Why and How You MUST #BelieveSurvivors
If you’re still debating the limits of the hashtag, we tell you not just ‘why’ you need to believe the survivors, but also how your belief need not conflict with the idea of justice.
Illustration: Prianka Jain.
On October 4, 2018, when Ishita Gupta shared her story of an acquaintance sexually assaulting her when she was drunk, and later gaslighting her, she did not expect the barrage of victim-blaming comments that would follow. “From being questioned on why I was drinking, to why I was talking about it on social media, to being asked how it was unreasonable to expect a man to not have an unattractive women next to him and not have sex with her—I got asked all sorts of ridiculous things,” the Mumbai-based 23-year-old counselling psychologist told VICE. “One woman DMed to tell me I was a whore and I should stay away from her husband. I was asked why I did not go to lawyers or cops. I did not expect responses that were more about having to explain my actions on all levels rather than questioning the systems that do not allow survivors to speak up.”
Every time a woman makes an accusation of abuse or harassment, there is an alarming number of skeptics who immediately question her motives. Why?
Speaking up is not easy. Doing so means allowing people to pick apart how "perfect" a victim you are. You might be judged in a court of law that has internalised myths about sexual violence, or be sued for defamation. It means having to deal with the fear of retaliation, losing a job or opportunities at work, having difficult conversations with those close to you who might not understand why you want to speak up publicly, and if charges are brought against you, having the will and resources to fight them. It means having to stand your ground against a system rooted in patriarchy, and victim-blaming hardwired in our psychology. The naming, the shaming, the character assassination, and ultimately, the possibility that nothing will change—the cost of speaking up is high.
A year after the first allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein upended the conversations about women and the pervasiveness of harassment and abuse, the groundbreaking #MeToo movement is running at full throttle in urban India. The past few weeks have opened a floodgate of sorts on Twitter, with women sharing their stories of trauma and abuse at the hands of powerful men, encouraged by the hashtag-led movement that gives them a voice while calling upon their perpetrators to account for their actions. Harrowing personal stories on our timeline include actor Tanushree Dutta’s which unwittingly stirred the movement, journalist Sandhya Menon who opened a massive can of worms against some of the biggest names in journalism, and senior journalist Priya Ramani who was the first among 20 women to accuse Minister of State and former editor MJ Akbar of sexual misconduct. Countless voices have followed, pulling up those in the fields of media, cinema, literature, academia and beyond.
In India, as a precursor to this movement of speaking up, was the crucial verdict in 1990 that was passed in favour of musician Alisha Chinai, who had filed sexual harassment charges against heavyweight music composer Anu Malik. But the movement gained impetus in the Indian urbanscape only last year when Raya Sarkar—then a 24-year-old law student at the University of California—released a list of alleged sexual predators on Indian campuses. Since October 4, 2018, the campaign has gained a feverish momentum, where several women have taken the onus of whistleblowing men in powerful positions, calling out “performative wokeness”, and speaking out against work cultures that take egalitarian attitudes for granted. In return, organisations have responded almost overnight, leading to statements expressing apologies and redressals, distancing themselves from the perpetrators (alleged and otherwise), setting off investigations, and calling for resignations.
#BelieveWomen, and the more inclusive #BelieveSurvivors, emerged as rallying cries from the #MeToo movement that started in America, and has found a firm footing in India over the past fortnight. Moving beyond the idea of ending victims’ silences, it found grounding in the need to listen to and acknowledge their stories.
Belief, by its very definition, means putting your trust, faith and confidence in something, even in the face of inadequate or no proof. But allow us to dismantle right here the assumption that believing survivors asks you to overlook facts. Even the most vocal or passionate feminists will agree that the hashtag is only asking you to give the benefit of the doubt to the survivor who is often a woman or belonging to a disenfranchised part of the society, rather than automatically giving it to the perpetrator who is often a man. As Tarana Burke, civil rights activist and founder of the #MeToo movements put it in an episode of Mic Dispatch: “‘Believe women’ or ‘believe survivors’ is not just like, ‘Believe us at all costs, don’t investigate,’ you know, ‘If I say it, it’s true.’ It is—let’s start with a premise that people aren’t lying and at least give them the respect of interrogating what they’re saying.”
Even as we consider what lies ahead, what’s important is to reflect on the sentiment that exists today. If you’re still thinking of the ‘Why’ behind #BelieveSurvivors—that is built on the assumption that most complainants are telling the truth—read on to know exactly why you should believe the stories of survivors of sexual assault and harassment.
