The Cost of Silence

*Trigger warning*

I learned about sex from romance novels and Jackie Collins, mostly. Porn came much later. Before porn and after the romance novels came sexual abuse. The first, second and the third… get blurred in my mind. Was the first time at home, while I was under the care of family members, or was it the stranger who grabbed my breast, while cycling past me in the rain? I was walking back from school, no more than fourteen. I used to love the rain. I remember being stunned and frozen in the monsoon. I remember feeling dirty and ashamed afterwards.

Since then I dodged groping hands in public buses, pretended to ignore cat calls from the young men in the neighborhood, looked behind my shoulders when walking home at night, and suffered full blown sexual assault by a family member.

In between all these incidents, underlining them, and following them, was a deafening silence. Silence from me. Silence from adults who knew. Silence from teachers. Hugs from friends.

I learned about domestic violence from books and movies and my own home. My grandfather and grandmother hated each other, slept in separate rooms, and fought over groceries. My father was an alcoholic and a poet. He considered himself a gift to humankind, and still does. He was handsome and abusive. The women in his life – mother, sister and wife – were all full of faults and failures, but had the unwavering responsibility of taking care of him. There were words thrown at each other in my home, sharper than knives. Words can make you bleed too. Sometimes fists met cement walls. Later, in days to follow, the adults limped back to life as they knew it, silently. The child floated around, with a muffled voice.  Forgiveness was eventually sought, and granted.

I learned all about the threat of violence a long time ago. So long ago that I cannot point to a single incidence. But I remember feeling it fresh and raw when I spent a night in a Delhi police station while accompanying a woman who had been arrested and was going to be taken to the court next day. I feared for her safety in the police station.  I was nineteen. A police officer jeered at me with betel stained teeth: did I want to get my mugshot taken along with her?  Then, they laughed, like bad cops do, in a bad Hindi movie.

So what happened to me? I grew up, considerably well adjusted, mulishly strong, and optimistic. I didn’t do drugs, didn’t shy away from sex, fell in love, and had good jobs. I don’t quite know how or why. I had wonderful friends, family members who did the best they could at the time, and something strong and hopeful inside. I continued to read romance novels, finished school, found my niche as a women’s rights activist working on violence against women. I married a wonderful man, became a widow, discovered that I was bisexual. I counseled survivors of domestic violence, researched sexual violence in conflict, but could not deal with child sexual abuse. I wouldn’t know what to tell a child. I only remember the silence. The child in me never found a voice, let alone justice.

Papers, books, blogs, and campaign messages have been written about this silence. “Let’s break the silence!” we say all the time. “Violence against women is the most pervasive human rights violation”. Seven in ten women have experienced it globally. In the United States, where I now live, three women are killed every day by an intimate partner . In Congo women have stopped counting. In 2009, the Australian government commissioned a national survey on community attitude towards violence against women. The survey revealed that 34% believed that rape resulted from men being unable to control their need for sex, and one in four disagreed that women rarely made false claims of being raped.

Let’s break the silence. How? Who should break it? Which incidences of violence should we narrate and which ones should we hold back? I recently read a powerful piece by a rape survivor and activist on the New York Times, where she talks about violence in a continuum: rape of our bodies, of our confidence and humanity, of our capabilities. When will we start seeing it as such?

I had an affair with a woman. I was utterly gender blind and couldn’t tell her that she was being abusive until it was over. All hell broke loose when I left. This young woman –   white, cultured, educated, with two Masters degrees and from a middle class family –  held my belongings hostage, threatened my immigration status, called me a cunt, said she would make my life really, really difficult, and broke my things. Later, she said she was just angry and would have never followed through on the threats she had made. Every time I think of everything she got away with, I feel violated, all over again. I feel ashamed, again, that I hadn’t left sooner, moved away fast enough, or known any better. You see, shame is familiar, and had held hands with silence, all those years ago.

When I was widowed, my family abandoned me because I hadn’t been a good wife. I hadn’t stopped my husband from buying a motor cycle; I had given him loneliness, and hadn’t cooked for him. My genitals were safe this time, but I felt violated, again. I kept screaming inside, silently, that it wasn’t my job to cook for a grown man. It wasn’t my fault or his that he died in an accident. When I spoke in my defense, I heard more silence.

I have worked for private sector companies where women are constantly paid less than men. I have worked with non-profit organizations where women are underpaid and terrified of their women bosses, where new mothers don’t have enough break or privacy to breast feed, and speaking up gets you in trouble.

A few months ago, in a crowded subway car in New York, a man was bullying a woman. He loomed above her, leaned towards her, and slurred to her with alcohol-laced breath. I was sitting next to her and asked him what he was doing. He called me some names, but continued to harass the woman next to me. The woman looked at another African-American man standing near us and implored, “Can’t you see this man is bothering us”. The man, who had been silent and unseeing, like the rest of the men and women in the subway car, suddenly snapped into action. “Macho man” lunged, pinned down the “drunk creep” on the ground, and had his arms around his throat. People screamed and ran out of the car. The woman who had asked for help bolted in less than a second. The train wasn’t going anywhere. The MTA staff came to break up the fight. I left too, with a quiet word with a woman officer, explaining what had happened. I could see it on everyone’s face – this is why we shouldn’t intervene. Everyone was upset about the delay, some were scared. What if one of the men had pulled a gun or a knife?

We live in a world where people are silent all the time. So, what’s my point?

Break your silence beyond the rhetoric, about the violence that is perpetrated every day, towards women, girls, transgender, homosexual and queer people, underlined by the politics of race, color, immigration and class. Get mad about mothers dying without basic health care, and poor people dying of starvation, and about the sweat shop workers. These violations are not isolated from one another.  When a woman is being bullied on the streets or in a bus next time, speak up, but don’t use your fist.

Do not ask for the death penalty for the rapists who raped and killed the 23 year-old in India. This was one case among a million others that would never make news. Their death will not help the woman or girl who is being raped right now, and who may or may not report it. Instead, ask for better laws and a justice system that survivors are able to access without endangering themselves. Demand that police officers are trained and procedures are put in place about how to handle reported cases of rape. Next time a woman or girl reports rape, she should not fear harassment, apathy or worse, from police officers.

Do raise your sons to behave respectfully with women and girls. Do not lock your daughters behind doors to keep them safe. Instead, teach your sons and daughters respect and self-worth. In 1915,  Mary Coffin Ware Dennett, a women’s rights activist and pioneer in sex education, wrote in a letter to her son Carleton, “Sex is the very greatest physical and emotional pleasure there is in the world.” How sad if our sons and daughters do not feel that way in 2013 and know only rape and denial of our sexualities.

Ask yourself and others in your life, what do you consider as rape? In many countries, rape laws are not very helpful because of narrow definitions of rape. Some 127 countries still do not have effective laws on marital rape.  Ask your government what it has done to make your community safer for women and girls.

Question every sexist joke you encounter—you are not being uptight or less fun if you do – I have to constantly remind myself about this. You are only exercising your intelligence by questioning why is it acceptable in a society to make fun of women’s vaginas or to laugh at a man for not conforming to an oppressive notion of masculinity. Does our tolerance to these seemingly harmless banters have something to do with how our laws are deficient, justice systems unresponsive, and why attitude towards women and equality between genders is such a hard nut to crack?

Madeleine Albright, the first woman to become the US Secretary of State, once said there is “a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I don’t believe women have more responsibility than men to be respectful and non-violent. So here I am, breaking my silence on my own terms, and asking that all of us take responsibility to stop violence against women… before it happens, again.

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