The last few weeks have been momentous for survivors of sexual violence, all over the world. Women embraced the hashtag #MeToo to join their voices to the rising chorus of sexual assault victims coming forward to share their trauma, inflicted often by the people they worked and lived with.
The accounts — by both men and women survivors of sexual crimes — were difficult to read, so much so that men joined in with hashtags of their own to show that they were listening, processing and hopefully bettering themselves as allies.
Women shared stories of complicity by institutions, conspiracy of silence in families, of unequal power equations at work spaces, threats to their employment, life and liberty, apart from the patriarchal tool of shame being held over their heads to strangle their voices in a society that already sees sexual harassment more as a result of female provocation and less as male aggression.
However, as the stories of systematic abuse kept pouring in — from Hollywood producers to bar owners — one thing stood out as a beacon of hope — women felt for the first time they have a movement going worldwide that was disruptive and resonant and as a result of which powerful men, predatory men who have never been held responsible their entire lives, were now being outed.
In India, several celebrities came forward to narrate their own stories of surviving sexual violence.
Vidya Balan, a talented actress who has played powerful roles in several films, went on a TV panel discussion, a short clip of which was shared by the channel on Saturday, and discussed the issue of sexual harassment.
This writer has not seen the entire discussion, which will be aired on Sunday, 29 October, and will update the commentary when it does. However this is what she said in the clip that was shared.
"I've been in films for 12 years and not once have I been propositioned y anyone. I've not given anyone I think the space to say anything remotely uncomfortable to me.... There were times.... I would sense that something creepy and I would just walk away from that opportunity. Having said that this was not my bread and butter, I lived with my family in Mumbai, I had food on my plate, I didn't have to worry about rent, I had emotional sustenance... I could walk away. I think no one dared say or do anything to me, I made sure I didn't come across as vulnerable..."
While Balan acknowledged her privilege, her comments were symptomatic of the reasons women don't A. report abuse B. hesitate to speak up C. are not believed when they do.
It's classic victim shaming to imply that a woman brought on her harassment because she did not "walk away". Or that she somehow "made herself vulnerable". Case studies and statistics show that women of all ages — babies as young as months old — are raped every day in this country. To say that Balan herself had not faced any sexual harassment in 12 years because she did not "give anyone the space to say anything uncomfortable" is to imply that those who do get "propositioned" invite it by giving their harassers the "space". It's not only wrong, but it's an attitude that has seeped into the very fabric of society, colouring the way it looked at women who are sexually active, lead independent lives and fight sexism at all levels.
And it's surprising that Balan phrased it the way she did, since she has been a strong champion of gender rights, standing up repeatedly for women, including those she worked with. She had extended her support to Kangana Ranaut, an actress fighting for credit for a film she claimed she co-wrote.
Here's the clip.
If violent sexual assaults, coercion, blackmail, and toxic male aggression could be stopped at spaces occupied by women by not appearing "vulnerable" and "desperate for a job" or just by simply walking away, Balan would not have been on the panel talking about these issues.