#MeToo in India: Patriarchal attitudes have infiltrated, distorted spaces where survivors speak out
Among the most insidious demands of patriarchy are that of the perfect messenger, perfect timing, and perfect testimony when denouncing sexual assault, abuse, or misogyny
As this third wave of the #MeTooIndia movement continues to rage on social media timelines (and in the real world), the unrelenting stream of allegations and stories of sexual assault, harassment and abuse have been immensely triggering for women and survivors everywhere. To recount some of the worst moments in one’s life is essentially to relive trauma. As a woman who has experienced many instances of sexual harassment, I found myself triggered not only by the stories, but also by people’s reactions to them. The shaming, the blaming. The gaslighting, the derailment. The bullying, the co-opting of #MeToo language by the protected, the privileged, the perpetrators, the audacity of a #HimToo.
These snarling reactions expose how patriarchal attitudes have infiltrated and distorted “safe spaces” where survivors speak out. Specifically, the three weapons in patriarchy’s arsenal are the demands for: the perfect timing, the perfect messenger, and the perfect testimony. These conditions are unrealistic and impossible to meet — which is the point. The effect is that no matter what survivors do or don’t, it’s never enough. They are damned either way.
First, patriarchy demands the perfect messenger. This is the most poisonous, because the implication is that some women are more believable than others. If you’re not a member of the so-called “upper castes”, you are practically voiceless. Same if you are transgender, or a non-binary person. Those that do muster the courage to speak out find their character questioned at every turn. To have a chance at being taken seriously, you cannot have been drinking, or wearing too short a skirt. You cannot have gone to a male friend’s hotel room to party and expect to be left alone if you happen to fall asleep there. You cannot hook up with someone on the first or second date. You cannot have had multiple sexual partners. You have to be as pure as fresh snow. If you fail any of these tests, then you were probably “asking for it.” Or you put yourself in a situation where “you should have known better.” Never mind that most perpetrators of sexual assault are people known to the survivor, never mind intimate partner violence, or marital rape. Destroying character is the most efficient form of derailment. It shifts focus from the act, discouraging victims from speaking out.
The ultimate betrayal is when such criticisms come from women, who sometimes too readily believe that survivors are sharing stories for their “fifteen seconds of fame,” or think that the survivor is overreacting to a “bad date.” Or worst of all, that survivors are trivialising “real abuse” and steering the #MeToo movement away from “real victims.” These women are symptoms of a patriarchal system so deeply entrenched that they are blind to their own abuse or harassment. They have internalised misogyny and adopted its view of women. Because we have lived in a society that shrugs and tells us “boys will be boys”, the onus is on “women to be women” – to protect themselves, and to write off truly traumatising experiences as inevitable, though perhaps unfortunate, parts of dating.
The second toxic feature of patriarchy is demanding perfect timing. We saw it with Tanushree Dutta and Serena Williams. And, in a shocking display of state-sanctioned patriarchal vitriol, we saw it in the confirmation hearings of American Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The questions are always the same, and the answers always unsatisfactory. “Why didn’t she bring it up immediately? Couldn’t she wait for a better time?” “Why did she have to wait for so long? Couldn’t she speak up as it was happening?” There are so many reasons why survivors do not come forward immediately.
But there is no right time to denounce misogyny or to reveal sexual assault, abuse or harassment.
It is an inconvenient, unpleasant thing to talk about, and so we can hunt all we like for the perfect time – it just doesn’t exist. Dates may govern legal recourse, but there shouldn’t be a social statute of limitations. Law enforcement is often not receptive, a company may have poor sexual harassment procedures in place. Some may want to protect other women from ongoing or future abuse, others may want to inspire others to come forward. We’re trying to have a dialogue and social reckoning, not a rush to the courthouse. For survivors, speaking out is always going to be deeply harrowing, and so when they choose to do so is their prerogative.
The third manifestation of patriarchy is the demand for perfect testimony – a story, delivered like an immaculate present, neatly wrapped, with a beautiful bow. The survivor can’t be “too emotional” or “hysterical”. She dare not be “too angry”. She cannot use social media. We expect them to have superhuman memories, and mountains of indisputable evidence – emails, screenshots, photographs – as if they were lawyers. But this isn’t a trial – this is life, where most acts of sexual abuse occur in private. We cannot hold survivors who speak out to the same standards as we do accusers in a criminal trial. Those are procedural safeguards used in a judicial context, when the State can deprive a person of their liberties. Conflating the two is dangerous and wrong, and will effectively muzzle anyone unable to meet this unrealistic standard.
These three demands reinforce toxic masculinity, turning safe spaces into battlegrounds. They have the damaging effect of making it impossible for men to address sexual abuse as well. The truth is, the #MeTooIndia movement is a human rights movement. Sexual assault and harassment are abuses of power, and everyone has a right to live free of this. If we continue to hold each other to unrealistic standards — damning survivors if they do, damning them if they don’t — we risk deepening the existing power imbalances.
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