Trigger warning: Sexual harassment
I knew I had to write this some time or the other but kept on postponing it because of self-blaming and the shame that I felt to confess about the sexual harassment I faced. I am known for my work on violence against women with disabilities, yet I myself had been sexually harassed and could not do anything about it.
Is it easy to confess this and tell the world the whole story? No, it is extremely difficult to admit something like this. But the fact remains that I, who had fought for changing laws on sexual violence of my country, who stood for so many survivors of rape and molestation, who gave lectures at different places on sexual violence, who organised so many Dharnas against sexual violence, was harassed and could not take any action against it. There are various reasons why I never talked about it. Internalised self-blaming was only one of them. Let me share the details here. Here goes my #MeToo story.
I was invited as a speaker at a national conference by a renowned network that works on disability throughout India, in 2014. I accepted this invitation and took a train to a small town of eastern India. It was towards end of November and quite cold, I remember. I was given a hotel room, warm welcome and I have no issues against anyone of the organisers.
it was I who stood for so many survivors of rape and molestation, it was who gave lectures at different places on sexual violence.
After I reached the venue, I received the final schedule of the programme and I saw the name of a person very much known to me as the chief guest at the inaugural session. For convenience’s sake, I am using CG the short form of chief guest to describe this person in this narrative. I have met CG for the first time about 18 years ago. He was working as regional head of an international NGO and I was working as a consultant with same organisation.
My work was on Socialization of Women with Disabilities, I did not report to CG at all. But because he was a disabled person, often, during our organisation’s internal meetings, we met and talked. CG, being a visually impaired person, was very active in different kinds of work on disability – be it in judicial activism or services on disabled people. I admired his work, though we were never very friendly with each other. But even after my consultancy ended, we kept in touch – most of our email exchanges were work related. As Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPD Act of 2016) was being drafted at that point of time, we were part of different discussions and meetings quite often those days.
In the meantime, CG also left that organisation. He was appointed in a very high post by the government of India. Like most disability activists, we were overjoyed. Our fellow activist, who is also disabled himself, is now in such a high government position that can change daily lives of disabled people. When I called him to congratulate, he showed his joy like a child-like manner. He said “Shampa, I will always be like a Dada to you…. Now is the time, we can work together a lot, bring in changes which we wanted to all these days”.
Also read: In Conversation With Shampa Sengupta About Disability Rights
However, his response to my phone calls or mails (all work related) became less and less in number as time passed. I felt this was inevitable, now that he is in powerful position. I was happy to see him as the chief guest there, I thought we can catch up on all the work which was possible to do together. So, I went up to him and said hello to him – he was extremely warm and expressed happiness in meeting me. He also expressed his wish to discuss issues with me and agreed. All these happened in the hall, CG, being a blind person, was holding my hand all this time, and of course I did not mind because it is so natural of a visually impaired person to touch and talk.
I went back to my seat and received a SMS from him asking if we can meet in the evening and have dinner together or I would prefer to talk to him anytime post lunch. I said post lunch suited me – he again send as SMS saying, that his hotel is bit far, a Government one, there was a state car allotted for him, so I can come back to venue of the meeting whenever I want to. I said okay because obviously we could not have talked about work in a conference room with 400 people attending same.
It was suffocating to say the least. But I did not know how to run away and leave a 100% blind man all alone in a hotel room.
So, after lunch was over, he said in front of everyone, “Come Shampa, we will go to the hotel” and I went there in the car allotted for him. He was also given an escort to guide him because of his disability, that person was also in the car. After we reached hotel, he gave leave to his escort, telling him “You can go and have lunch now, come at tea time”. I did not feel uncomfortable even then. For my work, I have to travel a lot, sometimes we visit hotel rooms of fellow activists, and this was not very new to me.
Since this was a hotel room, and CG was not acquainted to the place, I had to take his hand and make him sit on the sofa. I sat in another sofa. We started chatting. Friendly talk. About RPD bill, about my work on homeless disabled people, my research on disabled women. Gossips about the sector. He even mimicked some personalities. We laughed. CG wanted to drink water. I looked around, found the bottle and handed over to him.
While keeping the bottle in the table, his hand touched mine. I did not think it was intentional. But he did not want to let go my hand. I had to use force to move my hand away. But again, making some excuse, he touched my hand. And said “Your fingers are nicely shaped”. By now, I started feeling uneasy and realised what is happening. I said, “What nonsense you are saying”, but that did not bother him. He started patting my palm, and then slowly moved his hands upwards.