Because You Must Consider What the Survivor Has to Gain
“The risk [involved in coming out with their stories] is extremely high for the survivors,” says Scherezade Sanchita Siobhan, a Mumbai-based psychologist and therapist who works with survivors of sexual violence, as well as with those accused. “If a bank clerk says that he was robbed, we look at how we can address his situation, and we tend to believe him. But if a victim of sexual harassment or violence speaks up, we question its reality. Even if you believe that they are speaking out of vendetta of any sort, you have to understand that the current legal mechanism is all about helping the perpetrator.”
On a personal, psychological level, reliving a trauma by talking about it publicly is difficult. When a survivor recounts their story, they are, in a way, re-traumatising themselves. “An instinctive reaction to any kind of trauma would be to lock it up. Very few people want to access that and use language to express it,” says Siobhan.
So why are so many people talking about it now, after all these years? In part it's because when someone speaks out, it might work as a trigger for others with stories of harassment and abuse too. When we witness what happens to others, we can relive our own experiences, or empathise with the stories of others. That can drive more survivors to share their stories in support.
“Traumatic events destroy the sustaining bonds between individual and community,” writes Judith Lewis Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence. “Those who have survived learn that their sense of self, of worth, of humanity, depends upon a feeling of connection with others. The solidarity of a group provides the strongest protection against terror and despair, and the strongest antidote to a traumatic experience. Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging."
One in three women has been physically or sexually abused, according to the World Health Organization. So when one woman shares her story of abuse, Siobhan says, she's more than likely to find what psychologists call ‘empathic witness’, someone who understands what the accuser is going through, because they have gone through the same.
“Instead of asking what a woman will get out of filing a false case, the question is what the woman (or survivor) is losing in the process,” says Bengaluru-based criminologist Rashi Vidyasagar. “And there is a lot to lose.”
Because It’s Not Fair for the Burden of Proof to Fall with the Prosecutor
The law demands that making a claim needs justification, and the burden of proof lies with the one making the claim. But the proof often means revisiting details of an incident that your brain has automatically clamped down by switching on its survival mode. “The dialectic of trauma is knotted between a desire to reveal and a desire to bury/repress,” says Siobhan.
“Talking about trauma through direct verbal language is very hard—your memory feels like a rumour in that case," says Sneha Janaki, counselling psychologist at Reflective Arena. “When trauma impacts the brain, there is a likelihood of some kind of forgetting, not remembering details, and an incoherent story. How do we normally response to an incoherent story? We say it doesn’t make sense. How do we then believe in the kind of statements that to us don’t make complete sense? That, however, does not mean the harassment or assault didn’t occur.”
This can mean that the survivor’s testimony might sound incoherent, and because sexual harassment often takes place in private, there are few or no other witnesses. It’s also important to remember that the legal burden of proof need not—and cannot—be applied outside of a courtroom.
Because You Have to Understand and Respect the Survivor’s Choice of Anonymity
At the core of the #BelieveSurvivors campaign is the unflinching support to those who have come out with their stories. But one place where it keeps stumbling is when the survivors are anonymous, preferring to share their experiences through the social media accounts of several women who have opened up their DMs to that end. But anonymous writing is not about hiding behind a pseudonym. It is about passing the microphone to those who can tell their stories without the fear of personal judgment, interruption or bias. “The moment you file an FIR, you stop being a victim in the crime and you become a witness in the crime; you have no role to play except as a witness,” says Vidyasagar. “If your role in the entire process is so diminished that you don’t have the ability to say what happens next, why would you come out?”
“To come out publicly might mean that your case carries more credibility over an anonymous account only because it’s open to being verified, but the cost of speaking out is sometimes too high,” says a survivor who gave out her story on sexual assault anonymously, one that led to four other women to come out with their stories on the accused as well. “My husband understands my need to speak up but my in-laws would never get why I could finally speak about something that happened three years ago, and I was worried for my kids as well. Priya Ramani is now fighting a defamation case against Akbar who now has 97 lawyers representing him—I have no idea how I would've dealt with something like that. My main incentive was that others shouldn’t go through what I did. I don’t know what happens ahead but I am also finally at peace about this incident.”
