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Shame, Guilt, Mudslinging: Survivors of Sexual Assault are Hounded by Fears before They Come Out

Image for representation. (Reuters)

Image for representation. (Reuters)

A landmark judgement in the MJ Akbar vs Priya Ramani defamation suit, observed that "The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades". But, will we ever stop asking survivors, "why now?"

On the afternoon of February 17, several women thronged a courtroom in Delhi, while others remained glued to their television screens. The hearing that had kept the women waiting was the defamation case filed by MJ Akbar against journalist Priya Ramani, who had accused him of sexual harassment and predatory behaviour. Akbar faced these charges from nearly a dozen other women. As the proceedings unfolded, and Ramani was acquitted, the judgment became a landmark one. It was a victory for women across the country, albeit a small one.

The judgment and the observations made by Justice Ravindra Kumar Pandey were instantly hailed as socially progressive. “The woman cannot be punished for raising voice against the sex abuse on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation as the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman as guaranteed in Indian Constitution under article 21 and right of equality before the law and equal protection of the law as guaranteed under article 14 of the Constitution. The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades," read a part of the transcript.

Among other significant points made in the courtroom, the words “even after decades", rung fiercely in my head as they would in the minds of countless other survivors. Who hasn’t fielded the questions on “why now?", when they summoned every ounce of courage to break their silence about sexual abuse in the past? More so, if the accusation was in the public domain and the accused was “a man of stellar reputation".

The reasons behind survivors speaking up years after an assault are manifold, explains Varkha Chulani, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. “Shock, guilt, confusion, anxiety — are the most common emotions a victim experiences. She isn’t sure how her disclosure is going to be received. This leads to anxiety and a preference therefore to avoid any expression of the incident. Shock can lead to lack of acknowledgment of the incident and therefore denial".

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Chulani said that women are often ridden with guilt when they believe, “she may have done something ‘wrong’ to have this happen to her". “There is an idea that that had she been more careful and vigilant, this may not have happened. So she keeps quiet because to her this is her ‘fault’," she said.

A momentary feeling of vindication filled me up as I recounted the volley of questions and counter-accusations that came my way when I first decided to talk about my own sexual assault in 2012, four years after it took place. And it isn’t until this day that I have been able to admit that it was in fact rape.

On December evening, in 2008, I arrived in New Delhi to participate in a family wedding. In attendance were my parents, grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. A cocktail party on the terrace kicked off celebrations for the days to come. Except, it was that night that would change my relationship with my body for a long time to come and leave me with trauma that could last a lifetime.

We drank, we danced and the family that had flown in from different parts of the world came together in revelry. As is customary, weddings also meant shared sleeping arrangements in large halls with mattresses strewn around. My last clear memory of the night was that of arriving in one of these halls ready to retire. I was drunk, tired and in a state of semi-consciousness that followed long hours of travel from my then home, Chennai. I was in an environment, in the presence of loved ones, that I perceived as safe.

Everything from this point on remains fuzzy. That night, I was raped in my sleep by a cousin in a room full of people. I woke up sore, unable to process or voice the pain. I could also not piece together the exact details of the night, but my body no longer felt the same. I was 20-years-old, had never had sexual contact but knew I had been penetrated without explicit or any consent. Along with the trauma of this reality came the shame of having been drunk at a family function. I maintained a low profile and knew I had to put the incident behind me. The celebrations continued.

I did not intend to speak up or confront the perpetrator until he chose to talk about it in an online chat in 2012. He talked as he would of a consensual episode, and while the details of the night horrified me, they also offered corroboration for what I had felt. I told my parents and a few supportive family members that I had been sexually abused. I contacted lawyers, took a holiday, ended a relationship and did everything that I thought would help me heal. I also made the difficult choice of informing the perpetrator’s immediate family.

