Like many women, this columnist recalls her own brush with abuse, which also ended in an attempt to shame the victim into silence
As a working woman in India, both the world ensconced within domestic walls and that outside of its confines can be an everyday battlefield. From selecting a wardrobe to arriving at the right shade of lipstick to complement one’s power-dressing flair, all decisions are generally a function of attracting the right amount of invisibility while simultaneously making one’s presence felt. To be seen or not to be seen is often the predicament. To vocalise one’s insecurities or repress them into silence is another, particularly if you are employed in a male-dominated environment, no matter how senior your designation might be.
Always looking over the shoulder: I know what it’s like to be marginalised for your femininity, to be mistreated for standing up against the abuse of your dignity, to be shamed into having to resign from gainful employment for circumstances outside of your control. Representation pic/Thinkstock
Over the few years when I was more conventionally employed in an office, I was fortunate enough to report to exceptional bosses; one male, the other three women. The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace was thankfully never a concern. This doesn’t mean I was inured from it elsewhere. As a young writer struggling to define herself and to seek refuge in collectives like writing groups, I have been privy to an entire spectrum of male abuse of power, from having been the victim of a moderator’s sexual perversions to having to suffer the ignominy of his male colleagues conspiring to protect him by their threats to shame me and presumably ruin my reputation.
I remember the first time I was ever harassed. I was 14. No wait, that was the second time. The first was three years before, when I had just about hit puberty. I was walking out of the colony I lived in in Mumbai on my way to tuition when out of nowhere, a man popped out and grabbed both my breasts, squeezing them with a violence I had never before experienced. When he saw the look of shame on my face he must have felt satisfied enough, for he withdrew just as swiftly as he had entered the field of my existence, disappeared. I told no one. I was ashamed. When I was 14, and again on my way to tuition, a man followed me right up to the first floor of the building in Kurla where my teacher lived, and demanded to kiss me. Again, I told no one. I kept my anger to myself. Even now I’m not sure why I believed that it was somehow my fault that this had happened, as if I had played some unconscionable role in soliciting their aggression.
Years later, at 24, I joined a writer’s group that would eventually kick me out. I was not alone in being evicted. And it wasn’t for my inability to write that I was made to exit but for not being complicit in a narrative of silence and repression. To make a long story short, there was a moderator who believed himself to be powerful and influential who would regularly send what seemed like perverse drunken texts. A year or two after being a member, I received a message from a few other women in the group asking if perchance he had been targeting me. I showed them the texts that were ambiguously sexual, in that the person in question had taken great pains to lead yourself to believe you were a progressive and could thus handle male banter. It turned out his behaviour was pathological and the other women, too, had fallen prey to his despicably insidious harassment. We believed there could be strength in numbers and so bandied together to make it abundantly clear to the rest of the group that a sociopath like him shouldn’t be moderator. Predictably, we were made to feel like conspirators trying to sully his name. A virtual bloodbath ensued. We were the casualties.
When we learned, years later, that the perp was invited to be a speaker at a literary festival, we were angered by the unabashed callousness on the part of the organisers. To reward sexual harassers is to completely deny the veracity of the victim’s testimony, especially when it has been made sufficiently public.
And this is why I stand with the women who were harassed by RK Pachauri. Because I know what it’s like to be marginalised for your femininity, to be mistreated for standing up against the abuse of your dignity, to be shamed into having to resign from gainful employment for circumstances outside of your control. It is a diseased society indeed, when perpetrators of sexual violence are venerated and their crimes overlooked. My prayer in this seemingly godless world is that more women feel encouraged to confront their harassers, whether in the workplace or the streets or concealed in the aura of family. And that their voices be heard, for it takes much more than just courage to acknowledge yourself as a victim of abuse.
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputed art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org