"That boy did it. They kountered him. When they kounter you, your hands are tied behind you. All your bones are crushed, your sex is a terrible wound. Killed by police in an encounter… unknown male… age 22..."
So goes Mahasweta Devi's iconic short story, Draupadi, the title of this essay, and our lives. But in India, we call it love. Sex is dirty, tabooed, unspeakable. In Kya Kehna (2000), a film on premarital pregnancy, our hero and his heroine look at each other intensely, pause to hug in a characteristically filmy fashion despite all that time wasted sheepishly sprinting in the lush meadow, lolling and rolling through the grass to portray the experience of foreplay.
A string of pink and blue pullovers slowly takes us to the site of this unspeakable crime – here, we find not the hero and heroine, but two arms, furiously intertwined. After this interesting trope of arm-wrestling, the camera is back on Saif Ali Khan, the hero. He is now naked (or bare-chested, which is as far as imagination is allowed to travel), panting, and curiously dispassionate. The sex ends. By the next scene, Preity Zinta, the heroine, is already pregnant. Was this love?
Such silences and erasures in India are not limited to Pahlaj Nihalani or, for that matter, Bollywood. Sex is unspeakable because it is so shameful. A similar destiny is forced on survivors and victims of sexual harassment and violence. Only worse. In December 2012, Jyoti Singh Pandey, a paramedical student, was raped and assaulted in the capital city and lobbed from a moving bus. She did not survive. Neither did her name, for quickly, Jyoti became Nirbhaya and in a subsequent documentary, India's Daughter.
Were Jyoti to survive, said Sushma Swaraj, presently Minister of External Affairs of India, she would be a zinda-laash, a living corpse. Even if a victim of sexual violence survives biological death, as Jyoti Singh did not, statements like Swaraj's reinforce the pernicious idea that it is still a social death to have been subjected to it. This, in turn, consolidates the dangerous silence on sexual violence and harassment, ensuring that it remains India's most under-reported crime.
But sexual violence and harassment are all around us, as close as reflecting on ourselves. It is a culture embedded in the jokes we make, the memes we find amusing, the films we watch and cherish. Our culture may treat it with a diffident silence or try to neutralise it with humour, but for women, queer individuals, and often, men, harassment and sexual violence are routine realities.
"Pyaar se de rahe hain, rakhlo," says Salman Khan innocently in a memorable scene from Dabangg (2010), "varna thappad maar kar bhi de sakte hain." (Keep this for it is given out of love, or I will have to give it by assaulting you) Rajjo, the female protagonist in the film, retorts by saying, "Thappad se darr nahi lagta sahib, pyaar se lagta hai." (It is not your threat that I am afraid of, but your love) Or, your love is a terrible wound.
Earlier this week, in a campaign initiated by actress Alyssa Milano, women began sharing experiences of sexual harassment and violence with the additive – 'me, too'. Milano's tweet read: "If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too' as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem."
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
What was to follow was an almost cathartic torrent of pain, and as one would hope, coping. Slowly, but steadily, social media platforms across the world took the face of this campaign of awareness, as women tweeted and posted vivid narratives of their experiences. The silence was shattered, but this was not done with unthinking humour or indifferent cliché – it was, and remains, an effort of reflection and solidarity.
If it ever needed saying, the 'magnitude' of the problem emerged in its arresting pervasiveness. Sexual violence could never be, as many have tried to assert, annotated to a particular class, caste, or ethnic community – it could not be employed to further political persecution against refugees, as underway in Europe, or in the case of India, lower-caste, working-class migrants to metropolitan cities.
Was this perception the reason that the rape and murder of Surekha Bhotmange, a lower-caste woman, by men of dominant castes in Khairlanji went almost unnoticed? As a society, sexual violence is our collective burden to engage with, and so are our solidarities. Harassment and violence are not isolated, exceptional realities affecting a 'kind' of victim against a 'kind' of perpetrator, but simply the everyday and everywhere in their magnitude.
The perpetrators can be men we are friends with, men we work with or under, men we are intimate with, men we do not know, men we know so well that we trust them with our childhoods. Survivors survive, but they carry the burden of violence in memory that seems impassably perpetual to them. The texture of these voices came to be enhanced by similar narratives from sexual and gender-queer individuals, and eventually, many men. Sexual violence is disproportionately gendered, but if men, too, can be sexually harassed and assaulted, should we be talking about masculinity?
That sexual violence is, above all, about masculine power and dominance against everything diverse and different.
Some of us asked other, more uncomfortable questions. What could solidarity with women in India's most conflict-ridden zones like Kashmir be? Saying 'me, too' did not effortlessly mean that everyone would speak in the same voice, and nor should it imply so. The meaning of solidarity is to come together in shared experience, however incongruent and heterogeneous. This, the #MeToo campaign accomplished without alienating, because it consciously chose to listen and empathise.
The women, queer persons, and men who narrated their diverse yet remarkably shared experiences of sexual harassment and assault did so towards giving people "a sense of the magnitude of the problem". In other words, survivors of sexual violence were appealing to the moral sense and conscience of the public, particularly the men who perpetrate or trivialise that very violence. Predictably, in several quarters, the campaign has come under trenchant attack for doing precisely that. Men have complained that the awareness 'feels like harassment' (as Salman Khan felt "like a raped woman"?), that the campaign is a ploy of the 'ugliest women claiming to have been daily eve-teased and molested', that it is, to put it succinctly, 'male-bashing, fake feminism'.
By themselves, such responses demand engagement. But more important than engagement or appealing to the moral sense of the harasser is to continue the difficult work that the campaign has initiated with incredible ease – building solidarity among survivors of sexual violence, taking comfort from courage and critical lessons from collective pain. Relatively difficult to address, however, have been men sympathetic to the campaign, with whose contradictions the campaign has been comfortable, perhaps too comfortable. Their voices are expressed in apologetic terms and always, always a conscious distancing from that which they are apologising for.
The 'nice, remorseful' man will decry the markedly visible actions of the 'abusive' man, but refuse to acknowledge that he, too, is as invested in the same structures of sexual harassment and assault. No professed distance can wish this complicity away. Here is, therefore, making another disclosure – I have benefitted, and continue to, from my privilege as a gender-conforming man. I was never asked to know the difference between a 'good' and a 'bad' touch because it was never considered to be of any relevance. I have never been asked to dress a certain way, at home or beyond its safety, or to time myself by the sun because darkness can be dangerous in ways worse than death. I can fear for my physical safety, but never sexual harm because no sexual harm is supposed to be too tremendous to dwarf the fullness of my being. I have, more often than often, been treated to complaints of the 'friend zone'. I have often not bothered to engage with them. I have witnessed sexual harassment, and sometimes, I have looked away – whether it was done consciously or otherwise does not make it less unpardonable. In all your experiences of sexual violence is my privilege of not having to say 'me, too', and in that, I have been as culpable. This is responsibility beyond comfortable apology. It is not hollow guilt, but I am guilty. 'Me, too'.
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Updated Date: Oct 21, 2017 08:46:02 IST