I looked at my phone incredulously. Voices that had until then been muted and even blocked, depending upon the location they occupied on India’s complex social hierarchy, began to scream through screens in a chorus. Me too. Me too. Me too. Me too. Me too. Giants of Indian media and academia were being outed on social media platforms for sexual harassment. The voices were strong, clear, resounding, accusatory, angry, and compelling. The pedestals occupied by the giants shook for a little while and then the tremors subsided. The accused exited the stage briefly but came back to resume their lectures in prestigious institutions and sermons on primetime news. The voices remained. A cautionary whisper running through the lecture hall, a dark poem hanging in the air, a hashtag etched into our collective memory and sometimes a court case, despite the fervent energy behind it, languidly making its way through the endless paperwork and tareek pe tareek that is the unwritten motto of our judicial system.
This public manifestation of a silent war that had been raging in homes, educational institutions, and workplaces was enthused with a sense of urgency, with an air of certainty. In private, the existence of this angst, albeit muffled, shaped by everyday relations of power and societal propriety was old. At first, it came as a shock, when a former classmate told me that a common friend had harassed her. I told her I believed her but to do anything, even boycott him or confront him, I have to hear his side of the story too.
It was him. Him, who was the first one to call me when my father had a heart attack. Him, who picked books out of his library and handed them to me as a balm when I was going through a rough patch. He thrust David Foster Wallace into my hands saying this might help. Him, who heard my youthful poems and entertained me as though my words contained profound truths. Him, who helped me feel seen, understood and accepted – something the world doesn’t offer easily to many of us. I believe her. I don’t know his story.
The concepts that governed my thinking of sexual harassment in stark terms of gender rights, the law, accused, witnesses, evidence, and violations failed me. Sexual harassment existed. This was demonstrated by rigorous academic research and journalistic records. Sexual harassment was fact. Friendship, heartbreak, memories, acceptance, platonic love and respect were not facts but they were nonetheless all too real. In my head, rights warred with loyalty.
Rights derived from the facts of proven cases of sexual harassment, and loyalty emanating from friendship – that intangible essence that animates our lives and makes it worth living. Crime and punishment and the constant submission to forgiveness that sustains a friendship. I faced a division of the self between feminist and friend. It was a dilemma that destabilised. What does it mean to be a feminist? What does it mean to be a loyal friend? What does it mean to believe her without even listening to him? What does it mean to not stand up for her without listening to him because I know how difficult it is to speak? I believe her. I don’t know his story.
Slowly, She left the friendship group. This wasn’t the only time She left. She left when her friends refused to speak up for her because He was their friend too. Despite the physical abuse, the emotional batter. The nitty-gritty of what happened was never known. How power and love danced between two people is difficult to map out. Accounting for how power and love (platonic) danced within a friendship group is messy. As women, fully inhabiting our truths, seeing the unfairness in the love and the rights that are granted to us within families, friendship groups, and workspaces often leads to painful separations. I believe her, I don’t know his story.
It is not that men are never called out in friendship groups. But there is a complex matrix of power relations, personal intimacy, social capital, access to networks, and success or lack thereof, that determines who gets called out, by whom and when. Religion and caste need to be factored as well. As much as I would like to believe that friendship groups are the utopia liberal dreams are made of – the family we choose – I am afraid that utopia only lasted for a liminal moment when we were blinded by theories of liberation and protests on the streets while still in college.
When MeToo struck India, watching my friend be called out publicly was not easy. The world had cornered him, justice was meted out in the form of new-age mob lynching, and it felt like his identity was being reduced to a single act that negated all the goodness and kindness he contained. This is not an argument against Me Too. It is an appeal to protect human dignity. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum sums it up in her book Citadels of Pride: Sexual Abuse, Accountability, and Reconciliation: “#MeToo has helped win accountability. But the fact that so much of the #MeToo movement is social rather than legal creates a problem: how to secure justice and protect equal dignity when punishment is meted out not by impartial legal institutions but by shaming and stigmatisation.”
