“Little things” happen to women everyday — someone touches you in a bus, follows you home, sends you dirty texts, undermines you at work — and women rarely report these things. I certainly don’t report everything and each time I don’t, I feel a infection of guilt take me over, but should I? Should I feel guilty for not reporting everything? I recount an incident to discuss the guilt of not complaining in our latest piece.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
We have recently moved to a new city, and while we wait to get a house, we’re staying in a guesthouse with one kid, one dog and two cats. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s temporary. There are two men who work here on upkeep and maintenance, and the one who was assigned to our rooms seemed nice at the beginning. He was kind, scared of our dog (she’s harmless but she’s exuberant) and somewhat chatty. Over the course of our first few days here, I started to notice that he would always come up to me when I was alone outside. I felt a creepy vibe, which women will tell you is a real thing, and (some) men will tell you is women’s insane imagination. Later, I saw him watching me through a gap in the boundary wall as I did yoga outside. They were little things so I bit my tongue. I continued to bite it even as I noticed that he would always find excuses to come inside our room the moment I was alone in it. The doorbell would ring literally the moment my partner and stepson stepped out to walk the dog or bring something from the market.
I continued to say nothing even though I was convinced this behaviour was not normal. Eventually, he touched me. Five times. They were what a court of law would call “accidental” touches, and any woman who has been on public transport can tell you that we are not idiots, and we know when you’re touching us accidentally on purpose. We’ve all met a lot of men in our lives. He was bringing food into our room. Something that he never does when my husband is home, he just leaves it outside, and we bring it in. As he brought in the food, he brushed against my breast. Then he did it again. Then as he found excuses to wander around the room (also something he never does when my partner is home), he touched my butt. To make a definitive determination of his intentions, I moved well out of his way (and that’s despite the fact that I was never in his way in the first place), and he still found a way to “accidentally” touch me two more times. I felt that clammy, uncomfortable feeling that you get when you know your personal space and body are being violated, followed by a hot, white rage. I asked him to leave the room immediately and not come back.
When my husband came back I told him about what had happened, and I spoke with the kid about it as well, because that is how awareness starts. We aren’t sheltering children by not discussing real things with them, or hiding that there are situations that are complicated to deal with. My husband was livid but he knows to not take over the “handling” of a situation from the person suffering through it, so he asked me what I wanted to do. At that moment, I was extremely angry, I wanted to complain to his boss and everyone in my family agreed that it was the right thing to do.
I didn’t complain to his boss.
An hour later, when my anger had subsided and I felt a little ill in my heart, I started asking myself that question we’re not supposed to ask: Are you sure that’s what really happened?
The amazing thing is that people constantly allege that women make accusations against people too easily, and without considering the situation, but in my experience women don’t make accusations easily at all. I am completely convinced that I was right about this entire situation, and I know exactly what I experienced, but I still had a shadow of doubt creep up on me that kept me from saying anything. I handled in on some level, I spoke to the guy he works with and told him to ensure he doesn’t come into my room again, and he hasn’t bothered me since, but that’s not the point, the point is that I feel guilty because I am convinced that I was supposed to do more. I am convinced that I have more responsibility in this situation.
And that’s the catch.
Responsibility. The truth is that this man, nor any of the others who have done things like this, ever think about responsibility. Ultimately, it’s always the woman who ruined the man’s life by complaining, and never the man himself who did anything wrong. A while ago an army officer in Pune committed suicide after sexual harassment allegations against him came into official light and what followed was a bilious attack on the woman for ruining his life and family. Not one person, and I spoke to many, felt like he ruined his own life by doing the things he did. Men are exempt from this responsibility, as if allegations of sexual misconduct are divorced from their behaviour. It’s always the woman misunderstanding, being unnecessarily triggered, lying or ruining their lives. The proportion of women who say they have been harassed and men who admit to harassing women is so skewed you’d think these women were role-playing harassment with one another. It’s because, for all our talk of “empowering” women, we don’t want to believe what they say. Apparently it’s gone on “long enough”, a few decades of men being pulled up for their actions and suddenly it holds a candle to millennia of suppressing women. No one wants to hear it.
