Hundreds of women from the media industry have come out with their stories of sexual harassment over the past three days.
While we may choose to believe some and not others based on the merits of the case, we must listen to all.
Indian social media is currently witnessing a catharsis, a release of long pent up frustration, humiliation and degradation faced by women. Friends, colleagues and mentors in newsrooms, classrooms, comedy circuits, movie sets are the ones who are being accused of violating consent and of brazening out sexual harassment. And the most glaring part of the accusations is the fact that most of these men are experts in performing their feminism in public spaces. They know the words to be spoken, they know the exact amount of rightful anger, which would posit them as allies, and they know the global social justice jargon and perform their sensitivity at every opportune situation. But while saying, “I hear you” in public, they do quite something opposite in private. Like one of the accused quite stoically commented, how can one who calls out the misogyny in others, be a misogynist himself!
But while the catharsis cannot be missed, there is another facet playing out on social media - one of sometimes calculated and sometimes motivated mistrust. The reasons are many and the attempts at silencing victims are equally spread over political camps. The calculated mistrust comes from the fact that women also lie and there is a glaring loophole in believing every word a woman says. The motivated mistrust is more political and is usually based on the religion and the politics of the accused and the accuser and notions of acceptable and ‘harassment inviting’ behaviour. From women purposefully lying to take down men, the classic ‘vengeful slut’ and the more imaginative ‘deep asset by the Vatican’ to a ‘right wing plant to curb dissenting voices’ - add to the mix, sermons of what women should and should not say and do to stop harassment, reducing sexual harassment to a problem of women, instead of men.
But in between all of this, there is an essential question that needs to be addressed. When women speak on sexual harassment, should one listen or believe and who and when does one believe?
Unlike, the global feminist movement, the answer unfortunately is not as simple. The conundrum is clear especially when the limits of tolerable and acceptable sexual behaviour are in a state of flux. The concern is that would there be anyone left who would give an accused man a chance to establish his innocence. Add to it the fact that publicly outing someone is almost like a certificate of character and a conviction that will never leave you. Of course, there is a group which would believe that believing in the absolute truth of women would be the only way to burn patriarchy and the few innocent men who would be victims of it, would be collateral damage. This understanding is problematic as women like men are flawed and could have their own failings. More so, consent when left to non-verbal cues can often be misread and discomfort when not expressed in clear terms can genuinely be overlooked.
But at the same time, the nature of sexual harassment and assault is such that it leaves no evidence. There are usually no witnesses to hear that loaded conversation or see that unwanted touch. So the onus of proving harassment lies on the victim and leaves the accused almost untouched. That is one of the many reasons why women do not speak up or take legal action. Because, what do they furnish to establish their trauma apart from their own words which could anyway be discredited by a single NO from the accused. Add to this the personal biases which could work in establishing which woman one should believe in. Even when faced with the lack of evidence, our political and social biases may lead us to believe one woman while disproving another. The insinuation of motive or agenda before due process being followed is only a means of silencing women and taking away from them the little agency and immense courage that they mustered to speak out.
There are no easy answers. Especially not for those men and women who identify as allies and believe that no woman would invite harassment and assault on to herself. For those who find merit in the arguments that her clothes, her alcohol, her sexual habits, her politics should be used as a benchmark to judge her trauma, it may not be a necessary question.
As someone who has been sexually harassed and has been the beneficiary of absolute strangers choosing to believe me, I have a personal reason to listen and believe women. No one had heard or seen what my harasser had whispered repeatedly and the gestures he had made, though it all had happened in a crowded train compartment. When I raised my voice and helpful passengers gathered around me, he gave an absolutely different story which painted me as an attention seeker. But, people at that heated moment chose to believe me without asking for evidence. If they had waited and asked me to furnish proof, I would not have been able to give them anything. To this day, I remain grateful for being heard and believed. Years later, when two young girls in Rohtak assaulted a man claiming that they were sexually harassed, I looked back at my experience and chose to believe them, too. Everyone knows how that turned out. It is difficult to take a stand and a risk especially when some women dilute and demean the struggles of thousands others who need to be believed.
But ultimately, we all have to choose the positions we want to stick to and they will to a large extent be based on our lived experiences and our ingrained biases about behaviour and its consequences. So my answers might not work for everyone, but hope it brings some clarity to those who try to think of the issue from both sides. It is not a neutral position because it is chooses to listen to the woman first and stand in solidarity till due process is followed. It is not a neutral position because it posits the woman as a victim till it is proved otherwise.
