I was not available and he should be ashamed of himself as a married man and as a father. But this is just one part of my story. Many of the things that I mention here in the following lines were not known to me at the time. They came to me in bits and pieces as rude shocks over the next few months.
It seems this man had not taken kindly to my non-compliance at the first instance. While I thought I had brushed aside the whole episode by wishing it never happened, he was systematically maligning and vilifying me. I learnt much later that he was gossiping about me and events in my life all the time even as [I thought] we were friends. Clearly, he knew the rules of the game. He was not only posing as a feminist supporting various women’s causes, he was systematically going out of his way to win favours of some known womens’ rights activists. He was simultaneously building an image about himself of some kind of a messiah who was trying to help a divorcee in distress. It is shocking but quite a few of those who claim to be feminists had bought into his narrative lock stock and barrel. And finally when it became an open fight, they sided with him. Not only did they lend him their support besides their eager ears, they never once cared to hear my side of the story. Of course, I know now that nobody becomes a feminist by claiming to be one. I know now that what happened to me was sexual harassment. I was not aware of this kind of crime when I was suffering as I am sure scores of women are not aware even today.
It is another matter that life took a much different turn for me and I became what I am today. But at the time, some of the ‘progressives’ and feminists openly sided with the perpetrator even without caring to find out what actually happened and what I had to say in the matter. Of course, my child, my family and many of my friends stood by me. The coward perpetrator vanished from the scene. Many years later, one of his apologists told me that he had expressed the desire to make up with me and that he always maintained that I was a “golden-hearted” person. I was not sure what led to this change of heart; was it because I was no more a single, available woman?
I leave it for the reader to decide what legal framework or due procedure would protect women who undergo sexual harassment by socially well-entrenched powerful men, especially when the perpetrator is one of us. How much emphasis can be laid on due process when the lived realities of so many women are so ghastly. I wish that everyone, without any labels, unequivocally stands by the survivors.
Zakia Soman is co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan.