#MeToo in Northeast India


At the height of the #MeToo movement last year, unsurprisingly the media, including the social media, went to town with all guns blazing. And as is the wont of the media’s obsession with “breaking news”, its attention soon shifted elsewhere and the core of this movement lost the battle to other “breaking news”. Again, unsurprisingly, because it is doubtful whether the media really understood the essence of the #MeToo movement. It was during the height of this movement, several young women journalists asked me for my take on why Northeastern women were not forthcoming about our experiences of rapes and other forms of sexual harassment at the workplace, indeed anywhere, especially by highly-placed men. A legitimate question because we in the Northeast do have such highly condemnable violence perpetrated against women and I dare say regularly. And these crimes against women are also committed by men, who are highly-placed. Today, our media also have stories galore about pre-teen and teenage boys committing rapes and other forms of sexual assault.

But this question also indicates that a lot of our young women journalists, as also male journalists, are not too well versed with the complexities of Northeastern communities, especially tribal communities, which are patriarchal as any other society but of a different variety. Northeastern tribal communities are highly complex entities ~ despite their seeming simplicity of life and living ~ therefore, the kind of patriarchy in these communities are quite incomparable to those prevailing in non-tribal communities. Also, most Northeastern tribal communities have constitutional safeguards to protect age-old customs and traditions, which are in the main extremely patriarchal in nature. In our tribal structures, systems and schemes, women are not just considered as second-class entities but also as sub-human beings. So, the few right women have are given grudgingly ~ as a great favour; as for entitlements, they are the preserve of males in tribal communities. So, if a woman were to cry rape, she is asking for trouble even from her own family ~ for rape and/or any kind of sexual assault upsets the apple-carts of the male scheme of things. In any case, aren’t women meant to be the playground and the battleground of males ~ hence the low rate of reported rapes? It isn’t that there are low incidences of crimes against women and children in tribal societies ~ it is just that they are not reported, and not just because of stigma but mainly because reporting such incidences would upset the power dynamics of tribal communities. So, very often it is women themselves who silence the victims, even if the victim is the daughter. This is, of course, putting things simplistically but suffice it to say that the population of tribal communities are very small and everyone is connected to everyone in one way or the other therefore incidences of rapes and other sexual assaults are concealed, and if known or reported they are downplayed and “settled out of court”. This basically means that the victim is “persuaded” to forgive the perpetrator in the name of the Lord and “compensated” by a paltry sum and the matter ends there. But change, however small, of this state of affairs is also happening, which again doesn’t mean that women are willing or ready to talk about it.    

The other issue the question seems to presume is that all women are made alike. Nothing can be more horrific for any woman than to be raped and/or sexually, physically, mentally and psychologically assaulted. However, all such victims do not react the same way. For one, although the victim is fully aware of what happened to her, at another level she does not know what happened to her. Psychiatrists and psychologists may explain this as denial but perhaps it is much more than denial ~ you know, that experience of being there but not being there. I am doing a bad job of explaining because I am no psychiatrist or psychologists but for those who have lived through this “being there but not being there” experience will understand. Some women report rapes and other forms of crimes against women, some vow revenge and actually avenge themselves, some withdraw into themselves and live with all kinds of trauma, some are able deal with it and move on with life, some talk about it and some do not like to talk about it. There are numerous ways victims react to these crimes and we must accept the way a woman deals with what happens to her.

Rape and/or sexually, physically, mentally and psychologically assaults are so traumatic that some women deal with them by not talking about them, by trying to forget and by placing themselves emotionally in such a position so as not to be reminded of them. But this is not pretending that they never happened ~ but simply placing themselves emotionally at a stronger place. So, while some women needed to talk about it, as did a lot and made the #MeToo movement global, we also need to respect women, who didn’t talk about it. It is their choice and their right to remain silent. If some women do not feel the need or are not ready to revisit old wounds, definitely we cannot read it as weakness? Sometimes, it takes the brave to reserve the right to silence. Perhaps, something today’s world ever so ready with all kinds of opinions on all sorts of issues with the onslaught of communication technology need to learn ~ you know, learn when to opine and when to hold one’s horses? Perhaps what works for one should be the goal post? This would raise the heckles of those who zealously practice their right to opinion but then, such a right should correspond with the right not to opine too, no?

When a person’s body, mind and spirit are assaulted so brutally, as in rape and other forms of physical, mental and psychological assault, it takes away a lot from the victim and to even continue living from one minute to the next is a burden that is too heavy for the strongest of persons. It is a life sentence and an imprisonment that destroys and eats away at the very core, the very soul of the right to life, of living. That a victim strives to move on with life and transform herself into a survivor is a commendable act of courage — of life’s triumph over all that seeks to desecrate and destroy it. So, then you ask me: what of justice? Should the guilty be punished? But, of course — as long as the victim is ensured that she isn’t doubly punished along with the guilty. And that is something neither society nor state can ensure. So, perhaps the victim has her reasons for silence. The workings of the human mind and heart aren’t always in consonance with the dictates of the theories of the modern state and its law and justice systems — as much as the malevolence in human minds and hearts has no respect for the sacredness of life.    

(The Columnist, a journalist and poet, is Editor, Nagaland Page)