by Stella James
The piece was first published here.
Sometimes the most difficult things to write about are also the most essential.
I feel this is especially true when many people, much more scholarly than oneself, have already said and written a lot around the issue, and yet your own experience does not seem to fit into the wide net that they’ve cast.
Gandhi once said “I have something far more powerful than arguments, namely, experience”.
And it is from these words that I derive what I consider the ‘value’ of this piece – not my experience per se, but from what I feel that my experience can tell us about much discussed issues in the country today.
Last December was momentous for the feminist movement in the country – almost an entire population seemed to rise up spontaneously against the violence on women, and the injustices of a seemingly apathetic government.
In the strange irony of situations that our world is replete with, the protests were the backdrop of my own experience.
In Delhi at that time, interning during the winter vacations of my final year in University, I dodged police barricades and fatigue to go to the assistance of a highly reputed, recently retired Supreme Court judge whom I was working under during my penultimate semester.
For my supposed diligence, I was rewarded with sexual assault (not physically injurious, but nevertheless violating) from a man old enough to be my grandfather.
I won’t go into the gory details, but suffice it to say that long after I’d left the room, the memory remained, in fact, still remains, with me.
So what bothered me about this incident? As a conditioned member of the society, I had quickly “gotten over” the incident. But was that what worried me: that I had accepted what was essentially an ‘unacceptable’ situation.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the crux of my unease lay in my inability to find a frame in which to talk, or even think, about my experience.
While the incident affected me deeply, I felt little anger and almost no rancour towards the man; instead I was shocked and hurt that someone I respected so much would do something like this. My strongest reaction really, was overwhelming sadness. But this sort of response was new to me.
That I could understand his actions and forgive him for them, or that I could continue to think of him as an essentially ‘good’ person, seemed a naïve position that were completely at odds with what I had come to accept was the “right” reaction to such incidents.
This emotional response was also completely at odds with the powerful feelings of righteous anger that the protestors in Delhi displayed.
I am not trying to say that anger at the violence that women face is not a just or true response, but the polarization of women’s rights debates in India along with their intense emotionality, left me feeling that my only options were to either strongly condemn the judge or to betray my feminist principles.
Perhaps this confusion came out of an inadequate understanding of feminist literature, but if so, isn’t then my skewed perception a failing of feminism itself?
If the shared experiences of women cannot be easily understood through a feminist lens, then clearly there is a cognitive vacuum that feminism fails to fill. Feminists talk of the guilt a woman faces when sexually harassed, like it is her fault.
I felt a similar guilt, except, my guilt wasn’t at being assaulted, but at not reacting more strongly than I did.
The very perspective that was meant to help me make sense of my experiences as a woman was the one that obscured the resolution of the problem in my own mind, presumably an effect that feminism does not desire.
And if not a result of feminist theory itself, the form that it has taken in India, especially after recent incidents of sexual assault, strengthened the feeling of “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” in a fight that I feel I can no longer take sides in.
All the talk during that time was of stricter punishment, of baying for the blood of “creepy” men. Five years of law school had taught me to look to the law for all solutions – even where I knew that the law was hopelessly inadequate – and my reluctance to wage a legal battle against the judge left me feeling cowardly.
On reflection though, I cannot help but wonder why I should have felt that way. As mentioned earlier, I bore, and still bear, no real ill-will towards the man, and had no desire to put his life’s work and reputation in question. On the other hand, I felt I had a responsibility to ensure that other young girls were not put in a similar situation.
But I have been unable to find a solution that allows that.
Despite the heated public debates, despite a vast army of feminist vigilantes, despite new criminal laws and sexual harassment laws, I have not found closure. The lack of such an alternative led to my facing a crippling sense of intellectual and moral helplessness.
The incident is now a while behind me, and they say time heals all wounds. But during the most difficult emotional times, what helped me most was the ‘insensitivity’ of a close friend whose light-hearted mocking allowed me to laugh at an incident (and a man) that had caused me so much pain.
Allowing myself to feel more than just anger at a man who violated me, something that I had never done before, is liberating!
So, I want to ask you to think of one thing alone – when dealing with sexual violence, can we allow ourselves to embrace feelings beyond or besides anger, and to accept the complexity of emotions that we face when dealing with any traumatic experience?
(Stella James is a Fellow at Natural Justice: Lawyers for Communities and the Environment)
The piece was first published here.