“We condemn the public shaming of Amber Heard and join in support of her. We support the ability of all to report intimate partner and sexual violence free of harassment and intimidation,” read an open letter in support of Amber Heard. This open letter was written and signed by 130 feminist leaders.
The letter further denounced online harassment, intimidation of women who report abuse, and overall “a monetised social media environment where a woman’s allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault were mocked for entertainment.”
Even though this comes five months after the crucial verdict in the Depp Vs Heard case, it is significant because of the repercussions of the verdict. This verdict inside and outside the court has only reinforced the reason why many domestic abuse survivors remain silent. Not only do they fear retaliation from the person who abused them, but they also fear ostracisation and harassment by everyone around.
Signatories of the letter include numerous major gender justice organizations, such as the National Women’s Law Center, Ms, Feminist Majority, Esperanza United, Women’s March Foundation, National Organization for Women, Equality Now, a host of domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy organisations, academics who work in the field, legal and other experts, notable feminists (including Ms founding editor Gloria Steinem), and more.
In June, a jury largely sided with Johnny Depp, ex-husband of Heard in the high-profile libel lawsuit between him and Heard, which stemmed from a December 2018 op-ed Heard wrote for the Washington Post, in which she alleged that she had become “a public figure representing domestic violence.”
Depp was not named in the op-ed but alleged in her lawsuit against Heard that her claims were part of an “elaborate hoax to generate positive publicity” and that she abused it. Depp’s attorneys argued the op-ed indirectly referenced abuse allegations Heard made when the couple divorced in 2016.
After a lengthy trial, the jury awarded Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. Heard, who had filed a countersuit against Depp claiming he harassed her and orchestrated a “smear campaign” against her, was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages and no punitive damages.
Why is this open letter important for domestic violence survivors?
Depp’s frivolous and punitive suit, and the misogynist backlash that Heard received, have in a way vindicated what Heard had originally said - that women are punished for coming forward. So, it was a show of – see what happens to women who accuse men of abuse. Such women are publicly pilloried, professionally blacklisted, socially ostracised, mocked endlessly on social media and most importantly they are sued.
And at that point, Heard was all alone facing this backlash. But now this letter points to the fact that the verdict was not ‘just’ in every possible way.
Was the verdict, the online media and the public trial of Heard a warning for women? Although the toxic misogyny was directed at Heard, it became hard to shake the feeling that it was really directed at all women. Most importantly to those women who spoke out about gendered abuse and sexual violence during the height of the #MeToo movement. It was seen as an antifeminist backlash. Heard has been made into a symbol of a movement that is most considered with fear and hatred, and she’s being punished for that movement.
Repercussion in India
This highly televised and talked about trial cannot but have a ripple-down effect in a country like India where domestic violence is deeply entrenched and widely prevalent. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2019 reports that a majority (30.9%) of all the 4.05 lakh cases under crimes against women are registered under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The section deals with ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives’. However, despite having the largest share of crimes against women, domestic violence is known to be a systematically under-reported crime. The reasons range from embarrassment, financial dependency, fear of retaliation, and victim-blaming to following a convoluted bureaucratic procedure.
So, when big international stars like Depp and Heard are fighting it out publicly what chance do ordinary people have? The only silver lining is that this open letter tells women that they are not alone in their fight.
Views expressed by the author are their own.
Suggested Reading: Why Is Amber Heard Verdict Being Used To Pass A Judgement On Feminism?