Utthan was born because a number of us who had suffered a similar kind of suffering came together and decided to lead the fight for a much larger group of women, a fight that all of us had in common with each other. This battle began at a time when we had entered the fray with scanty resources and next to no knowledge of strategy or winning method. Our hearts were burning with a fire. We were fighting for justice – not only our own but our sisters’ too. Determination, sincerity, fervour rippled in the air around us.
All of us had been trafficked for commercial sex work, often by people in our communities. Some of us were rescued, others ran away. We had come back to live at home. Sometimes, it was hard to bear up with the negativity that our neighbours and even our families sent our way, shaming us for having been on sale as a sex object. We had very little opportunity for improving our lives. There were days we wouldn’t feel like stepping out of the house and dealing with the inevitable stigmatizing. It was easier to crawl into a hard shell that nobody could break into. But when we met each other through our social workers and traded stories, we knew, for the first time, that we were not alone. Each of us had felt the same anger and helplessness, the identical feeling of being lost and powerless, the need to channel this sense of disquiet in productive ways.
And thus Utthan was set up, and we have done advocacy work for the rights and rehabilitation of trafficking survivors for the last two years, and counting. We are assertively feminist, and we make efforts to participate in community conversations of social relevance and to have our opinions on public social and political dialogue out in spaces where they can have visibility. As a marginalized group on the way to earning its empowerment through hard struggle, we consider this visibility important.
On this note, as Utthan members, we felt kindered to show our support for this second wave of the MeToo movement that is sweeping the Indian social media sphere. Most of us are only tentative social media users, but we do use smartphones and have become comfortable with WhatsApp and we can feel the world getting smaller at our fingertips. News finds its way to us. We hear about events of assault in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. We hear about farmer suicides. We hear that an American filmmaker has made ugly passes at several actresses he hired to work in his films and that they have named and shamed him on the media.
Other bits of news, not always having to do with a celebrity, keep finding their way into forwarded chain texts. Sometimes, the girl or woman raising a complaint protects her identity, and the identity of the man who harassed or molested her. The revelations do not shock us. We have been through beatings, deprivations of the worst kind, rape. But so have they. They are not alone. We are not alone.
Some girls we read about talk about emotional abuse their partners put them through. We learn about gaslighting and stonewalling. Some of us have experienced both. We didn’t know what these draining, enervating encounters with were called.
We heard that an actress called Tanushree Dutta has made allegations of sexual harassment against a co-star. We already knew the co-star’s name – Nana Patekar, much more famous than the actress who brought charges, and we thought, that’s often the way things are. Those with money and power leverage these stockpiles for the exploitation, sexual and otherwise, of the less affluent and powerful. It has been this way since history has been written down.
We talked over Tanushree’s Dutta’s case and felt the old rage rising in our hearts: hadn’t we been taken advantage of, too? Hadn’t we been degraded and humiliated and battered? Isn’t it the lot of every woman to have to put up with objectifying gazes, rules that confine and constrain, gender roles designed to protect the body that, otherwise, will be violated, intruded upon, used and then discarded.
Tanushree had pluck, some of us said, she had the courage to call her perpetrator out, and we summoned all our goodwill and hoped she would have good luck.
We are hoping for ourselves too, and the girls we work with. We are hoping that tolerance dies a quiet death, and women everywhere rise in splendid anger together.