Let me start this with a story - a story of a reasonably accomplished, quite outwardly confident, 31 year old woman who stays and works overseas and is on a visit to her motherland. She thinks of herself as an activist for women’s rights, writes about the issues and plans to start her own non-profit soon to support the cause of gender equality.
She has been abused, like almost everyone else she knows, in her younger years, the first time being at the age of 8 (or maybe: touched inappropriately in public transportations, cat called at, and groped, are better depictions of what had happened because when abuse is commonplace, it becomes trivial: too trivial to be called abuse, too trivial to pay too much attention too. How else would one survive….) which is the cause for her ardent passion in this matter. During this visit to her motherland, she is pregnant with her first child – a daughter. Her resolve for a better world for woman therefore stronger.
She walks into a posh parlor in a city beautiful (and arguably a city quite upscale) to get a mani-pedi done. But from the moment her eyes meet with that of the person who will be providing the services, her radars go up for no apparent reason. She calms herself down though (again, how else would you survive otherwise…) and steps in for service. What follows is an hour in which she is inappropriately touched many times, each time followed with a sheepish grin and a knowing sorry. She is also downright groped twice and rewarded with the same knowing smiles. In her shock, she endures, thinking every passing second what would be the right response? To storm out of the small room into the reception area and raise hell? To slap the person right there? She is petite and quite slim and the man is tall and hefty, and the room is quite isolated, so maybe that wouldn’t be smart… but she knows this is an excuse, as are all the others. What would be the point of raising hell? Maybe the man would just say it all happened by accident…The salon owner is a family friend of her in-laws who are well respected and close knit, how will it affect them? Everyone talks in this community – how many times will this be brought up in their future visits? What will happen to the plans for the rest of the very few days left of their trip? How will her father in law feel and react?
She thinks of every possible reason to not raise hell as she slowly exists the salon, paying in full to the smiling woman at the reception. Every possible reasoning, placed one over another swiftly like planks to hold a bursting damn, scrambles to silent her screaming heart as she boards a cab to go home. Every possible reasoning, except the only one that mattered. If she did raise hell, maybe…just maybe… this wouldn’t happen to another woman in that salon. He will not smile his charming smile again at another unwilling victim, following her out smugly to the front desk.
So why? Why doesn’t she let this reason alone – stronger than a thousand others – convince her to raise hell disregarding the sham that is honor? Why doesn’t she remember the old man in the crowded pharmacy who had pinched an 8 year old girl hard down there and quickly moved away through the crowd, remembering to turn and smile at her before leaving and keep the promise she had made to herself…when she grows up, only if she was older…
Is it because she is compliant? She actually did enjoy what had happened, at 8 years of age and 31 like their smiles had suggested? Or maybe because it’s all in her head, for if for real, surely no woman would stay silent…
Why doesn’t she let her long boiling blood make the cab turn around remembering the numerous times in past where molestation and groping in public transportation extents were discussed in her bourgeois circles and had caused astonishment and disbelief in the male population who for some reason couldn’t believe that abuse is so commonplace for women?
Why doesn’t she think of the comments from past and the ones to come in future which would call her a liar and an opportunist and take some notes?
Why doesn’t she think her resolve to bring her daughter up in a safer every day environment – somewhere where abuse would be less, even if only slight less, commonplace and the questions thrown at her for wanting that? C’mon. Aren’t there other girls living in these cities? Surely it can’t be that big of an issue…
Trivial. Forgettable. How else would we survive otherwise? After all, a pinch in the butt here and there, not life threatening. A pressed breast, no big deal. Worse things happen…
For years to come after, she would attend nice parties in the US where educated, quite senior men would challenge her version. Contrasting the cultural values and the high regard for women in her motherland – their reverence as goddesses – to western show of flesh. Missing the point entirely that the question is not of India vs. US, the question is of their oblivion. Their denial to avoid the discomfort of the ‘other’ reality. In the very same parties, several women in polished wear and best of jewelries would roam in silence, each a victim unknown to their closest. Each a Me Too. But just like the woman in the story, none of them can challenge the beautiful confidence that is oblivion. Why?
Let’s now come to the Me Too campaign. Something much simpler, right? Unlike the story, or having to get into uncomfortable discussions in parties, this doesn’t require as much of courage or analysis. #MeToo - just acknowledging through a post on social media to bust the myths and oblivions. Super powerful and super needed. But here too, the woman falters. She analyses for days whether or not to make a singular post on Facebook - Me Too. No details would be needed. But still, she is conflicted. How much will it hurt her loved ones, especially her father, who is an active follower of her posts on Facebook? What if this is unnecessary? What if just doing this brings back too much pain – too much self-hatred? Again, she keeps her hands lowered, wanting instead to write a blog post, knowing that the later would not be read or understood in depth by the one’s she doesn’t see any point in making this known too. Why?
I don’t know the answers to any of the whys above. All I know is, that no matter who you are, what your why-s are, or how long it takes you to sort through them, they are all valid. Because the journey from Not Me to Me Too, is extremely complicated and tough. Shame, trivialization (what qualifies? how big it has to be? how inconvenient? how disrespectful?), doubts, considerations – no matter what is holding you back - do not feel guilty for them. They come from your reality, your experiences, your relations, and is for no one else to judge. That is my point in sharing the story, for the woman is me, and no matter how angry I get with myself for what I did or didn’t do, my experiences have taught me to accept the realities of every other man or woman in similar situations with sympathy, not judgement.
What I also know for sure however is that we have to keep trying nevertheless to fight the why-s and why nots and convince ourselves to raise our hands, for what raising your hand will achieve is much more important than our fears. Below is why:
1. No incident is too trivial to qualify. These things matter – we don’t need to accept them and we can’t accept them.
2. The myth needs to be busted. The oblivion in the general population is real and harmful. Our closest ones don’t know what their daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends have gone through and have to continually go through. Just look at the comments of the women posting and you will know. Only by acknowledging the true extent of the problem (irrespective of nation, geo or religion) can we start moving the pendulum the other way.
3. Your raised hand is someone else’s anchor. Your courage will give them strength. For again, the journey from Not Me to Me Too requires tremendous courage.
This is why when the Me Too campaign started, I was elated. In spite of the discomfort I could see it started causing and the usual protests (it’s a fad really; then why didn’t you say/do something earlier? is this really needed? OK true maybe, but not for the women I know; etc. etc.) each slow, brave, resolute hand raised to me was a victory. One more Not Me – changing to Me Too – one more hammer hitting against the harmful oblivion.
For what really matters is: yes, unfortunately ME TOO. But it will be NOT ME for my daughter and your daughters.