To decide if a woman should be allowed to speak, we excavate her morality. If she says she was raped, we talk about her multiple sexual partners and how that makes her story implausible. When she says she was harassed, we talk about the fact that she drinks alcohol. When I spoke about the army, they asked how a “modern” bisexual woman could possibly be believed? But I ask, does the truth change when an “immoral” woman speaks it?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
A few years ago I wrote a series of pieces about abortions. While some of the pieces were about the laws and medical processes involved in choosing to undergo a medical or surgical termination of pregnancy, a few others were about my personal experience with abortion. I wrote the personal pieces because the doctor I had seen not only shamed me for my choices but refused to prescribe a pain-killer because they believed that “some things should hurt” and I wanted to draw attention to the fact that even when availing a right that our government not only provides but encourages, women will be shamed. We are the battle-ground for both population control and population expansion, and we’ll be damned for doing both.
Those pieces were published on several news platforms, and such is my writing-style that they contained a lot of information about me. I’m a storyteller first and a colourful one at that (which is ironic given that my closet is just a mass of black fabric), but more importantly, I believe it is important to never misrepresent yourself. I could have painted a tragic figure of myself, believably too, I could have represented myself as a poor, helpless woman who had no choice but to abort her child and who suffered greatly from the immorality of her decision. I cannot do that, because that is insulting to that woman. I was honest. I’m a deeply-privileged, independent, English-speaking Indian woman who can access healthcare with ease. My abortion was entirely my choice, safely-accessible and easily-affordable. I had no economic or biological reason for not being able to bear a child, I didn’t want one, especially one that resulted from contraceptive failure. And while it was both physically and emotionally substantial, I never regretted my decision, nor did i suffer any mental or emotional fallout from it. I wrote about it, using myself as the centre of the discussion, just so I could demonstrate the medio-social environment to which women are exposed.
But it made people angry.
They weren’t angry because I informed women of their rights, they weren’t angry because I explained what misoprostal does, they weren’t even angry because I questioned the unequal access women of different socio-economic strata have to gynaecologists, no, they were angry because I didn’t play the role of the tragic woman. I had the audacity to openly admit that I, a young woman, had sex and lived freely, nor did I have a grave moral struggle post termination, but I still wanted rights and dignity. They were angry because I was doing the “wrong” thing and still complaining We don’t like it when women do that. Women have to be socially and morally perfect in order to demand justice.
When women accuse powerful men of rape, we ask how a woman who has multiple sexual partners can even be raped. When women are victims of mass-molestations in big “safe” cities, we ask why parents let their daughters out so late at night in little skirts. When women demand that they have curfews as late as men in hostels, we accuse them of wanting to engage in immorality and put bars on the windows. We create a mire of social-shame that is so encompassing that it becomes shocking when a woman actually speaks out about real-life experiences without dressing them up in socially-acceptable womanliness. Women behave in accordance with the norms set for us not because we are not allowed to deviate, but because the deviation will be put under a scanner if something goes wrong, and we will be found lacking. You don’t get to complain about being called a slut, if you are sexually-active. You don’t get to complain about being raped, if you had a drink that night. You don’t get to complain about being harassed by a doctor, if you had the audacity to choose an abortion.
If i had written my abortion-pieces in a different voice, and drawn attention to the emotional turmoil I faced and the helpless lack of options to which I was subject, the response would have been different. I didn’t do that because if I had, I would be playing up their narrative and in the interest of making more women’s horror stories believable, we have to change the monolithic view of victims. Victims are not the chaste, statuesque bastions of morality that don’t really exist. You cannot turn us into pillars of salt because we looked back at Sodom. We cannot fix anything if we continue only to find fault in the complainant, especially when the fault we are looking for is a lapse in character, and literally anything less than ideal will be exposed, and punished.
Recently, I wrote a piece about the culture of sexism and labour-exploitation that has been allowed to foster within the unofficial ranks of spouses of army personnel. The backlash was swift and unrelenting, and still continuing, and you know what? That’s fine! I know people, even in real-life, who don’t agree with my view on this social environment. Just like I also know people who have experienced similar or worse situations. The essence of discourse is that all sides must be allowed their say. That’s great, but what’s not so great is personal attacks and holding my character as evidence against my allegations. Surely, you can draw attention to the great things your organisation does, and good on you for doing them, we could all stand to do more in a world so lacking in compassion, but how does it help to draw attention to the fact that I am bisexual or that i believe in the “live in” lifestyle?
It’s the same thing. The essence of all of this is the same, you do not believe that I am moral enough to be allowed a voice, and that is a sinister form of censorship that seeks to destroy the voice even before it has had the chance to speak. Everytime a woman speaks, we go digging for the skeletons in her closet. That realisation was enough to scare me into a life of truth-telling, think of me as a foul-mouthed Gandhi, I tell the complete truth about myself so that no one can ever attack me for it. The people who engaged with me believing that they could use the fact that I am bisexual, progressive or polyamorous to prove that I am wrong and lying, what did you hope to accomplish? You only know those things about me, because I told you. I refuse to be enslaved by the burden of a reputation. You know who else did that? Kamala Das. Ismat Chughtai. Rokeya Sultana, Amrita Pritam. Those women, the ones you quote on your Facebook profiles, you would have crucified them every day if they lived amongst you.
But your hatred of me doesn’t change facts.
Me, i am irrelevant. I am one person and that barely matters to the world in the grand scheme of things. Ignore me. Sully me. Scare me. It’s really all okay with me, I don’t take the world so seriously, levity is my religion.
For the sake of the day that your daughter may have some truth to tell and you find her life being excavated for immorality so she can be credibly disbelieved, learn to be more analytical. The bisexuality of a woman doesn’t mean that there is no wage-gap. The fact that a woman drinks alcohol, doesn’t mean she wasn’t really sexually-harassed. The fact that a woman lives alone, doesn’t mean she deserves to be attacked. The fact that I was once (actually, twice) an unmarried woman who lived with a man, does not mean an institution couldn’t possibly have issues of sexism it needs to deal with. Those things are unrelated.
Please, by all means, attack my ideas, but if you are attacking me, what are you hoping to accomplish? You cannot silence me by citing things I already know about myself. I’m a bit much, I get it. My writing was hard to digest for some, I get that too, because I know it somehow reads different in curated social context, and even if you witnessed some of those things, they don’t quite read the same, and that makes you angry. I get it. It’s okay. It’s not okay to think attacking me changes the truth. You’re at liberty to not believe me, but please don’t do it because I am bisexual. What does that have to do with it?