“We had no other choice.”
Shalini Kumar, a student at Benaras Hindu University and one of the many women involved in the protests, did not have to think before answering. The students of BHU had not known a protest of this kind in recent times, and there was a certain power in the readiness of the women in deciding to take to the streets overnight. No matter how many times I tried to reframe my question- “Why this time?” or “How did everyone come together so fast?”- the only answer she could give me was that there was no other choice. There was no convincing required. When one woman was harassed and faced with complete patriarchal inaction and indifference, the women around her converted their rage into the only thing that was left to do. After that, when any other girl heard about it, it was not any revolutionary change in thought that made her join them. It was the fact that she too had been harassed the day before, and the day before that, and the knowledge that it would probably happen again the next day.
As women, we are all angry, all the time. Every day, we have new stories to trade- sometimes a man stares at us for too long, sometimes a boy keeps cutting us off, and sometimes a male work partner takes all the credit for our work. Sometimes we laugh and bitch about them in our hostel rooms. At other times, seething with anger, a woman tells me through gritted teeth as I cross her path in the mess, “Don’t ask”. I don’t.
The protests at BHU, the accusations against Harvey Weinstein, the spontaneous outbreak of #MeToo posts, the outrage against High Spirits- these are all stories of angry, exhausted women reaching their tipping point. However, it was probably not the first time it happened, even for them. We’re all running on cycles of piled up days after days of exhaustion until we reach our own “Don’t ask” moments, and then we take a deep breath and start again. The difference lies in how many people we think will listen. The women at BHU listened to each other. Shalini Kumar got a phone call while she was getting out of class, and she knew that it was her fight too. The stories around which the current conversation around sexual harassment is revolving, be it Harvey Weinstein, Me too, or High Spirits- these are all stories of women desperately reaching out to each other and realizing that it is the only thing that helps.
But what if we started listening to each other earlier than that? What if we built our own communities in tens and twenties and hundreds and thousands so the onus never fell on one single woman to speak out and just hope that some woman, somewhere, would join in? The spirit of solidarity that the Me Too campaign inspired in a lot of women is not entirely new. We see it on a smaller scale every time a bunch of women get together on their own. These small spontaneous shows of strength that we women display when we’re away from men fill me with a strange sense of optimism- but my support groups are only just enough to make me feel empowered every once in a while. And they will remain just that- my support groups- until they are organized into groups that can support not only the women who are my friends, my classmates, or my family but groups that will support all women. The recent events are not only lessons to men who are blind to their privilege but also to us women- lessons in the power of creating spaces for ourselves, lessons in the power of numbers, lessons in the power of solidarity.
Perhaps in this very magazine, you will find the presence of a male voice weighing in on this issue. I remember when more than fifty women I knew had outed themselves as survivors of sexual assault over the course of one morning- I wanted to know what the men had to say. I wanted them to answer, because we had been asking them the same question for ages, and now for the first time, they could not possibly ignore it. But as each man I knew expressed his “shock”, “disgust” and “deep regret”, I did not know if I was interested anymore. What good does “shock” do? Woody Allen, a rapist and a free man, was shocked to hear about Harvey Weinstein. The men whom I knew to be complicit in this kind of behavior from my personal life were shocked to learn about the extent of the problem. I am sure, if the Honourable Prime Minister was not busy ignoring the lathi charges that were happening on one end of the very campus that he was visiting, he too would have been quite shocked. What good has “shock” ever done?
Perhaps men are shocked because men don’t have an answer to our question. Perhaps men are not the answer. Women are, of course, still patient enough to educate their loved ones, and it helps them and the women around them. But perhaps that can never be enough. Some of the most educated men of our times have been curated into a list of sexual predators. They are proof to the fact that we can’t look to men as the solution anymore. Men can be educated, sensitive, socialists, and even self-identified feminists; they could be complete outsiders to their circles of toxic masculinity, but they would still have the power to overstep our boundaries the minute they felt like it. And it is for this simple reason that they cannot be the solution. We cannot look to them for answers because they simply have no personal stake in the question.
As women, our tipping points will come- in the most restrictive houses, in the most liberal colleges, there will be problems which will necessitate a fight. In the more fortunate cases, women will have to do it for verbal abuse. In the worst cases, women have had to do it for rape. Either way, at some point, we will not have the choice to swallow our anger anymore and we will have to do what these women did.
The choice is ours. We could wait till then to reach out to each other and hope to gather numbers out of desperation. Or we could do it right now, and save them the “shock” of finding out that when women speak out in hundreds and thousands of voices all at once- they will not be able to get away.
Note: Names of the sources have been changed on request.
Author: Damayanti Saha