There was denial at first, mudslinging thereafter and the familiar question “why now?". This was followed by defences for my perpetrator like he is in the army, he has a family, a child, and a reputation. While I, on the other hand, was single, independent, and worst of all, drunk. I chose to repress the memory because piecing it together seemed horrific. I chose to speak up when I did because I couldn’t let an abuser believe it was consensual. And despite coming from a fairly progressive family and knowing better myself, nothing prepared me for the shame, guilt and anger that took over me. It tore the extended family apart and 13 years later, I still struggle with episodes of rage.

Aishhwariya Subramanian, a 33-year-old writer based in Bengaluru, has spent the larger part of her life clinging to her backpack that covers her chest almost like armour. It came to be an identifying feature in her years in college. She has also spent the better part of her adulthood in therapy. Subramanian was sexually assaulted at the age of 12 while cycling back home in Chennai one afternoon. “A man on a bike solicited me. He told me that his daughter was angry at him and she was crying in the bushes nearby. I was uncomfortable but I thought he was telling the truth. I went to the bushes to tell his daughter to forgive her father so he would leave me alone. There was no one there. He beat me. He threatened to sell me off. He had me remove my underwear. He beat me some more. He put his hands in my vagina. I began crying and begged him to let me go,” she said recounting the traumatic episode.

She made her way back home that night, bolting for shelter to the nearest home she saw. But it wasn’t until the age of 24 that she decided to ‘come out’ with it. She believes that over time and with the help of therapy, she has finally addressed her demons. “But, if you were to meet me, you would still probably see me with a backpack. Some scars never really heal, some habits don’t change, and we just do what we can to keep going,” she says.

When singer Chinmayi Sripaada spoke about her sexual harassment at the hands of celebrated lyricist Vairamuthu during the MeToo movement in 2018, she received backlash from his fans and political supporters. Amid the many spoke of his ‘spotless reputation’, even though as many as eight other women shared their own accounts of assault at the hands of the lyricist. Yet, three years after, Sripaada is still at the receiving end of questions like, “Why now? Why did you invite him to your wedding if he had sexually abused you?"

Writer Manjiri Indurkar who recently released her book It’s All in Your Head where she writes about having faced sexual abuse, chose to speak up 22 years after she was first assaulted as a child. “It started when I was about 6 years old and went on for a few years and then it stopped. I didn’t speak about it because my grandmother saw it happen once and didn’t do anything about it. That felt like a response to me, like nothing wrong was happening. I was also scared for my parents and thought that it would ruin their lives if I spoke up,” she says.

Fear, self-doubt, shame and an inability to reconstruct the details of the traumatic event, survivors said, were the reasons behind the passage of time, until they spoke up.

“As many as 90 percent of my clients spoke about sexual abuse after the MeToo movement. Like with physical pain, in cases of mental trauma, the body responds by shutting down the memory of it. It takes years to process,” said Asees Kaur Chadha, Gurgaon-based psychotherapist and co-founder of Soul Therapy. “In cases of child sexual abuse, your brain and often your language isn’t developed enough to verbalise the trauma. In fact, it is rare that a survivor speaks out at the time it happened. Then there are other factors; the perpetrator is often known to the survivor and there might be verbal threats involved,” she said.

Chadha also elaborates that the “why now?" question in response to an accusation comes from an inherent want to protect the perpetrator. “Why are you ruining his family life? Is just another form of victim blaming in the absence of other excuses,” she said.

Seema (name changed), at 18, was an intern at a newspaper when she went through several instances of sexual harassment in the workplace at the hands of a superior. “A lot happened before I ever realised that the discomfort I was feeling around him and my interactions with him were actually sexual harassment. As in any newspaper, they call you in the night to assign news coverage points. He asked me to cover a particular event. When I went to the event, there was nothing happening and no one was there," Seema said.

