The #MeToo movement has sparked a lot of discourses around violence against women. One strand of the layers of discourses has focused on why it has taken some women so long to speak out. For me, as a survivor of intimate partner violence, it took me years to speak out. The fear of retaliation, years of gaslighting and manipulation, the shame and self-blame are just some of the things that kept me from speaking out.
However, when I found out that I was not the only victim, I realised that my silence was enabling his violence. I decided to start speaking out about it, and I want to share some common responses to highlight why speaking out can be re-traumatising and difficult. Our social machinery is still engineered to keep survivors quiet and protect abusers.
1. “Why did you stay?”
The most common question I get asked is why I stayed. One of the forms of victim-blaming, this manifests in multiple ways for any woman who speaks out about her violence. I have to then explain the concepts of power, consent, gaslighting, manipulation and violence against women to people I have just disclosed my trauma to; already a difficult and painful process. All of this is freely available on Google.
Violence against women is not a predisposition, it is not a mental illness, it is not an ‘anger issue’, it is not an inability to control sexual urges.
While it is startling to me that so many people still don’t know to victim-blame, I am also concerned that it is the survivor’s labour to educate people on being sensitive. We should be prepared for more and more women to speak out, and it is each of our responsibilities to educate ourselves about violence against women.
2. “What about him?” ()
Kate Manne coined the term ‘‘ which is “the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic .” So many people I have spoken to are concerned about his reputation, or about his rehabilitation from this ‘affliction’.
One of my friends even said, “It’s difficult for him as well because he also just wants a normal and healthy relationship.” This is another extremely dangerous myth about violence against women – that abusers, rapists, harassers, and many such, are ‘victims’ of certain ‘uncontrollable’ behaviours.
Also read: What #MeToo Tells Us About Himpathy And Why Overcoming It Matters
Violence against women is not a predisposition, it is not a mental illness, it is not an ‘anger issue’, it is not an inability to control sexual urges. Violence against women is a choice. Every time a man hits a rapes a woman, or harasses a woman, he is choosing to do so. Believing otherwise is just subscribing to the project of excusing male perpetrators.
3. “You’re strong, you should move on from this and put it in your past”
A lot of well-meaning people have told me that it’s in the past, and I’m strong enough to move on from it. People have also said that I’m ‘stuck in the past’ and should ‘move on’. But what a lot of people don’t realise is that this is another way to ensure that survivors stay silent. They are invariably suggesting that to demonstrate that I am strong and healing from my trauma, I must stay silent.
I am strong and I am healing. Part of my healing process is speaking out. In fact, speaking out takes an immense amount of strength. Speaking out is necessary (for me) because what happened to me and what happens to millions of women every day is inexcusable. I can ‘move on’ from my trauma and still talk about it to highlight a deep injustice that exists within our society. My strength is not tied to my silence.
4. “You’re too angry”
I get this one all the time. There is a visceral reaction to how angry I am about what happened. That, in time, my anger will subside. We normalise violence against women but police the way women express their anger and pain about violence. To give up my anger, not just about what happened to me, but about patriarchal inequalities which produce and sustain systems of violence, is to say that we, as women, do not deserve better. As Soraya Chemaly says in her book Rage Becomes Her, “it took me too long to realize that the people most inclined to say ‘You sound angry’ are the same people who uniformly don’t care to ask ‘Why?’ They’re interested in silence, not dialogue”.
I have addressed only a few of a range of common responses that I receive when I speak out. The way we respond to women speaking up is also rooted in intersections of class, caste and religious dynamics. When we consider empowering survivors to speak out, we must also ensure we do within the context of these various identities.
Also read: Why I Was In Denial About Experiencing Intimate Partner Abuse
We can all agree that it is desirable for survivors of violence against women to be able to speak out. Collectively and culturally, we need to make space for the anger and pain of survivors. For the same people who have been asking, “but why didn’t she say anything sooner?”, what are you doing to ensure survivors feel safe to come forward and speak up? We need to unlearn and relearn to be better.
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