I was painfully aware of this as I watched MeToo unfold. I was also painfully aware of how difficult it is to speak up, the powerlessness of trauma and that the agency in telling your story allows you to own your powerlessness in the moment of violation as opposed to being owned by it. Especially when your truth and reality have not been given the rightful place they deserve. Especially when accusations of sexual harassment often posit that the survivor prove that her integrity, her body were violated. Especially by someone you knew and trusted. Especially when women’s voices have historically been cast under doubt. Especially because it brings to the surface the dehumanising thought that you were treated as an object.
Nussbaum explains this silencing to mean a denial of a person’s autonomy, of a lack of faith in their ability to articulate their thoughts and feelings, and even “subjectivity-violation, invading and colonising a woman’s inner world”. The latter is perhaps known better as gaslighting in popular parlance. In this light, MeToo is a powerful tool to reclaim what was objectified, to restore humanity in what was dehumanised and to tell a story that contains the wound as opposed to being the wound. I wished for an ideal world where my friend could be held accountable but not reduced to a “single act”. I wished for an ideal world where a woman didn’t have to go through this trauma. I believe her. I don’t know his story.
MeToo forced not just men but even women to be more sensitive towards sexual harassment and even emotional abuse sustained in relationships. A painful aspect of sustaining abuse is the stigma that attaches itself to one’s psyche, body, and by extension, to everything else in one’s life. Female friendships too stand the risk of floundering. When the abuse we suffered, or the inability to leave an unhealthy relationship is judged or talked of with condescension, we suffer further abuse, this time from friends who are feminists or those who could be our allies. Judgement isolates us, accuses us of being weak, mocks our vulnerability and pushes us into a spiral of isolation. Empathy, the spirit of MeToo, lifts us out of the stigma and the accompanying isolation. Feminism is not a tool for judgement, which is another form of oppression, but in its ultimate form it is a tool of love, and by extension, transformation.
This ability to understand abuse and the accompanying powerlessness and inability to leave is crucial if we are to support each other as friends. Over the years we have witnessed those who judged reaching out to the fallen ones because they too fell. They didn’t see it coming. They had thought this only happens to people like Her. Falling gives us a chance to get off our high horse, sit next to Her and say Me Too. Therein lies the potential to transform judgement into friendship, through this shared experience of trauma, of sexual harassment and emotional abuse. Potential being key to the process because it requires sustained work to restore trust and respect into a relationship that soured due to judgement. Most of all, it asks Her to do what the poet Alexander Pope said is the business of Gods and Goddesses, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
A recurring question in cases of abuse is Why? Why would someone want to violate human dignity? To treat someone like an object with no agency? What is their story? There is a popular but wise adage: “Hurt people hurt people.” Their hurt doesn’t justify their actions, but contextualises them. It is there that I hold a sliver of hope for healing and transformation. That those with the courage to look at their own darkness can attempt to overcome it. Those who do, will be transformed. Nussbaum has said, “That’s what purgatory is. You did something really bad, but you’re still in the game and you can still move on and change.” But not everyone will. That is why I need MeToo. That is why we need MeToo. That is why we need friends who will sit next to us, hold our hands, and softly say “Me too”.
Over the years I have witnessed the loyalty of the abusers’ friends triumph over the rights of the survivor. I have also seen rights win over loyalty. I have wondered if there is a way to believe Her, and yet be friends with Him while holding Him accountable. While mulling over this thought, I inevitably reach the thought of betrayal. Does believing her mean I have to ostracise him? Does holding him accountable but not ostracising him account to a betrayal of my feminism and friendship with Her? There is no fixed formula to resolve this dilemma. But I always want to remember that I believe her, I don’t know his story.
Excerpted with permission from “#MeToo and Friendship” by Shazia Nigar in Yaari: An Anthology on Friendship by Women and Queer Folx, edited by Shilpa Phadke and Nithila Kanagasabai, Yoda Press.