“Yaar come to Instagram” a friend texted me the other day. “You’re doing such amazing work, why aren’t you there?”
I didn’t know what to say. How do you tell a friend, someone who’s unemployed, stuck at home all day and on social media all the time, that you’re a victim of gender-based violence and don’t want your out-on-bail stalker to know what you’re up to?
“Let it be” I texted back. “Who has the time?”
“Arre come na. You’re missing out on life!” He persisted.
It was ironic because I’ve been getting more out of life since I left Instagram. No longer beholden to the time-honoured code of capturing every moment and sharing it with strangers for social capital, I’ve been left to enjoy the little vagaries of life. Besides, being stalked and sexually harassed for four years had made me intensely private and rightly so! I actually had to flee the rented apartment I was living in after I filed the FIR; I settled down somewhere safe but far because the police were worried that my life was in danger. So no Instagram or Geo-Mapping or Vlogging.
A picture can tell you everything and I was afraid of what it would tell my stalker while he was still trying to track me down; so there was nothing about my boyfriend, my family, my home, my outfit of the day, my skin-care routine, my dietary regimen, my escapades in the outback, or snapshots of something picturesque like graffiti art on coffee shop walls, old women with toothy grins selling earthen pots and splendid orange sunsets on the beach.
The truth is, I can hardly keep up with my job. I’m a human rights activist and I work as an independent consultant on gender-based violence and mental health. My reality is so different from that of my friends’ that there’s nothing that really bonds us, except maybe Netflix.
Since November last year, I’ve been acting as a lifeline to women and girls in distress. I deal with divorce, domestic abuse, sexual harassment and sexual assault almost every week. I counsel suicidal kids so they can go into therapy. I talk to people about sex education, healthy and unhealthy relationships and consent culture. I create a community that supports my clients and network with a team of lawyers, doctors, activists, police officers and mental health professionals that provide them with relief, rehabilitation and respite.
While a friend might choose to celebrate the end of the lockdown by throwing caution to the winds and going to the nearest gourmet restaurant, I might go out on a solo community campaign, discreetly sharing flyers of national helplines for domestic abuse victims with grocers and pharmacists in my neighbourhood.
While a friend might be modelling Kate Middleton’s best looks, I might be giving an interview about bystander protocol in intimate partner violence. While a friend might be going out on a romantic mini-break with a partner, I might be furtively looking over my shoulder, anxiously scanning my surroundings and looking for the telltale sign of my stalker’s car.
There’s no judgment here by the way; I’d love to dress up and go out, but I’m still a survivor waiting for the trial date of my court case and the primary caretaker of an immunocompromised parent who is at risk of COVID-19. So most days are about research and client sessions and cooking and sleeping. I wish I was cool, but I’m not.
What is cool is the women I meet at my job. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been professionally consulted by a diverse group of young women who were struck dumb by the lockdown and had no one to speak to. Let me tell you about that.
There was Anandita*, an environmental lawyer who was working in London before she came home to Calcutta to live with her parents. A rape survivor who had been blackmailed into staying with her rapist, ostracised by her community and nearly died by suicide at 18, Anandita reached out to me when she started experiencing panic attacks. At 30 now, she was constantly getting triggered at home by constant reminders of the sexual abuse.
After I spoke to her, it turned out that her narcissistic mother still blamed and shamed her for the assault. Honour meant so much to this patriarchal family that they had nearly disowned their daughter. It took a long time to bridge the gap between mother and daughter and even now, her mother was pushing her buttons.
Staying at home, in the same town, near the same place where she had been through the most horrific episode of her life, Anandita was looking for a way to establish boundaries, increase her self-worth and stop repeating a pattern of abusive relationships. It took a while, but eventually, she got back in touch with her self.
Going back to horseback riding, painting, environmental advocacy and dating were major milestones for her. Demanding a partner who treated her as an equal was her ultimate victory. An unapologetic act of self-love.
There was Aarti*, an 18-year-old child abuse survivor who had to come home to her parents and older brother in Noida when her college was temporarily shut down and made the decision to switch to online classes. She’d lost her mother when she was an infant and her step-mother was a mentally ill woman who bullied her incessantly.
Her uncle had molested her for two years when she was barely 10. Aarti was desperately trying to fit in with her crowd and gain some social identity. As things escalated at home and her step-mother’s verbal attacks became more vicious, she started losing hope. She didn’t know what she was going to do after completing her bachelor of arts degree.
She didn’t know if she even liked her friends, who treated her like trash and often excluded her from events. She spent all her time doubting herself and finding it impossible to sleep at night or get up in the morning. The lockdown had trapped her with her mother.
Our sessions helped her realise that she had a legal right to report a mentally ill parent and get them medical help. That she could leave home and stay with a friend if things got out of hand. That she was worthy of love and deserved to feel safe. She started writing reviews for movies and TV shows, planning a career in business administration and working out. She stood up to her mother and was so exhilarated when she called me up that I barely got the time to respond before she broke down in happy tears.
