Sweta Vikram on Ending the Culture of Silence

In April 2018, my novel “Louisiana Catch” came into the world. Very well-received, it told the tale of Ahana Chopra, a grieving daughter and abuse survivor from New Delhi who must summon the courage to run a feminist conference in New Orleans, trust a man she meets over the Internet, and escape a catfishing stalker to find her power.

survivor“Louisiana Catch” became an Amazon bestseller, and I won the Voices of The Year Award for it. Past recipients include Chelsea Clinton and the founders of the #MeToo Movement. Lululemon hosted the book launch, and Twitter NYC invited me to be a part of the conversation.

I am so grateful for all the love the book is receiving, even today. But living a balanced life means paying attention to the cause and effect. While the book won accolades and resonated with men and women, it also reiterated for me that sexual violence is all too common. How else did so many people identify with the book?

What Do Survivors Look Like?

I am not a survivor. But when I hear people pass comments or assume what survivors “look like,” I cringe. Research tells us that India sees 88 rape cases a day. Can you really conjure up a generic description?

When we think of India and rape victims, we envision poor, marginalized women from lower castes living in rural areas. In “Louisiana Catch,” Ahana is a sexual assault survivor from New Delhi who lives in a posh neighborhood. She is well-educated, affluent, globe-trotting, and a professionally successful woman who is raped by her husband every night. I teach trauma-informed yoga to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. Clients who walk into my class come from a variety of economic and cultural backgrounds. If one in five women are sexually assaulted, chances are that your friends, mothers, sisters, aunts, cousin sisters too are part of this statistic.

When the Danger Is at Home

Between patriarchy and misogyny, in the desi community we are taught to respect the elderly, no matter what. You don’t question their intent or actions. How do you break the silence when the perpetrator is at home? Like many other women in both rural and urban spaces in the world, Ahana in “Louisiana Catch” does not say a word because shame, shock, social stigma, disempowering beliefs, fear, cultural norms, and stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in her.

Growing up in India, girls and women are grabbed, pushed, roughed, and beaten up by strangers. We were trained to stay quiet, and asked if we brought negative attention to ourselves. What about women who are raped until they give a male heir to their family?

A few of my friends (including South Asians) confessed to being raped growing up… by a family member or someone they knew. They stayed silent for years before sharing their stories. They did not speak up because the fear of ostracization and stigmatization incapacitated them. When the assault and violation, eventually, started to creep into their adult lives, careers, and how they navigated relationships, they sought out help. When they tried talking to their families about the crime, they found no support, especially within the desi community. They were told to stay silent and not ruin existing family dynamics.

“Louisiana Catch” is a novel about identity, shame, and who we project ourselves to be in the world. Ahana pretends to be okay in her marriage because she fears dehumanization and feels guilt and shame. Fewer than one in 10 or females report the crime. Girls and women are threatened. The honor of the family lies between their legs. The onus is on them, not the perpetrator.

A reader cried and hugged me at the book launch for “Louisiana Catch,” saying, “Thank you for calling us survivors, not victims. Words make all the difference.” I have heard sexual assault victims admit that they want to feel inconspicuous and dress in a way that it garners no male attention. We ask women to cover up, we question their wardrobe, we make them feel terrible about their choices, instead of telling men to rework their ideologies and stop treating women as commodities or objects available at their discretion.

Changing the Narrative

survivor
Kirthi Jayakumar

Kirthi Jayakumar, founder of the Chennai-based The Gender Security Project and Saahas, reminds us, “If we’re still looking for justification to talk about sexual assault awareness, it only means we MUST keep talking about it. Sexual assault has physical, psychological, and psycho-social impacts. It is traumatizing and impedes on the agency of a survivor with violence. The actual details of how the impact manifests differs from person to person, but it definitely has painful and traumatizing impacts that can affect various aspects of one’s life.”

When I asked Jayakumar what inspired her to set forth on this journey, she said, “I start where the shoe pinches. It’s not okay that anyone faces violence at all.”

survivor
Aditi Davray

Aditi Davray, located in New York, works as the chief program officer for Exhale to Inhale. The organization positively impacts the lives survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault by bringing them trauma-informed wellness practices.

Davray says, “Exhale to Inhale works with a talented group of teachers and trainers to bring these yoga classes to survivors, and training and education to practitioners who support the healing of survivors. By resourcing themselves with the tools of trauma informed yoga survivors are able to regain their power of choice and feel empowered.”

When I asked Davray why she does what she does, she said, “About 10 years ago I set an intention to center my professional and personal values to uplift women whose daily lives have been impaired by adversity and work towards advancing gender equity in all spaces. All of us have seen the destructive effects of gender-based violence on individuals – either in homes, communities, societies, war-torn regions or oppressive regimes. The impact of gender-based violence is long lasting and depletes a person’s ability to lead a nourished life.”

The Need to Speak Up

Sandhya Renukamba

“Sexual assaults lie on a spectrum from a feeling of unease that comes from a sixth sense of one’s personal space and autonomy being breached, to the most violent of them all. Unfortunately, this is the only crime for which the survivor is blamed, and granted the shame and stigma that society attaches to it,” says Bangalore-based Sandhya Renukamba, the senior editor and community manager at Women’s Web, a free-to-read digital platform that enables women to tell their own stories.

“This also means that there is a culture of silence around it, and those affected are not just conditioned to, but are also actively discouraged to speak about it, any breach of this social code leading to further repercussions,” she says. “This makes it imperative that more of us speak up about it, create awareness, reassure those affected that they are not alone, are heard, and that what happened to them is in no way their fault, no matter what is said to them by others,”

How can you change the narrative in your family/circles to stop this crime?

You don’t have to be a survivor to support others. You don’t need shared experiences to empathize, speak up, help, and hold space. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This year, can we please stop telling girls and women to stay quiet, keep their heads down, so the “bad” man can ignore them and bother somebody else? This is how we perpetuate violence against girls and women.

Pause. Breathe. Make help accessible. Think of the damage sexual violation does to their mental, emotional, and physical health. It is heartbreaking.

“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become” ~ Carl Jung

Read more of Sweta Vikram’s columns on SEEMA, like Changing the World with Stories