When called Seema him, he immediately apologised and said that the event was the next day and he made an error. “He asked me to wait and that he would pick me up. I said no, but he insisted and his tone became quite boss-like. He then arrived on a motorbike, and he got me to sit behind him. At the traffic lights he pushed himself back, and asked me to hold him. I ignored that but he pressed the brakes too hard a couple of times and said, ‘See I told you, it’s dangerous so just hold on to me’. He took a long way to the office and kept apologising for giving me a wrong assignment. He dropped me at work," she said.

The man would call Seema at night and just keep talking about how he was unhappy in his marriage. “They progressed to lewder ones where he would talk about how he had a bad sex life and eventually ask what I was wearing. It became my job to come up with excuses to cut the calls each time. Not picking up his calls felt like a non-option. In my mind, I didn’t deserve a place to be at this news organisation,” she said adding that she reported it to a senior female colleague, but no action was taken.

“A few days before my last day, my abuser hounded me to let him drop me home. He orchestrated work for me in a way that it was 10:30 pm by the time I had to go home. Instead of dropping me, he took me to this deserted spot by the lakeside. It was dark and then he just said, ‘it’s such a nice night. Let’s just sit here for a while.’ And I told him it’s late and that he told me he would drop me off but didn’t mention this. He just pleaded and said I am having a bad day. Then he told me that he finds me very sexy and intelligent. And that he iss very aroused by me. That he is in love with me. He put his hand on my thigh and tried to move in for a kiss. I pushed his hand off, moved my face away. Turned on my phone, a Nokia 1100 (thank god for the bright torch button) and then said my aunt was calling me and that I was late and just jumped out of the car. I walked off in a hurry in the darkness and there was an auto passing by, I screamed and asked him to take me. I remember he said that I would have to give him Rs 200 and I just didn’t care and got on. The next day at work, he just acted like nothing happened,” she recounts.

It was during the MeToo movement that she told her mother about the abuse. “It was a very triggering time for me. My mother then shared a story of her own that had suppressed for 25 odd years,” she says. Seema believes that repression is often a coping mechanism. “We look for ways to survive. Sometimes we do it by repressing. How does one cope with sustained dehumanisation that appears to be sexual harassment but actually its claws dig in deeper?

“It makes you question your worthiness, your sense of self. These are not things that can be forgiven just because time and coping mechanisms help us function,” Seema said. So, is it time to put the argument of ‘passage of time’ to rest in cases of sexual abuse?

“It can be put to rest once you have active conversations around it. It’s not like women are encouraged to talk about it. We put anything remotely related to sex under the carpet. It’s not an open society if we are never going to talk about it to children. If you are so hush-hush about everything then how will women talk about these things? So, if you are asking them to hold back in subtle and unsubtle ways, then you can’t ask them why they didn’t speak up then,” Indurkar said.

The law itself does not bar a woman from filing a complaint against sexual harassment despite the passage of time. “For any offence that has a jail time of more than one year, criminal law sets the statute for the complaint to be filed within three years. However, if it is not filed within three years, there has to be an explanation. The delay in lodging an FIR is often seen as premeditation and the delay is the first argument that the defence will bring up in court,” explains Vishakha, Central Government Counsel in the Supreme Court of India. At the risk of sounding cynical, Vishakha admits that most such cases are dismissed and the accused acquitted. Being ‘scared’ isn’t usually good grounds and accepting the delay is the court’s discretion. Even if the court believes the testimony, there is little to support it except circumstantial evidence,” she said recounting FIRs that she has lodged where the accused was let off scot-free. Over the years though, she continues to file FIRs every time she faces sexual abuse in a bid to aid her mental health and “not feel like a victim who lost". She recommends this to other women, too

A socially progressive observation in court, thus, may have little bearing on the argument of “passage of time" in cases of sexual harassment. With alleged rape though, the court tends to be more lenient, Vishakha said. “This is not to say that it wasn’t a landmark judgement. But, let’s not forget that it was a defamation case and the bar for those is set low. MJ Akbar wasn’t convicted but Priya Ramani was acquitted. The only transformation it results in is that if a MeToo victim comes out with an allegation, the accused will think twice about filing defamation,” she said.