ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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How to Believe Women

Women are speaking out to reclaim their experiences, so far understood only through the language of patriarchy.

Two women have had to repeatedly recount their experiences of sexual assault to the world last week. In the United States (US), Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology spoke out about Supreme Court nominee Brett M Kavanaugh, testifying that he had assaulted her when they were both teenagers in 1982. In Mumbai, actress Tanushree Dutta spoke to a television channel about being harassed by actor Nana Patekar on a filmset in 2008 and of consequently being bullied out of the film industry.

The importance of these testimonies goes beyond the violence of specific harassers. They fit into a larger pattern that many women are recognising in the wake of the #MeToo movement; a pattern where everyday structures and camaraderie work to protect and embolden sexual harassers and normalise harassment. Despite being a grave offence, sexual harassment is not an exceptional act. It is merely the manifestation of the everyday power and impunity that men hold. A drunk high-school teenage boy and an actor with political clout, both have shocking impunity.

These two incidents—which happened 36 and 10 years ago, respectively—have been shared by victims in the hope that they will be heard now. What has changed since Harvey Weinstein, an American film producer, was accused of sexual molestation by testimonies of 80 women in October 2017? What has changed since thousands of women across the globe posted about their experiences of sexual harassment on social media with the hashtag “#MeToo”?

Structurally, nothing. Neither in the US, and definitely not in India. But, for some women, the catharsis of shared experiences has emboldened them to retrospectively look at assault that they experienced years ago, which shaped their lives and life decisions. For some women, it brought the realisation that their lives have been pervaded by harassment in ways that they themselves had not yet fully acknowledged. The overwhelming similarity of narratives has given legitimacy to the everyday hurt that women had collected over the years, but which remain unspoken.

Sexual assault is a crime that has been used to shame the victim more than the perpetrator. How do we understand the “evidence” of sexual assault when what constitutes knowledge has been decided by power, necessarily patriarchal power? What is evidence in sexual harassment cases, when women spend their lives attempting to forget their own assault? What is evidence when proof of the assault is, in fact, used by the perpetrator to threaten the victim into further silence?

The question that seems to have occupied a lot of minds is
that of belief: How do we believe these women? How do we know that they are speaking the truth? Where is the evidence of an attempted rape that happened 36 years ago?

The category of “belief” has not been alien to judicial reasoning. The difference is that the belief in the woman’s word is always subjected to tests of patriarchal knowledge. Since sexual assault is a manifestation of the power and impunity that the aggressor enjoys, this impunity stretches to the legal system too, embedded as it is with the overrepresentation of cisgender upper-caste men. Legal judgments have continually undermined the value of the consent of the woman, pitting her speech against the marks on her body. How judges interpret the absence of injuries has depended upon their understanding of the character and sexual history of the woman, and whether her behaviour as a victim of assault is “believable.”

Perhaps, the most long-lasting contribution of this feminist “wave” is the popularisation of the assertion that knowledge itself has been defined by masculinity, and imposed by patriarchy. A language is now becoming available to women to express the experience of their knowledge being disregarded. Popular terms—“mansplaining,” “gaslighting,” “entitlement”—shift attention from women’s experience of discomfort to the male ethos that leads to it. Through shared experiences, women are creating another knowledge: that of lived reality. Their disadvantaged position grants them what has been theorised as “epistemic privilege” over others: a more encompassing view of social reality.

The fallout of #MeToo, the “list of sexual harassers in
academia” in the Indian context, and an unending torrent of call outs have compelled feminists to take a stand on the extent to which a victim is obliged to submit to “due process,” which, while offering the hope of justice, is not free of patriarchal power. As Patekar slams a defamation case on Dutta, Kavanaugh looks to get confirmed despite Ford’s testimony, and other accused men get back to life and work as usual, we do not know how to measure the effect of speaking out.

But, for now, women continue to speak out as they reclaim not only their strength, but also their knowledge.

Updated On : 9th Oct, 2018

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