No one wants to hear it especially from a certain type of woman. Hi, I’m Certain Type. My entire life revolves around women, women’s rights, women’s policy, law, feminism, women’s journalism and the women’s movement. It’s what I do for a living and for my soul. It’s almost all of who I am and I never shut up about it (and you know, I’d love to, but the fucking content is endless in this country and that’s sad). There was a time when we used to think that maybe our misgivings about certain types of women being believed were not as severe as we thought, but the after the judge in Goa in the Tarun Tejpal case stated outright that a woman’s involvement in feminism and knowledge of the law is a reason to disbelieve her, we’re starting to feel like our misgivings are confirmed. We think that women who are Feminists™ have an “agenda” and we make allegations as part of that agenda, and that is the most misguided idea I have ever heard. Do feminists have an agenda? Of course, that agenda is equality. Is making allegations making us more equal? No, justice does that.
And that’s the other reason.
Justice is not something I expect to ever accomplish when I complain. I’ve complained many times in my early life and I always heard a set of things: Are you sure that’s what happened? It happens to everyone, let it go. What were you wearing? Why were you being so friendly with him? How come this only happens to you? Don’t say anything, what if he does something worse to you? Think about his livelihood! It’s a gamut of counter-accusations and an endless trial of your story and character to qualify if this could happen to you and if it did and whether it really warrants any action. You know, because if it’s through the clothes, is it even inappropriate? So when you aren’t going to get any kind of justice, why complain?
Well, there is still a reason to complain. The mere act of bringing to the attention of the perpetrator that his behaviour is liable to be checked can deter them from doing it again. That’s the ideal situation, though. Here’s the thing, justice is a wonderful and complex thing. It means something specific, in legal terms, but in practise, if its purpose is to deter delinquents from repeating their behaviour, it doesn’t always work. I want to say that every complaint yields something positive but it doesn’t. Most of them don’t. Ideally, in this situation, I would like for someone scary-enough to him to have a serious talk with him about his behaviour, where it came from and why he thought he could get away with it. I don’t think there should be no punishment but I think it’s more important that a regular schedule be followed in checking on his behaviour and ensuring he is changing it, and understanding why. It’s idealistic but it’s the only thing that works. That being said it’s not the right route for all sexual misconduct. However, I am not convinced that complaining will achieve this at all. I know that it’s not my responsibility to ensure he continue to be employed, but at the same time, I am unable to look past that, and I admit that it’s partly because that is what I was taught and I am prey to the same patriarchy I constantly criticise, but patriarchy is not the only problematic thing that plagues society.
And so I haven’t complained.
I don’t feel good about it. I feel like I let women down every single time I let something go, and when I feel like that I also feel that I’m letting feminism down by believing that it would hold me accountable for something that was done to me. And overall, I feel bad because I think past this point, I am responsible for every careless assault he launched on any woman, because I didn’t shut it entirely down right now. I realise that overestimates both my responsibility as well as my power in this situation. Even if I did everything I can, what would I accomplish? I know exactly how any public forum discussion of this incident would end. This entire issue of when and whether to say something is mind-numbing because whether you do or don’t, it always seems like you are doing something wrong. You feel guilty. I feel guilty when I say something and guilty when I don’t, because guilt is what was taught to me.
So is it okay to feel it?
Of course. The complexity of our emotions and their experience is our strength, it’s indicative of a multi-faceted mind. It’s okay to feel, but it’s important to remember we were taught to feel this way. Compassion is taught as compulsion to women and sometimes it seeps into places where it doesn’t belong and infects everything. It clouds our judgement and mine is clouded right now. I don’t see myself, and my role here clearly. I blame myself for things that aren’t my fault. I am afraid to stand up for what I believe in and sometimes that happens. Sometimes our judgement is clouded by who we have been taught to be, and we don’t do the things we think we should, because it’s not an ideal world, and you cannot predict the consequences of your decisions on other people, and that’s scary. I’m scared and that’s what I really don’t want to say. Comparatively, admitting to guilt, is easy.