Why Zaira Wasim and Others Like Her Don’t Just ‘Speak Up’
On 14 November 2017, 17-year-old Zaira Wasim was honored with the National Child Award for exceptional achievement from the president of India, for her sterling work in the film Dangal. On 10 December 2017, an Indian man sitting next to 17-year-old Zaira, in a flight (allegedly) harassed her, groping her neck and back with his foot. The tearful teen chronicled the traumatic incident on social media, sobbing, while also demanding to know, “Who is going to help us girls?”
We’re counting down to the end of 2017. This year began with a sexual offender, Donald Trump, and his Presidential upset (win isn’t the right word anymore, is it?), and it just got worse. Other American predators — Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys, John Lasseter of Pixar, Louis C K, Dustin Hoffman, Brett Ratner, Bryan Singer, Michael Oreskes, Kevin Spacey, James Toback, Ben Affleck and most recently, chef Mario Batali were named for past crimes of staggering magnitudes, after years of getting away with it.
In India too, we saw the breadth and scale of the problem surface in different ways: from Arunabh Kumar’s disgraceful behaviour and Mukesh Bhatt’s exhortations about “shameless” women, to the Supreme Court judges who asked a female petitioner to “behave properly and don’t leave your husband without our permission,” the sports coaches who molest their trainees, and online trolls who harassed Raya Sarkar for making a list of molesters in Indian academia.
With all this media attention and wrung hands, you’d think that society and men would suddenly be a little more cognizant of the sweeping winds of change, of the terror and atrocities that women have suffered for centuries, of the sheer imbalance of power that has led to this hopefully watershed moment and of the immense difficulty involved in speaking up after a traumatic incident.
You would be wrong.
There are a few common responses that greet every woman who bravely steps forward. Disbelief – “But he was all right with me!” Doubt – “Maybe you misunderstood everything?” And the worst, suspicion – “But why didn’t you say anything then?” — implying that the victim was speaking up later, for some sort of gain.
The last is one that has been asked of 17-year-old Zaira Wasim, again and again. Why didn’t she hail the airline staff? Or say something to the man? Was she doing it for the publicity, as the molester’s lawyer claims? Was it a stunt?
Sexual harassment is a shock. Your entire world jolts to a stop. Your system freezes. Your brain refuses to process what’s happening. Your breathing stops. But hey, you need to take apt, timely action, and fend off an assault, as well as figure out the long- and short-term consequences of your words and act accordingly. Even now, men across the Internet are questioning why Zaira didn’t punch or hit her molester, and why she didn’t cause a hue and cry.
“Don’t make a scene.” Every woman — yes, every woman — has heard this phrase sometime in her life, regardless of age or country of origin. It means don’t speak up, especially now. Don’t speak up, especially in public. Don’t bring attention to yourself. Don’t bring attention to your molester, lest it reflect poorly on you. Don’t ruin your chances of a promotion. Don’t express yourself. Don’t be indecent. Don’t be overdramatic. In all things. But especially when you’re being sexually harassed.
And yet – you’d also be right that there is a sense among society’s male power structures that the times, they are a-changing. More women are on the streets. More women are in the office. More women are in buses, trains and planes. More women are speaking up – for equality of opportunity, of law, and of agency. But there’s the rub: when women are present where they weren’t before, when they demand equality and respect (or simply not to have feet thrust upon them), it’s seen as a threat not to one man but to a whole society built to enable a sprawling male power. The backlash is as swift as it is instinctive.
When women speak up against someone who’s been harassing them, especially in India, they can be charged with defamation. When women speak up, not only do they relive the pain and embarrassment from the incident, but they must also protest their innocence, and their truth, again and again. And again. Sometimes to their own families; in the subcontinent of patriarchy and honour killing, a woman is seen as the preserver of family honour — to that end, speaking up about being harassed or molested tarnishes not only the woman’s own honour, but that of her family’s.
When women do speak up about their experiences, they are ignored or punished. Look at the recent case of Joe Alexander, former Chief Creative Officer at The Martin Agency. He was reported against so much that his nickname was “HR Joe.” And yet, he spent 26 years at the agency, and was allowed to resign, after multiple complaints at once, claiming instead he was protecting “his family;” when Sissy Estes, a former VP there, spoke up about the issue, she was laid off. Worse, HR encouraged employees with issues to solve them directly with Alexander, their harasser. Closer to home, the infamous Phaneesh Murthy, who faced sexual harassment claims at Infosys and iGATE, is still working and getting paid.
When women do speak up, they’re deemed “aggressive” or “unlikeable.” They receive fewer promotions and less pay. And they see that men who speak up against them are believed and get ahead. A study at Yale asked participants to rank applicants, both men and women, who expressed anger or sadness at having lost an account. The participants were most impressed with the angry man, followed by the sad woman, the sad man, and finally, they were least impressed by the angry woman. After all, she was making a scene.
When women speak up, they have to prove not just the veracity of their claims, but the malicious intent behind the molester’s actions. Yet the norms of male power mean harassers’ intentions aren’t always actively malevolent – sometimes they are only, and quite simply, wrong.
Victims of sexual harassment fear disbelief, and their fears are well-founded: Discrediting them – whether maliciously or not – shores up the men in charge, the employers upon whom the economy and personal finances depend, the politicians who represent the broader public. Discrediting them reestablishes the status quo and keeps us all flying peacefully to the same communal destination.
Seventeen-year-old Zaira spoke up, reaching out to thousands when the few in her immediate surroundings failed to help her. And still responses to her ranged from “Speaking up on Instagram doesn’t count as standing up, for me at least. Sorry” to “Does this even tantamount to molestation,” along with accusations of aiming for sympathy or publicity – even from journalists. (Don’t make a scene, even on the Internet.)
The victims of Louis CK were disbelieved or ignored for years, often by media stalwarts like Jon Stewart, until they were too many to dismiss. Which is a good thing; there is strength in numbers. According to Gloria Allred, the renowned women’s rights attorney, “The more women speak out, the more other women want to speak out.” And eventually, we’ll be too many to be discredited, disbelieved, ignored or punished. Scenes will be the new norm.