Women in the North-East have often been discriminated across the country when they migrate to other states. While sexual harassment is universal, what sets them apart from the rest is how they deal with it in their own states and how it is dealt with outside of North-East. Recently, after the MeToo movement engulfed the media industry, it is interesting to note that women away from the mainstream are also speaking up against sexual abuse.
NE CASES OF #METOO
Three weeks after the MeToo wave started, Mary Therese Kurkalang took to Facebook on October 19 to accuse two priests belonging to St. Edmunds & Donbosco, Shillong, of sexual abuse. She revealed how the priests had molested her from the age of five till she was 12 years and how the memory of it scarred her for life. “I was 5 when he first showed me his penis and asked me to touch it. I told a family member and adult I trusted most then, and I was slapped and told never to make up such stories. After that I never spoke about it again. The abuse continued till I turned 12 when I mustered the courage to refuse to meet this man or talk to him. I was scolded and beaten but was never gently asked why,” she wrote.
She also wrote about how even when it came to investigation, the committee did not have any woman in it. The experience of the probe was so harrowing that it sent her into depression.
Another case of sexual harassment that was widely covered in the North-East came many years before the #MeToo movement and even before the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act had emerged. In 2003, a Guwahati journalist, Sabita Lahkar, alleged that Amar Assom Editor and 1975 Sahitya Akademi winner Homen Borgohain had molested her. While the journalists’ collective supported Lahkar and she even wrote to Assam State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), State Commission for Women (SCW) and the President’s Office, Lahkar was unsuccessful in getting the authorities to probe the case.
NE VS MAINSTREAM
Though Lahkar was a journalist, who had support from other journalists, she had a hard time convincing the police to even file the FIR. The case set a precedent for all journalists who are speaking up today and garnering legal support under the revolutionary blanket of #MeToo. But what is also worthy underlining in this case is that sometimes mainstream dialogue leaves out North-Eastern women.
Professor Leki Thungon of Delhi University, who belongs to Arunachal Pradesh, spoke about the movement and the space of North-Eastern women in it. She said, “The context is much more complex in the North-East as in these cases, the consequences of reporting is not just losing one’s job, but it also means putting your life in danger. The North-East community is close-knit. People identify themselves as part of a community and not individually, so a lot of times when such cases do come out, elders in the community or the clan sort it out inside the clan itself.”
Thungon cannot predict how the stories under MeToo movement will unfold in the North-East and the kind of results it will bear because she says the power-structure in the region is much different than other parts of the country. She further talks about the movement and how non-inclusive it stands today.
“The fact that powerful men in the NE stand well-connected with higher ups means they are able to safeguard themselves against allegations of sexual harassment. Women have to suffer in silence and compromise even after the whole community knows about the crimes that happened to her. I personally have a family member who has been sexually harassed at work and even though she’s filed complaints with her HR department, action taken has been slow and the fact that he is a very well connected person, it makes it 10 times more difficult. Many are thus discouraged from coming forward,” said Philarima Hynniewta from Shillong.
“Also, coming from a matrilineal society — there’s a lot of shame that comes with being a victim of sexual harassment or rape, especially because of what society has already perceived you to be,” said Hynniewta.
TRIBAL COURTS AND BIASED JUDGEMENTS
Activist Ngurang Reena, who is also from Arunachal Pradesh, said that in any movement, the marginalized always remain marginalized. “We have always had stories of sexual abuse, but it is just that we have not found the voice to put it out. So when we put it out, it is always somebody else’s burden to initiate it. As women, we are all oppressed,” said Reena.
Talking about whether North-Eastern women will receive similar response as the women in the rest of the country if more of them come out with their stories, Reena said, “How media portrayed North-Eastern bodies is extremely prejudiced. There is so much conjecture around how the women there dress and how we are that people also ask if it is our right to come out with our stories or not? How media portrays and how people understand our North-Eastern bodies is very different.”
She agreed with Thungon’s point of tribal institutions probing the matter rather than the law-enforcing authorities. She also bust the myth of how the rest of the country perceives North-East as progressive, saying “the level of penetration of education and civility has not happened”.
“We are a very small portion of population who have had education and are able to understand and talk, but many are still living in primitive and old tradition, so it is a very difficult conversation to even begin with,” said Reena.
RACIAL PREJUDICE AND VICTIM SHAMING
Human rights activist, Taw Nana, spoke about the racial prejudice that North-Eastern women live under and how it affects them. “We fight a huge battle against the prejudice and sexual violence against our race. Long before such a movement, #MeToo, came up, people are hearing stories flashing in media like North-East girl raped, North-East women molested at workplace, brutally murdered etc. Strangely, such crimes delve into a biased cultural space of “us (Northeastern)” v/s “them (mainlanders)”.”
“We have always had stories of sexual abuse, but it is just that we have not found the voice to put it out. So when we put it out, it is always somebody else’s burden to initiate it. As women, we are all oppressed”
She said that there is also a big fear of victim-shaming among NE girls. “Even if these victims come out today, people will throw questions like what were you wearing then, did you drink? How friendly you were with them? The reason behind such questions is people’s assumption that women from NE region are often ‘easy’, drink a lot and wear revealing clothes. With such negativity and scepticism around, will anybody hear our stories without any prejudice?” she asked.
Riddled with so many complexities, North-Eastern women seldom find the courage to speak up, and when they do, we often see poor investigation botching up the cases. There is a need of awareness and education in the North-East, says Reena. “The empowerment and education — where you can say that what happened to me is wrong — has not happened there yet. We need to scrap the language of sacrifice and compromise. Both men and women need to participate in doing away with old ideas. Just putting the responsibility and blame on women will not help,” she added.
How a person looks should not make others treat them differently. This is what has been happening in the case of North-Eastern women in other parts of the country. But what is also noteworthy is how even NE men misuse power to harass the small percentage of women who get education and start working outside.