It was suffocating to say the least. But I did not know how to run away and leave a 100% blind man all alone in a hotel room. So I told him to call his official escort, he said escort’s number was written in a paper which is in the bedroom of the hotel suite. He told me to take him to bedroom. I refused to do so. Tone of his voice and questions he started asking changed.
He asked me if I drink. I was so upset, I said “No”, just to avoid any offer to drink with him. He asked again, if my husband drinks, if I go to parties with my husband etc. It is not that we never exchanged any personal matter with each other. But connotations of this particular discussion had totally different meaning at that point of time. In the meantime, tea came. So did the escort. Though CG kept on asking me to stay back, I rushed out of the hotel and came back to the venue.
The whole situation was bizarre – I did not know the city at all, so was depending on his car to take me back. And being a visually impaired person, in spite of being the state guest, he was depending on me, until the time of his escort’s return. Being the chief guest, he could have called any one of the organisers when his escort needed lunch break, he obviously did not do same with particular interest in mind. And I was naïve enough to fall in the trap. Yes, trapped, that is the word to describe, how I felt those 2 hours in that hotel suite.
A person, whom I had known for a long time, whom I considered a fellow activist – how does one complaint against him?
Trapped, because who would have believed if I told that I was molested by a blind man? I, who is supposed to work on sexual violence and supported so many women in their legal battle? My own body of work and his impairment – both would make the scenario unbelievable. Besides, I did not know whom to complain to. The obligation of my safety during the tour would definitely be on the organisers of the conference. Being an outsider, I did not know if they had a Prevention of Sexual harassment Committee.
I did not feel comfortable at all in talking to the organisers. Like majority of disability groups in India, they are too gender insensitive. And even if I complained, what would I say? CG touched me? Being a blind man, touching was normal for him. How would I explain this was different kind of touch? My being in this sector for so long, also taught me what usual touch of blind men felt like. Come on, I work with them even now. No other blind person has ever made me feel uncomfortable till now. In reality, I was in denial mode that sexual harassment can happen to me.
A person, whom I had known for a long time, whom I considered a fellow activist – how does one complaint against him? He knew very well nature of my work, even then he found the courage to do this to me, shows how getting a powerful position, got over him and he felt he can misbehave with women. We had been in the same room before as well, but not a single time, had I felt he can do this to me. But all this was before he got this powerful position. That sexual abuse is not about sexuality but power and control was once again proved by his behaviour.
He knew about my mental health conditions. Though I do not have a disability certificate under mental illness, I never tried to hide the fact that I suffer from it. I also had a feeling that he was taking advantage of this fact. But no, I go through severe depression but I do not hallucinate. But he would definitely take advantage of my mental illness if I confronted with him later. He remains an expert on disability law, he would know how to harass me more if I wanted to file a case.
I have asked so many disabled women to come out and speak about experiences of sexual violence, my own silence at this point of time would give wrong signals.
Unfortunately, my healing process is still not over. Unfortunately, I meet him at big conferences even now. I do not go and greet him anymore. He does not try to talk to me, obviously he is aware of my angst and his mannerisms show he is trying to avoid me. The whole incident still baffles me, makes me cry at night. It still frightens me when I am travelling alone. Because I will never forget how much I cried on my way back home. All alone in the crowded train compartment, when not a single person knew who I was, I broke down and cried throughout my journey.
I did not share this with family or friends that time, because it is extremely difficult to articulate such experiences, because I am known as a ‘strong’ woman. Will my sharing of this story deemed as betrayal to the cause I work for? Revealing such stories may fragment disability movement further, I even feared.
So, why I am writing this now? After 4 years when even memory is getting blurred? Because there are times, when one cannot keep quite. I have asked so many disabled women to come out and speak about experiences of sexual violence, my own silence at this point of time, when so many from other sectors are speaking up, would give wrong signals.
No, I will not name him. Neither do I have capacity (both financially and psychologically) to fight any law suit nor do I intend to punish him. (it is ironical because I spend most of my activist life in changing laws and getting them implemented). But that is how life is. It teaches you lessons that make all your work worthless, even if you are proud of doing same.
Also read: Why Is Media Coverage Of Violence Against Disabled Women Still Scant?
There are various reasons for writing this now. I would like many women in the disability sector to open up and talk about the sexual harassment they faced within the sector, after reading this. I would like to have all disability groups to constitute their own sexual harassment committees. I want disability sector to recognise that sexual harassment happens within our community. Am I really asking too much from my movement?
Featured Image Source: The Print