Since a few days, my Facebook timeline is filled with posts about sexual harassment and statuses that have the hashtag #MeToo in it. Many friends who know how vocal I am about standing up for and with victims of abuse have asked me why I didn’t put up a #MeToo status too. It is not only because I have been very busy with work and traveling but because I have been thinking and wanted to write something more than just putting up a #MeToo status. So I have tried to put down some of my thoughts..
It is very encouraging to see so many women talking openly about the sexual harassment and/or sexual abuse that they have faced and yet sadly I am not surprised at the magnitude of it. I was born and grew up in a country where women even today face sexual harassment/abuse on the streets or within their families and almost always are blamed for it. I first faced sexual harassment at a single digit age, years before I reached the age of puberty or even knew anything about sexuality. Sadly it was not just that one time – I have lost count of the times I had been groped/fondled/touched improperly even before I turned 10. And it got worse after that. For years I remained silent nearly every time it happened because when I did talk about it, I was always “blamed” for it. It was my clothes, my “loud and brash behaviour”, the dark lipstick I wore…the list was endless. Fortunately it has been years since I have been physically harassed but the verbal harassment has continued even though it has decreased dramatically, since I can now “defend” myself against it and choose to spend time in countries where such behavior is not so rampant. However years of being treated as a sex object, of being told that in some way or the other I was “asking for it” left their mark on me. I entered a relationship in which I continued to be abused and it took a long time for me to recognise the abuse because no one had taught me about my right to say “no”, no one had educated me about what abuse is. When I first picked up the courage and reached out for help, I was told that it couldn’t be true because the man in question was such a nice and kind person. Even today when I talk about what I went through, many do not believe me and some have even defended the man or told me to try to understand his position. But this post is not about my experiences, its not about how men need to be educated about what harassment is or even about how men need to step up, speak out and own up – there are many excellent posts about these topics (I especially liked the post written by John Pavlovitz ).
Reading posts and stories about the abuse that women have gone through reminds me yet again of what I went through -the years of loneliness, shame, guilt, of feeling dirty and ugly. The road to being completely healed is work-in-progress and there are days when the past still comes back to haunt me. But by God’s Grace, the help of friends and counsellors, the “dark” days are fewer and fewer. A long time ago I decided that I had the choice to let my experiences break me or to use them to help others who had faced something similar. I decided for the latter and promised myself a couple of things.
I promised myself that I would encourage, support and help women to get out of abusive relationships and not turn my head away or maintain a “neutral” position when I heard about it. I would confront the abuser even if he seemed to be a very nice person, belonged to my “family” or was someone I cared about deeply too. I would never defend the abuser and tell the abused to understand his position – there is no excuse for abusive behaviour. Not taking a stand against the abuser means being an accomplice to the abuser, not “taking sides” is taking sides with the abuser.
I promised myself that I would never ever blame a woman for being abused or insinuate that she brought it upon herself. A woman has the right to say “No” at any stage of the relationship; nothing she wears, says or does justifies her being abused or violated.
I promised myself that I would do my best to support a woman who had been abused – be it holding her hand, being there for her and giving her time to heal. I would not tell her that if only she trusted enough in God, He would heal her and take away the pain. I believe that God can do miracles and that He can heal hurt and pain but I also believe that some hurts may take longer and some may never go away completely. I will not add to the guilt and shame that a woman has by telling her that she is “not a good christian” if she still feels pain. And I will not tell her that she hasn’t truly forgiven her abuser if she still suffers from the emotional wounds that he inflicted on her.
I promised myself that I would truly listen to a woman if she wanted to share her story of abuse. That I would not tell her I “knew exactly what she had gone through” just because I had experienced something similar. I promised myself that I would let her talk to the end and not interrupt her with some well meaning advice that was not helpful at all. That I would hold her hand, weep with her and be there for her – the way she needed me to be there and not the way I thought was the best way for me to be there for her.
I promised myself that I would not stop helping women (and men) to understand all that encompasses and falls under sexual harassment, discrimination and misogyny. Most agree that catcalling, lewd remarks on the street or being groped by total strangers is harassment. But so is calling a woman a “doll”, “chick” or describing her as hot – I have a hard time understanding how any woman can take that as a compliment or even worse how a woman can call another woman “hot” and think they are complimenting them, such words only objectify, degrade a woman and show disrespect for her as a person.
I promised myself that I would fight for women to be treated equally at work which means being respected for who they are, for what they are capable of and not for how they look or dress. That I would speak up if I heard a woman colleague being referred to as “cute” or “pretty” or “gorgeous” when being introduced in a work environment instead of being introduced by her title or position. Such “compliments” have no place in a working environment, they reduce women to being a “pretty thing”. I will never forget the time I spoke in front of a crowd of over 200 people at a seminar for inter-cultural understanding. At the end of my presentation there was pin-drop silence and the only comment that the facilitator could make was compliment me on the “gorgeous earrings” that I was wearing. Later at dinner I got feedback from some of the male participants that my presentation was very impressive, that they all wanted to work for the company I worked for then (the presentation was about the company) but the facilitator with his comment had tried to reduce me to just being an “attractive pretty thing”.
I promised myself that I would not remain silent when someone cracked a misogynistic joke in my presence or made a remark that was discriminatory; or made remarks about women drivers or women shoppers…. I would not join in the group that said “boys will be boys”; I would not laugh at jokes made at the expense of women (or men for that matter!). And it would not matter to me if groups then excluded me because I was oversensitive, boring or couldn’t have “fun”.
I promised myself that I would tell my #MeToo story and be transparent, even if it meant that I would shock some people, lose some friends or be “ostracised” for it. I would tell my story if I was asked, would allow myself to be vulnerable and be prepared that someone would misuse my story, even question it or tell me again that I needed to forgive and move on (as if I hadn’t forgiven my abuser).
And it is my hope that all the women who have posted #MeToo on social media will do the same. Let us fight side-by-side so that our daughters, nieces, sisters, granddaughters do not have to go through what we have gone through; that they are taught early what discrimination, harassment, sexual abuse and misogyny is; that they have the courage and strength to call out abusers; that they have the right to say “no” anytime; that their worth lies in their character and not in their looks; that they are not silent when they see abuse or are abused.
Let us, even here, become the change we want to see.