It started with a few women calling out their harassers in a world that refused to believe them. Now there's a wave of sexual violence and harassment allegations against powerful men all over the world. It is as if the floodgates have been opened and women have let out years of suppressed rage and trauma.
Just last week, dozens of Indian women took to Twitter to out some of the country's most prominent personalities: actors, comedians, editors, and media bosses in cases ranging from assault to incidents of workplace harassment. The effects were felt across the border in Nepal, as women opened up about their own experiences of abuse and harassment. These reports confirmed to us what many of us already knew: that when it comes to perpetuating a culture of silence and male privilege, no industry and no country is different.
Unsurprisingly, there is also a growing backlash against women who have bravely spoken up, including from people who claim to be feminists and allies. Unshackling oneself from years of social conditioning and internalised misogyny is not easy. In every country where these cases have come up, people—mostly men—have been invalidating women's experience of harassment and attacking them if their stories fall anything short of serious sexual assault or rape.
In Nepal, too, women have been told to stop playing the victim by bringing up cases of minor transgressions and misconduct. They have been accused of trivialising sexual violence, and of undermining the feminist cause with their flimsy accusations.
The problem is not just that our societies are forgiving of men and dismissive of women and their pain. We have normalised gender violence to the extent that only serious manifestations of gender crimes have any effect on us. This normalisation allows people to simultaneously become marching crusaders against violent rapes and assaults while also participating in the various ways women are broken, humiliated, and dehumanised every day. The very society that is outraged against rape also socially sanctions predatory and menacing male behaviour. We sympathise with men for failing to take a hint and “unwittingly” distress women they pursue, but we do not discuss the tilted power dynamics in which sexual pursuit, romance, and flirtation take place.
We do not find it problematic that women have to navigate a hyper-sexualised professional space, operating in a constant state of fear, guilt, and self-doubt. There is an endless debate on the fine distinctions between a romantic overture and sexual harassment but hardly any addressing of the underlying issue: male entitlement and how it affects women.
We partake in women's objectification; male promiscuity is valourised and narratives of toxic and violent masculinity are popularised in the media. We marginalise women from public discourse by trolling, bullying, and slut-shaming them into silence. Women's contribution to the economy is devalued, the gender wage gap is institutionalised, and we make it extremely difficult for women to rise to positions of power unless they ingratiate themselves to the system. We almost always punish women for speaking up. These behaviours are normalised as we simultaneously fight rapes and sexual violence. By taking such a narrow view of what constitutes gender-based violence, we allow men and women to escape accountability for their roles in creating an environment where larger crimes against women become possible.
There is no question that there are hundreds of cases of sexual and domestic violence, rapes and assaults that need greater attention and championing. But we also need women to stand up against everyday humiliations, harassment, and injustices that pass as accepted behaviours. One fight does not undermine the other, they are inextricably linked. No amount of stringent legislation or societal policing can reduce violent crimes against women if the general environment against them remains hostile and discriminatory. To say that women are diverting attention from the “real issues” in telling these stories is to tacitly support and enable an oppressive system.
No doubt, there are valid concerns about unsubstantiated accusations, lack of due process and the lynch-mob mentality that often accompanies accusations that need to be addressed. But they should not be used as justifications for dismissing women's experience of abuse and harassment. Speaking up has never been easy for women. They have to put their safety at risk, deal with having their personal and professional lives ripped apart in media, and resign themselves to the possibility that their perpetrators might never face any consequences.
A profound sense of injustice, an instinct to protect and warn vulnerable women like them, and a blithering refusal to be complicit in the crimes of patriarchy motivate women to come forward. The least we can do is to listen and acknowledge.
Rubeena Mahato is a Nepali writer. She writes on global politics and development policy.
Copyright: The Kathmandu Post/Asia News Network