Because to Believe is to Acknowledge a Basic Human Right
In the face of skepticism, in addition to the severe limitations of the legal system and the absence of proof, acknowledging the claims can also be a basic human right. “To be able to hear her out is not a function of your gender,” says advocate Audrey D’Mello, programme director of Majlis Legal Centre, a forum for women's rights discourse and legal initiatives. “When you are facing a woman who is talking about a story, you need to put yourself in her shoes and walk the journey with her. The law has enough opportunities to address false cases. False is different from those you are not able to prove. But do not disbelieve her. Whenever we do classes on sexual harassment at workplaces, the primary question is: but what about its misuse? You can’t start with the presumption that women are liars and out to rob men of their everything.”
Because Listeners are not Judge and Jury and Cannot Demand Proof
One of the loudest and scathing criticisms in the thick of the movement is: what about the natural course of justice? “To an extent, it [the movement] does [subvert the natural course of justice]. In people’s mind, the accused is already guilty and that is the power social media has today. No formal action may be taken but there is a reputational damage,” says Swarnima, who is a partner at one of India’s biggest law firms, Trilegal, and works with POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) cases across sectors. “Having said that, such a wave is necessary because it’s leading to a societal shift; we’ve been in a society where people didn’t raise their voice; the solution often offered by well-wishers was to ignore and move on. This is making everyone stop and think about the impact of their actions. I believe things will balance out over a period of time.”
Indian law allows the perpetrator the right to a reasonable hearing, opportunity to defend charges, right to know the evidence against oneself and the right to present evidence, among other rights. But #MeToo criticism has divided conversations on the movement, especially when it comes to the distinction between trial by social media, and a trial by law.
Let’s also consider what we mean by justice. “The most common form of justice we are familiar with is retributive justice,” adds Vidyasagar. “This is what we think of as legally right, the idea that you must be punished for what you have done. But what is more evolved as a discussion is that of restorative justice. You look at criminals as not born criminals but through the lens of the society that makes them one. So what you may want to question is the culture where such behaviours are encouraged and silence among victims is common.”
The choices for the victims, as most see it, are often on either end of the spectrum: either doing something more than they want to and involving themselves in systems that are out of their control or doing nothing at all. The gap lies between the experience of victimisation and the kinds of services that are available. Maybe we need to think of systems that can facilitate healing as also justice—not one at the expense of the other.
“When you think about not believing survivors, it’s because retributive justice is the only form of justice we are exposed to. Here, it becomes important that guilt is proven beyond reasonable doubt. We want to pit the two stories against each other,” says Vidyasagar. “You think of the innocent versus guilty—that you can let a 1,000 accused go scot-free but not allow 1 innocent to be punished. But even if you feel you will come across a woman who isn’t saying the truth, you should look at the societal structures around her that would make her say so. Then, your idea of justice has become much broader.”
That is not to say, a false allegation will not come up. #MeToo is not perfect, like everything else in life. Human nature, by itself, means false claims will come up. But to talk of false allegations as derailing the movement itself is unfair.
Because the Statistics Say So
Statistics point to the fact that false allegations are rarer than we think, but sexual violence is not. A report published by Trilegal threw up interesting observations with regards to workplaces. “We worked with NASSCOM on this, for which we conducted sessions across six Indian cities, and then carried out a survey in which 120 companies had participated. Out of this, we gathered specific information from 35 companies to compile a toolkit on the best practices for POSH,” says Swarnima. “One of the first questions we raised was on the number of malicious complaints that companies have received since 2013 since this is the first question I get asked during POSH trainings.” In the data collected, 73% of the respondents reported that they have received 0 malicious complaints since December 2013 while 23% of respondents received only between 1 to 6 malicious complaints.
It’s not like you will not find false or malicious complaints if you run a search. Women, like men, lie. But consider this:
Because Believing Women Is Just the First Step
Translating the belief in survivors into concrete progress has to do with representation in the workplace, in our government, and in any room where decisions are being made. Believing survivors now has to relate on a structural and policy level, but also means revisiting our education in terms of power, consent, and gender that has been ingrained in us. It’s a long road ahead but our conversations are our starting point.
We must remember that by believing survivors, we are pushing forward the movement too and helping create safe spaces for them to step up and talk about their stories, and consequently, heal. Conversely, by not believing them, we are discouraging people from talking about their stories, and hence, contributing to creating a toxic atmosphere which aids perpetrators. We, the audience, have nothing to lose by believing and acknowledging, but a survivor has everything to gain by our belief in them. Just hear them out.