There was Charchita*, a 21-year-old college student, another rape survivor, struggling to finish her degree in law. Charchita grew up in a violent marriage, where her parents were either fighting or ignoring her. Her father would probably qualify to some degree as a sociopath – maintaining a rich social life, while indulging in constant abuse at home, exercising coercive control over his wife, lying, humiliating, provoking, gaslighting, disrupting everyone’s lives and not letting his wife leave.
Charchita had been raped by a cousin when she was 5. Living at home with her parents for the foreseeable future, she had gone into a deep depression. She had no idea that there was a local police helpline she could call that could offer her aid whenever she felt she was in danger.
She’d always thought her mother was angry and blamed her for the marital strife but it was only later through our sessions that Charchita was able to look at her father objectively; at the little things he did to ensure that his wife stayed trapped in a loveless marriage.
She had an eating disorder and a gynaecological disease that often kept her sick and now she knew it was because she was struggling to take care of herself, needing the love of her parents and never getting it. Following my advice, she had a long talk with her mother; they acknowledged each other’s pain and began focusing on a survival strategy.
There was Yamini*. A 24-year-old medical student, smart and outgoing. She had been verbally abused and physically assaulted by a friend on a class trip who had such a formidable history of violence that he had once beaten up his sister for no reason and put her in the hospital.
He was dependent on Yamini, for notes, for company, for his general happiness. But he quickly became resentful when he realised that she had brilliant prospects and a life of her own. Racial slurs became common, about the colour of her skin, her caste, her background, her character, even her virtues.
It all came to a head when he saw her talking to another classmate and culminated in his breaking her fingers and nearly scratching her eyes out on a bus ride. She passed out from the pain and when she woke up, she got off the bus, came home, locked herself in her room and slept for two days straight.
Through our sessions, she started to learn more about reporting crimes against women and found the courage to meet with a local NGO I contacted on her behalf, which was able to guide her through the legal process. She could finally let go of her rage and fear and start living a normal life, committing to her education, enjoying her morning coffee and reconnecting with nature and wildlife.
There was Priyanka*, a 40-year-old housewife, marketing consultant and mother of two small boys. She’d had a love marriage that had quickly turned sour. Her husband was cheating on her, her mother-in-law was incredibly cruel and her own family no longer supported her.
Her husband treated her with cold indifference most of the time except for when he flew into a rage and raped her. Priyanka would call me up a lot and it took her many months to accept that she was in an unhappy marriage which was jeopardising her mental health. For a long time, she kept scheduling, rescheduling and cancelling her appointments with the divorce attorney and therapist that I’d found for her.
She even tried to work it out with her husband by sending him a long letter that practically pleaded with him to have an honest conversation about their feelings, their relationship and the future of their family. Her husband continued to ignore her and even suggested that she leave. In the end, she decided to go ahead with the divorce, take her children and walk out.
Yes. Harassment, abuse and assault have become a huge threat for women and children not only putting them at risk at home and outside but also online. At a time like this, activists such as myself are dedicated to making a change at the grassroots level and this is mostly a thankless job.
What I’ve learned is that conflict-resolution begins at home. Out of all the eminent institutions in the world, crime has the most to do with family and the least to do with government and religion and law. When you create an equal marriage where partners are committed to peace, when you raise children to value peace above all else, when you live in a family that is dedicated to resolving conflict through peaceful dialogue, only then can you establish a community that promotes human rights.
I’ve spent my entire life being a pacifist, not in the woke, ‘make-love-not-war’ way, but in a way where the emphasis is on empathetic communication; where you can hold a conversation between two people from different races, religions, genders, cultures or nationalities, without any hate, hurt or harm.
Gender inequality is the most prominent sign of social inequality in society. The pandemic has brought inequality to the fore and highlighted how prevalent violence against women is. We will never get this moment again to talk about intersectional feminism, misogyny, misandry, paedophilia, abuse, violence, parenting, mental health, gender, crime, justice and peace. This is the defining moment in our zeitgeist where we start talking about it. The small talk needs to stop and it has to get real.
Girls dropping out of school. Girls turned into child brides. Girls burnt alive for dowry. Girls sold into sex trafficking. Girls stalked and shot dead. Girls trapped in abusive marriages. Girls denied access to abortion. Girls harassed until they gave up their jobs. Girls victimised through revenge porn. Girls who went missing.
Girls who were never born. I’ve gone from being a victim of gender-based violence to a champion of gender equality in a year. But here’s the unvarnished truth: I’m tired. It’s only been a year and I’m tired of all the suffering I’ve seen. I’m tired and I’m asking for your help.
Can we finally start talking about what it’s like to be a woman in this country?
*Names changed to protect identities