But, the position comes from the acute and experienced realisation that on any given day instances of men being let off due to lack of evidence with or without legal proceedings in place, far exceeds men being incarcerated on false accusations. It comes from the realisation that sexual harassment in work places go unreported because power equations ensure that the woman faces the added trauma of losing out on her career in addition to losing out on her dignity. It also comes from the lived experience of not being able to process sexual assault and come out with the courage to speak about it instantly. Layers of self-criticism, guilt, fear, insecurity can hound women into silence for years. Here is how I have answered my own questions on ‘belief’ and I am open to changing my position with age, experience and wisdom.
Question: Does believing the woman mean believing everything the woman is saying is true?
Answer: NO. It means believing that everything she is saying COULD be completely or partly true and hence, giving her a platform to speak and being a patient audience instead of being dismissive reflexively.
Question: Does believing women mean believing ALL women?
Answer: If you go by the above understanding of belief, then there can be no exceptions. Yes, ALL women should be believed and should be given that chance to seek justice.
Question: Does believing the woman mean tarnishing the man who has been accused?
Answer: NO. It means ensuring that due process is followed and the truth comes out accordingly. The men who have been accused have the full right to speak out publicly, seek legal recourse and should be heard too.
Question: Is a woman only to be believed if she is ready to take legal action?
Answer: It is not an easy choice for women to take legal action because of the various resources involved, particularly time and money. There can be many other ways of seeking justice ranging from an apology, to counselling for the harasser, to censure at work after an investigation. Due process therefore, certainly entails some kind of formal complaint and a perusal of the case by relevant authorities.
Question: So is this outing on social media derailing due process?
Answer: Due process needs to be understood as not just an opportunity for the accused to confront the evidence provided by the victim. It must also be seen as hearing out the victim clearly and completely. The media provides that outlet and it is a good place to strengthen the case. Like one instance of harassment which would have been lost without evidence, when aired in public is leading to multiple similar accounts being shared. Because the probability is that a sexual offender is always a repeat offender. There are both positives and risks to social media trials, but it is always better if formal complaints are placed.
Question: Does expressing sexual interest or flirting amount to sexual harassment?
Answer: This is the trickiest question because expressing sexual or romantic interest in someone is by definition, a non-consensual activity (anyone who has ever been in any relationship can vouch for it). There is a phase of ambiguous meeting, flirting, courting and one person in the relationship has to make sense of whatever non-verbal cues are there and take the next step. You cannot seek consent before articulating interest. But you can stop and move back when discomfort is expressed or when someone clearly says a NO. If these boundaries are not respected, then it could be construed as sexual harassment.
In the third day of the public outing of harassers, the cases of harassment have taken a turn towards flagging behaviour which is different from how we want and expect people to behave. This includes flirtatious texts, messy relationships, boorish behaviour and in general a misreading of the level of intimacy. These expectations are fine if they are stated and boundaries have been established at the outset and any attempt to repeatedly breach them will amount to harassment. But, it gets tricky when every case is conflated with sexual harassment even when consent is respected and the man understands the meaning of NO.
But even with all this, there is no easy way around this dilemma and there needs to be an acknowledgement of the fact that some men could be collateral damage through the social media trials and frivolous cases. It is not enough to tell men that they should not harass women and they will be safe. Because honestly, pre-empting unstated expectations in the already blurred sexual dynamics is not an easy task and men and women repeatedly err in this department. So, perhaps the need of the hour in the age of #MeToo is to fall back on something which Daphne Merkin in her article in the New York Times calls the ‘Re-moralization of sex’. This would not be in tune with the Sex Positive Feminism but perhaps could be safer for both men and women. But, the elaboration of that is for another article.
This period of catharsis is going to last long and the silence that has been broken will, perhaps, hopefully lead to a permanent change in the way women have been de-humanised. So sooner or later, everyone has to take a stand because sooner or later it will be too close to you to ignore. ‘Believe all women’ might not be for you. But, listening to all of them without exception could be for you. Controlling the urgency and almost reflexive instinct to first disprove the woman without due process being followed to empathising, waiting and even pushing for due process could be for you. Trusting enough to verify could be for you.
Hope we all make the right choices.