Women don’t have the courage of their convictions. They don’t have the deep self-belief that we men do, says a character in a book that I read recently. This was a man who’d been accused of raping a colleague in the elevator; and was confident of being let off in court. Because he believed that somewhere along the way, during the trial, the woman, his accuser, would stumble. That she’d shy away from taking him head on; that she’d be struck by self-doubt as she rethought the incident and would blame herself (at least partially) for what happened.
I finished the book just before the #MeToo stories hit us with the force of a kick in the belly. But as I read the stomach-churning stories of India’s serial harassers and abusers, narrated by the women who’ve suffered at their hands, my mind kept going back to the sentiment voiced by the man in the book. I’d been affronted by it on first encounter.
But now that I think about it, especially in the context of the #MeToo movement, I realise not only how true it is but—more crucially—how much men count on it being true. It works on various levels.
There’s the wife who’s unsure about how well she can manage in the big, bad world without her husband and so is willing to turn a blind eye to his transgressions. In the workplace, there’s the female colleague who hesitates to put forward her (genuinely) bright ideas at meetings, thereby leaving the field open for her more self-assured male counterpart to pick them up and make them his own.
At parties or social gatherings, there’s the man who—when caught trying to cop a feel—expresses
incredulity, even indignation, that what he saw as a compliment is perceived as an insult. Sadly, he’s rarely called out. Because most victims keep quiet and move away.
Decent men keep asking why women don’t shout out the moment they sense danger. Why do they go near a man who’s already indicated that he’s not harmless? The truth is our wiring makes us reluctant to rock the boat. From a young age, we aim to please, to mollify and placate. It’s a rare woman who’s willing to antagonise people, even assailants whom she knows.
It’s why the uncles at home and the creepy bosses at work get away with what they do. Women don’t like to make a scene, at least not about sexual harassment. Instead of their oppressors, it’s they who feel shame. ‘Perhaps it was my fault, perhaps I sent out a wrong signal; perhaps I was ambiguous,’ they think, and tumble deeper into the abyss.
Today, as our #MeToo moment rages all around us, my male friends tell me it will blow over. That none of the predators will be held to account for the claims made against them. I believe that they’re wrong. I believe that the truth will out. But even before it does, I am deeply thankful for this moment.
For with all the allegations coming to light, every woman who’s ever been harassed is feeling a huge sense of validation. She knows that not only is she not alone; that she was never at fault. Courage in her convictions can’t but follow.