My social network has a lot of people who are upper and middle class. Many of them are from my IIT and UC Berkeley networks, many from the networks these colleges took me to. Mostly rich, well educated, and secured.
As a development practitioner working on gender issues, my work often involves working on gender-based violence (GBV). During the COVID-19 lockdown, I have been volunteering to help survivors of domestic violence connect with the support sources they need – mental health counselors, domestic violence counselling, legal aid, police help etc.
Every time I share about domestic violence or gender-based abuse in conversations or posts on social media, the well-meaning people in my network express their shock to know that it happens in ‘well educated’, ‘well-off’ families too.
Sometimes, these questions are thrown my way – “Oh, so the survivors you are in touch with can talk in English too?”, “Oh she is financially independent?“
Sometimes it comes out as a cathartic expression and a newly found insight: “You won’t believe it, it happened to my friend too, education is of no point!” “It happens in my family too, I never called it abuse but have seen it since childhood!“
While I understand these reactions come because of a sense of familiarity with your own class, it is hard to not notice the deep-rooted and widely spread ignorance of the obvious – education and wealth have not been able to stop exploitation, in fact, a significant level of exploitation is seen among the most-informed and well-educated in the world.
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The extrapolation of education to superior morality, the assumption that education is not only a sufficient but a necessary condition for being noble, the inherent bias assuming that the economically poor or illiterate are beastly or less evolved beings – all of this blinds us to how the well educated have also done considerable damage at varied scales, in addition to interpersonal, class and gender-based abuse.
Despite evidence that the well-educated and the privileged engineer exploitation of several kinds around us, we tend to place unwavering trust on them and their sense of ethics.
To be surprised that rich and well-educated people can participate in violence in their immediate surroundings is an absurd thing for me to process. Why don’t we pause and observe: Who goes to war? Rich countries or poor? Men or women? Who exploits the environment? Who finds more impunity for injustice and thus, are able to inflict more violence?
For the context of domestic violence, let me set the records straight. This idea that misogyny and patriarchy gets diminished with merit, caste hierarchy or development is counter-intuitive. Patriarchy thrives on power, it is all about protecting power. Hierarchies within caste, class, merit, race only amplifies patriarchy.
We celebrate arrogance as a sign of success and leadership, destruction as a victory, accumulation of things and ownership of other beings as signs of growth – all of these are very patriarchal ways of living.
The instances of abuse in upper class households have always been right in our faces – how can we miss it? It exists to a point where we have not only acknowledged it but glorified and normalised it as a society.
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We don’t want to think about what it must have taken for almost one lakh children to pick up the phone within the first two weeks of the lockdown and dial 1098, the Childline India helpline, seeking urgent support and escape from violence.
My limited experience of working with survivors align with what many feminist organisations have stated before – the silencing among privileged families is very robust primarily because there is a lot more to lose when you speak out in terms of social and economic status than a survivor from a low income family who is used to standing up for herself in front of the state, economy, family. And yet we keep ignoring the resilience of the disadvantaged women and continue glorifying the silent suffering of the privileged ones.
I have dealt with girls and women suffering severe physical and sexual abuse yet worried to call police home because their partners or fathers have a strong influence and network in the city. Some have expressed concerns about not being able to hire a lawyer or have a peaceful separation from their partners because families from both ends pressure the woman and remind them how it could affect their professional lives.
There are enough statistics proving the extent and the nature of gender-based violence at our workplaces and homes. I am going to give a face to these statistics. Here is a tiny list of individuals to keep in mind when the next time your mind frames a sentence starting with “but how can such educated people do this..?”
The tapes of several vulgar remarks he made including “grab them by the pussy” was released in October 2016 yet Donald Trump became the president of the most powerful nation in the world. Nor was he boycotted by international agencies for his conduct. His continued existence in that position of power is such a disregard for all the hard work feminists have been doing and a painful reminder that so much is still left to be done.
Mark Zuckerberg created a platform, Facemash, to “rate” women as “hot or not” in colleges and in turn, his ingenuity was celebrated and he till date, has faced no repercussions for the same.
Steve Jobs was known for being a terrible boss and exploiting his employees. And yet, he continues to be celebrated as an idol by entrepreneurs.
John Lennon talked about him being violent and abusive towards women and writing a song about it in an interview “I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically… any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women… But I sincerely believe in love and peace.” Isn’t he still celebrated as a great artist in our memories? Do we know the name of his wife?
Michael Jackson was a sexual predator abusing young boys. And yet, his funeral was attended by almost a million people and the city of Los Angeles said the memorial had cost the city $1.4 million for 1,400 police officers, trash pick-up, sanitation, and traffic control.
Elvis Presley openly preyed on young teenage girls and still, is remembered as a music icon than a criminal.
Needless to say, the list of ‘elite’ Indian men is long too – Dr RK Pauchauri (his report was awarded Nobel Peace Prize, the irony!) was accused of sexual harassment, stalking and criminal intimidation. Tarun Tejpal, the former editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine was accused of sexual assault.
A retired high-court senior judge Ramamohan Rao and his family were caught on CCTV beating his daughter-in-law. BJP ministers being caught on phone watching pornography during an ongoing parliament session. Kuldeep Sengar, a three time MLA was arrested and sentenced for raping a minor among other crimes. Former BJP leader Chinmayanand, who was accused of sexually exploiting a law student for over an year, walked out free after being given bail in February 2020.
The list of self-proclaimed religious leaders accused of and convicted against gender-based crimes is long too – Ram Rahim, Asaram Bapu, Nithyananda are only some of them. Catholic priests were found sexually abusing nuns for decades and a maulana was convicted of raping a minor.
Raya Sarkar’s crowdsourced list of academicians (LoSHA) who were accused of sexual harassment is also a substantial proof invalidating the direct proportionality of education with being ethical and sensitive.
There is even a news piece titled ‘High-profile relationships shattered due to domestic violence’, that enlists the actresses who filed cases against their partners for domestic violence.
Another aspect is how educational institutes such as the IITs and IIMs – given the elite school stamp and put on a pedestal – thrive on rape culture and misogyny. The intelligence here gets a branded certification and thus, it becomes even harder to convert the arrogance of ‘I am good and know a lot’ into ‘I will reflect on and assess my knowledge and compassion? to become a better person.’That way, almost every household would have people wanting to come out as survivors of abuse and violence. Upon introspection, many would realise they have either been rapists and abusers or been complicit in the act through their silence.
Hence the question should not be “How can educated and rich people do such atrocities?”. Instead, the question should be “How do they still continue to earn the collective trust?”
Domestic violence and gender-based abuse is a lot closer to you than you may imagine and what you may want to know. Pause, read, reflect and act – make your education count for what you claim it to do for you. About time, we stop using education and money as a veil of moral superiority.
Surabhi Yadav is a development practitioner and a freelance writer working on gender issues and rural development. She can be contacted on Instagram and Medium.