I have been thinking a lot about what I want to say to you, but every time words fall short. It has been a shocking yet hopeful time for women in India after we had our own #Metoo breakthrough. While on the one hand the harassment and abuse didn’t or shouldn’t come as a surprise since all of at some point have been through it, it was cathartic to know that none of us was alone. The all-pervasiveness of the issue clearly meant that this is a larger socio-cultural problem of male entitlement and misuse of power. They are not incidents that a few women imagined, misconstrued or blew out of proportion as we have often been pursued to believe. (Read this mom’s letter to her sons on the #metoo movement).
It’s also not a problem that women can ‘avoid’ by making different choices because sadly abuse is ubiquitous.
It was a ray of hope to women who have suffered in silence because as Oprah Winfrey poignantly mentioned, they have bills to pay, children to feed and dreams to pursue. But as I sat and watched with part horror and part satisfaction at men finally being called out for their behaviour, I couldn’t help but wonder how we could ensure that it didn’t happen again.
What can we do to protect and empower your generation of women and mine perhaps so there never has to be another movement of this kind?
1. Validate your feelings:
Women are often accused of being dramatic and unnecessarily emotional about little things. I am sure as a teenager or adult people will tell you that the emotions you are feeling are just ‘hormones’, or PMS. It’s perhaps a problem that begins from childhood when we often second guess a child’s behaviour. Instead of validating a child’s feelings, as harried parents we say, ‘you can’t be hungry again’, ‘you’re not sad, don’t throw a tantrum’, “It’s not a big deal, don’t be unreasonable”. While it is difficult sometimes to empathise constantly with a demanding child, consistently undermining a child’s emotions affects their ability to rely on their impulses and their confidence to speak up about something that has made them uncomfortable. As your mother, I promise that I will try my best to give you a patient ear and treat your feelings as valid. I will try to understand the sensations or emotions you’re experiencing and help you process them.
Maybe all you need is a cuddle, or there may be something more serious we as your parents need to understand.
2. Personal space and consent:
Ironically, while most parents fret and joke about their kids saying no to everything, this is perhaps the most important word I could ever teach you. There is tremendous pressure on us as a gender to be well behaved, polite and likeable from the time we are little girls. We are socialized to believe that women need to ‘adjust’, ‘compromise’ and not be difficult or assertive to keep the peace around them. Studies conducted in America in the aftermath of the #Metoo movement showed, rather shockingly, that groups of teenage girls interviewed found it almost impossible to scream the word ‘No’ because that’s not likeable. It’s heartbreaking to read such stories. Your body is yours and yours alone.
No one, not even your parents have the right to make you feel uncomfortable or touch you without your consent.
Whether it’s your siblings today, or a partner/co-worker tomorrow, say Stop or No loudly if you are uncomfortable, and respect their consent and physical space if they say the same. Imagine the space around your body as a series of concentric circles and judge how close you want a particular person to get. If they get any closer, exercise your right to say No, I’m not okay with this.
3. Remember it’s NOT your fault:
If there is one lesson that I think all parents of daughters want and need to give their girls, it’s that incidents of abuse and harassment are not the woman’s fault. Nothing you say, wear, don’t wear, or speak is ever, and I repeat ever a reason for any man or woman to hurt or harass you. Sadly, for long, cinema, popular culture and a patriarchal power structure have shamed women into believing that their lifestyle choices or behaviour invite unwanted male attention. ‘Good’ women with ‘strong values’ are those who are seldom seen or heard. But sadly, the many incidents of abuse and harassment prove that there is no moral rule book to avoid abuse. You don’t have to chip away at your personality and construct a socially acceptable lifestyle to safeguard yourself. You have the right to live fully and on your terms. I know this is easier said than done, but then again nothing that is worthwhile is easily achieved.
â€‹4. Mean girls are meaningless:
Perhaps the most important change that has come about with the #Metoo movement, and I hope will sustain, is women standing up for other women. For long, we have been conditioned to perceive other women as competition, as rivals to limited opportunities handed down to us in male-dominated workspaces. But today as we share our stories, I see hope. The time has come for us to take our fellow women along. If you can’t share your happiness and success with another woman, will you ever be able to confide your pain? Nurture your female friendships and professional relationships, support women in your household, take every opportunity to boost another woman’s self-esteem, and offer coffee and a safe space instead of value judgements.
Each woman looks different, has a different personality and set of goals, but what we all have in common is the right to be treated with respect and kindness.
I know that so much of what I promise today seems difficult and the devil at my ear is also whispering “wishful thinking”. But I will not let those voices win for your sake. For too long we have sublimated ourselves for the happiness of our spouses, children, families and colleagues. It’s now time to value our individuality. Being a woman is a privilege; we are warriors and nurturers, and we deserve to be treated with respect. Treated as intellectual and societal equals who play a crucial role in shaping the future. I pray that you never have to say #metoo, but if you do, I am always here for you. Your mother, your friend and a fellow woman who will always have your back.