Saying that we believe survivors doesn’t cost us much, but it gives a lot of women the validation they need to believe in themselves and their version of what happened.
MUMBAI — Too many women woke up feeling tired today. Too many women went to bed last night with clenched jaws and shaky heartbeats. For nearly one year now, many of us have found ourselves dipping in and out of a "haze of re-surfaced trauma" as we deal with the intermittent effects of #MeToo.
At first, #MeToo was cathartic. Women suddenly had license to acknowledge their wounds to the world — and, more importantly, to ourselves. So many of us found words to describe the nameless acts that had haunted us for years. To know that we were not alone, to know that our secrets weren't trivial, was, and I mean this literally, life-changing.
But now the conversation has progressed onto something that feels trickier and complicated, even though it really isn't. Now, every time a woman says #MeToo we reach out for categories and specifics to establish degree of harm: Was it assault or harassment? Was it a misunderstanding? Were there witnesses? What if she's making it up? Is she misremembering? Why didn't she say something when it happened? Why bring it up after all these years?
At first, #MeToo was cathartic.
Saying #MeToo is one thing, but for many people, believing survivors is an entirely different thing. We treat women who raise these allegations as if they're the criminals: They're expected to provide witnesses and evidence, they're expected to pass polygraph tests, it is their past and current professional life that are scrutinized for possible motives.
In the U.S., Dr. Christine Blasey Ford — who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school — gave a public testimony that rattled millions of people to their very cores. In a calm voice, that broke at times, she recounted the entire incident in detail, provided proof in the form of her therapist's notes, asked for an FBI investigation. She has braved weeks of death threats and victim-shaming.
Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee — Photo: Win McNamee/ZUMA
Here, in Bollywood, Tanushree Dutta first faced an apathetic audience and media ten years ago, when she recounted harassment at the hands of Nana Patekar on the sets of Horn Ok Please in 2008.
She was ignored. Now she's braving it again. This time with new stories about filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, who reportedly asked her to "strip and give cues' to a fellow actor during his scene.
It has taken a decade, as well as corroboration by a journalist who was present on set and by the assistant director of the film, for some Bollywood stars to finally say "we believe survivors'.
And even then, nobody has come out with allegations of their own, recounting their own experiences, or even said upfront that they will not work with Patekar in the future. Nor has anyone apologized for continuing to work with him while knowing these facts.
#MeToo was cathartic, but now it requires us to de-humanize ourselves in order to prove that our humanity was violated.
Take a moment to think about what makes you feel human: family, friends, a satisfying job, good conversations — validation in myriad forms. Agency lies at the heart of what makes us feel like ourselves, what makes us feel worthy of love, affection, attention. So when someone touches your butt or your breasts as thoughtlessly as they would a chair or another inanimate object — it makes you feel like you're somehow inferior, like you're not sentient, not human.
When, as Ford described, two boys shove you into a room, lock the door behind you and laugh as you scream in terror, it isn't just about the physical sensation of having someone attack you, it's about the sinking realization that you, as a person, as a living being, don't matter to those people. You are a prop for men's amusement, nothing more than a soccer ball to be kicked around.
Or, as in Dutta's case, where she claims that Nana Patekar had the director, producer and choreographer of the movie change an entire song sequence so he could have an excuse to touch her inappropriately, you're reduced to being a tool for men's use, to show off their superiority over other men. You become collateral damage.
How do you trust a family member who doesn't believe you?
Sexual assault and harassment are about power, control and humiliation. The perpetrator lays claim to another person's body and mind, violating their autonomy, stripping them off their agency — not because they think that their victim is attractive, but because they just want to show themselves, and the world, that they're the ones in charge.
To relive your own humiliation and then be met with apathy only serves to confirm your worst fear: that you're not worth standing up for, that you are indeed less of a person than the one who assaulted you, that you somehow deserved exactly that for stepping out of your lane.
And then, as you work to distance yourself from the person and context that caused you to feel all that, perhaps you realize that your relationship with the world at large has been altered forever. How do you trust or seek validation from a family member who doesn't believe you? How do you expect others in your industry to take you seriously, or respect you, when they blame you for someone else's actions?
This experience has popped up again and again in the past few days. First U.S. actress Alyssa Milano, then Indian-born U.S. TV host Padma Lakshmi and many others including English model and actress Cara Delevingne, wrote about being assaulted using the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport.
No catharsis in sight
The aftereffects of assault stick to us. Trauma sears itself into our memories and we go through life dealing with scars that may rip open into gaping wounds at any time. Someone walking too close behind us, a turn of phrase, a specific smell, a musical note — the most trivial of things can send shivers down our spines.
And still, for nearly one year now, women have been voluntarily unstitching their past in a bid to get acknowledgment for their hurt, if not justice.
Every time a woman like Ford or Dutta steps forward with her story, so many of us come undone along with them. It's becoming clear now that real, long-term catharsis is a while away, and that we will continue to plunge in and out of our own trauma as lone women air their narratives, hoping that sunlight will indeed clean these wounds.
Saying that we believe survivors doesn't cost us much, but it gives a lot of women the validation they need to believe in themselves and their version of what happened. Saying that we believe survivors doesn't even have to imply immediately condemning the accused: It can simply mean that you care about the accusing party enough to at least order an investigation.
Nothing can bring back years of second-guessing ourselves, denying ourselves intimacy and love, believing that we are unworthy. But we regain a little of ourselves every time someone says "I believe Tanushree Dutta" or "I believe Christine Blasey Ford" or "I believe survivors'.