*Written by Kanchan Naik, Founder and former Editor-in-Chief of The Roar
DUBLIN, California –– When 29-year-old Srishti Prabha said she was sexually harassed by her boss at her first job, she said she did not file a complaint with human resources. She did not find a lawyer and contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There were no courtroom dramas or scalding accusations.
Why? Because the only story that Prabha, like many other Indian American women who say they’ve suffered sexual harassment, can tell is a story of silence.
“I had to run. I didn’t understand that I could say something. I was uncomfortable and took the subway home early so my boss didn’t know that I left,” said Prabha, an assistant editor for India Currents, a community news website in San Jose, California.
“Our generation didn’t have the language. Growing up, my parents didn’t understand the culture, so I had to understand these boundaries by myself,” Prabha said.
Over the past two years, the #MeToo movement has provided survivors of sexual harassment and abuse with a platform to hold their abusers accountable. What began as a grassroots social media movement has brought thousands of sexual assault cases to light, penetrating nearly every sphere of public life.
Within the South Asian community in the U.S., however, women and activists say the #MeToo movement has a long way to go.
Childhood and cultural taboos
Prabha traced her silence about sexual harassment in the workplace to the cultural taboos she encountered as a child. According to Prabha, topics like sexual assault and domestic violence were left unaddressed.
“Indian culture sometimes doesn’t permit … flaws. It’s a culture that wants you to have the perception that everything is perfect, your house is perfect, your children are perfect, to give the perception of prosperity as opposed to honesty,” Prabha said. “Growing up, I didn’t understand what was going on … I didn’t know if someone’s mom was being abused. It was never a topic of conversation.”
Sex is still an unspoken and taboo subject in many Indian American households, agrees Pramila Venkateswaran, a women’s studies professor at Nassau Community College in East Garden City, New York.
“([Indian Americans)] don’t even want to address anything sexuality-related. It’s a sort of a fear,” she said in a Zoom interview. “It’s a taboo they carry from their socialization that they bring here, and that refusal to discuss sexuality is to protect and barricade the family.”
Prabha’s personal experiences point to broader issues within the South Asian community. When dialogue about sexual assault is stifled across gendered and generational boundaries, survivors can become isolated.
“Women often carry the burden of unpacking their traumas alone,” Prabha said.
Public speech and private pain
Unfortunately, laws and public pronouncements often haven’t supported those who’ve taken a stand against sexual abuse.
The harrowing 2015 documentary “India’s Daughter,”a response to the infamous 2012 Delhi gang rape case, was banned by the Indian government for fear of provoking “public disorder.” When that same rape case incited protests across the country, politician Abhijit Mukherjee called the women participating in candlelight vigils “highly painted and dented, no longer students” (“painted” denotes a woman who is sexually promiscuous). His sweeping generalizations about the protestors undermined their outcry against sexual assault.
Meanwhile, producers of the Bollywood film “PINK,”which was designed to raise awareness of sexual assault, grappled with India’s Central Board of Film Certification before its release. This movie’s arguably most pivotal scene, which discusses the kind of language that runs rampant in public discourse about rape, received multiple verbal cuts to block “abusive language against women.”
Although the film was permitted to release with a UA certificate, which means that children ages 12 and below can see the movie with parental permission, Bollywood critics found that the censorship removed impact from a movie dependent on its realism.
“The community feels more progressive than they actually are at times,” Prabha said. “They’ll say something, but their ideologies don’t match the words they speak.”
The South Asian American community’s reticence on sex reflects India’s inadequate, underfunded sex education curriculum. According to a 2015 article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, sex education is banned in six major states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka for fear of aggrieving Indian values. A 2013 study published by the National Library of Medicine reported that less than half of students from Mumbai colleges received sex education from schools or parents.
Unfortunately, lack of education and information leaves room for rampant misinformation about sexual health, reproductive rights and most notably, consent. Rather than shielding the younger generation from talking about, thinking about, and having sex, these restrictions only reinforce rape culture within the South Asian community and its diaspora.
What works — and how
So what does work to help women?
New York-based nonprofit Sakhi for South Asian Women, which assists South Asian immigrant victims of violence, aims to convert #MeToo outrage into constructive change.
According to Anusha Goossens, Sakhi’s sexual assault program manager, education and intergenerational dialogue are a crucial part of the solution. As someone who works with Indian American survivors on a daily basis, Goossens says abusers use a “lack of knowledge” to gain control over women.
“It’s not something we talk about with our children,” Goossens said. “Without discussing or learning about healthy relationships, these women become vulnerable to sexual assault and ongoing abuse.”
Sakhi offers a 24-hour confidential helpline, where a trained professional can listen to and record their experience. To prevent the continuation of this cycle of abuse, Sakhi crafts a detailed safety plan and connects their clients with external services, such as defense lawyers, financial support and mental health counselors.
Following #MeToo’s explosion on social media, Sakhi has seen a “modest increase” in the number of sexual assault survivors contacting its hotline. While Goossens conceded that a majority of Sakhi’s clients are newer immigrants who are less aware of the movement, she pointed to what one writer called a “wave” of #MeToo second-generation Indian and Bangladeshi survivors in New York who are discussing rape culture:
In response to the movement, Sakhi is actively working on youth outreach, even creating a text hotline to make young people feel more comfortable sharing their experiences. The text line was positively received by the nonprofit’s clientele and provided a necessary doorway toward intergenerational support –– the kind of support that was not available to Srishti Prabha almost 10 years ago.
The grassroots #MeToo movement has played a major role in dismantling a power dynamic that protects rapists. Though it can be difficult to use given cultural differences, it’s a platform that allows South Asian American survivors to discuss their experiences and educate the public, a remarkable change.
Recently, the @AdivasiLivesMatter handle used #MeToo to discuss the marginalization and abuse of tribal women, including the suspension of a case of a 13-year-old girl who was reportedly raped by police after she became lost while attending a fair in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
“(As) someone who works with feminist advocacy groups, I was pretty happy when the #Metoo movement happened,” Venkateswaran said. “It disrupts fear. It disrupts shame. That’s the kind of thing that has to happen all over.”
But #MeToo doesn’t necessarily protect Indian American women after they expose their abusers. When actress Tanushree Dutta accused South Asian film veteran Ganesh Acharya of abuse and sexual harassment, she was reportedly blacklisted in the industry, while Acharya continued to produce blockbusters and engage with the Bollywood fraternity.
And Dutta is certainly not alone. In the South Asian community, women are frequently blamed and ostracized for being honest about their experiences.
“What is not happening in (South Asia) is laws that actually help these women,” Venkateswaran said. “If some middle-class woman comes and outs her abuser, she will just be replaced. She becomes dispensable. Does she have a union protecting her? Does she have a support system that holds her job?”
But Prabha sees progress.
“I’m happy that the next generation is so much better off than I am,” Prabha said. “I’m always learning from the people younger than me. Maybe they’ll have the tools to address this. We’re late, but I think we’re really changing for the better.”