Why Life taught me to be a Bad Ass
Yes. This is my #MeToo story and hence it's #TimesUp to step out from the shadows. Let's #SpeakUp, says Ethel Da Costa
As a 22-year-old full of life, dreams and desires of a young, idealistic woman, I had come into the world of Media. To use my voice to change the world. But, life decided it had to teach me to change myself first. That’s how my marriage to another young, handsome Goan boy happened. He was 26. A whirlwind courtship of 5 months and rose petals blossoming, I had got married. Much to the protest of my father. But I was idealistic. You see, I was going to change the world.
He was a Journalist too. And together, we would change the world. How wrong I was.
The average Indian male, and Goan included, believes that a wife, a woman, is different from a girlfriend. A wife, once wed, is seriously your property. To hold as collateral, to barter against family, to cater to your needs, to abuse and damage at will. To sell even. Isn’t India rife with stories of wives pushed into prostitution so their husbands can live off their bodies? I was an educated girl, but abuse does not check your degrees, or designation, your community or country. It does just that, ABUSE your self worth.
When I was slapped by the husband for the first time, I was shocked. Then made to believe it was my fault. Each abuse then further committed on my body and spirit to reinstate that my worthlessness was because I had not bought dowry enough to afford a life of comfort, because he poor thing had to go to work, whilst making no bones living off my work. Abused, because I was not of the same caste, or class or stature. Abused, because I was not good enough in the kitchen to feed him, not good enough to give in to conjugal demands at his will, not good looking or stylish enough as other wives and girlfriends of friends and family, not wife enough to sacrifice my dreams to lift his up. Every time I was hit, beaten, it was always MY FAULT.
By 25-years-old I had truly began to believe that I was not good enough for anything, so I contemplated suicide. I had disappointed my parents, I had disappointed my teachers, I had disappointed myself. But guess what, I did not have the courage to take my own life, despite my attempt. My work colleagues remember me coming to work with bruises. They talked to me for support, some extended help wholeheartedly, some out of pity, some gossiped the kind yellow journalism would look purple. I have not forgotten each one of my oppressor in Goa. I know them by face, I know them by name. My parents, I had broken their heart, even as I struggled every single day of my young life to mend mine. To keep it together, not to give up on myself. Because a woman who is abused in our country is always made to believe that IT IS HER FAULT. I distinctly remember the night my father came to take me home, when I had finally decided that I was NOT going to be a statistic. He reminded me even as the lengthy process of filing the police complaint, medical examination and treatment at the hospital following my battery, that I was not alone. He reminded me that he was my father, and extremely proud of me. I was 28.
What followed in the course of my emancipation was a barrage of oppressors, some educated, some not, some prejudice, some downright evil, women and men, quick to point fingers. You see, I had dared to voice out my oppression, and I continue to do so till today. I have never looked back on that life, or the person ever again.
Why is this story important to be shared?
It is, because our lives depend on it. Abuse changes a woman completely. Her fractured psyche never fully recovers. Abused women will tell you how they bandage their wounds, old skin grows back, but the brain remembers. I agree, it is not easy for an abused woman to say #MeToo,” You have no right to abuse me. I have not given you the permission, nor the power of abuse against me.” When a woman is abused, her power is snatched from her, forcefully, against her will. When an abused woman raises her voice at home or her work place, she does so from a position of great vulnerability. She is human. She is NOT trash! Does she give voluntary consent to be physically beaten, threatened, violated, torn, to be mocked at, compromised into assault, to be shamed ? She DOES NOT. When a woman is abused, she does not suffer alone, but has to bear the additional brunt of having her family to suffer `shame’ with her. And that is the perhaps the sole reason why 70% of women who bear abuse of some form or the other, even in Goa, do not step forward to protect themselves. You see, Indian women have been brain-washed into carrying the heavy weight of `honor’ `respect’ `pride’ `value’ for their families. It is true even in this era where women are highly educated by degrees, but not in the emancipation of their individual minds. The men can do as they wish at will.
Why our Industry is rife with #MeToo and the silence is deafening
It begins at home and spills into the work place. In an environment of competition and ambition, many qualities that make us `humane’ are lost. Some by consent, some out of fear, some because they don’t believe in the power of their own self or individuality.
My work as a Media Journalist/Editor/Head/Station Director/Founder-CEO, has taken me from Goa to the rest of the world, often working head to shoulders with women and men. Each city, each country with a fair share of #MeToo and enablers of silence. “They will `slut-shame’ us,” I’m often told by women facing abuse and sexual harassment. While it is true that I have seen an environment of `consent’ in the Media, Film, Fashion and Advertising industry in Goa and Mumbai, where some women use their bodies as a necessary prerogative to climbing the ladder faster, who take the `short-cut,’ get promoted out of turn, experience or qualification, head-walk the ramp, land a prestigious campaign, lead role in a film and so on. There are others left behind, sometimes much talented and ambitious too, because she did not `walk the talk.‘ Some fight and thrive, despite the harassment. It is this category of women I wish to address here. Because let no one tell you that the only way to rise in life and in your career is to grease the couches of your boss, superior, show head, HOD, director or producer. Absolutely not!
As career women, in big or small professions, we have an equal right to opportunity, pay, and benefits. However hard fought given our consent to silence and turning a blind eye to misconduct around us. Fashion photographer colleagues in Mumbai tell me, “But this happens every day. This is how it is. The big ones will not give you work if you talk,” so models and actors are forced into silence. But this is NOT the story for every woman to toe this line to survive in a competitive work space. Most times, it is a collusion of turning blind eyes collectively that lets crime exist, because, guess what? women do not stick up for other women. They don’t fight the fight together, hence missing out on the power of their own collective voice to change a system, right a wrong, file a police complaint, seek legal, and bring about change to our gender. Do you know that the Law, if you cannot afford a lawyer, allows you to free legal aid? Ask your local police station. Ask questions, as many as you can.
What then is the solution ?
#TimesUp for Industry to weed the evil
On every seat or designation my work has found me, it has been my conscious decision to watch my own back, and watch out for my women colleagues. Being blunt and straight also means that I have missed out, or, been overlooked for pay equality, promotion and opportunity, because you don’t play into office politics or coterie shenanigans. It is my conscious choice to stay `clean.’ It is a choice, made from a sense of personal empowerment, which translates into professional empowerment. This stance has found me friends, as well as enemies. What then is the plight of less educated girls, or impoverished women who have no recourse to law, counsel, resolve or justice?
The solution is simple — since statistically the crime rate against women in our country continues to horrify the rest of the world, except our policy makers – is to change the narrative of how we report a crime against us, whether at work or home. I suggest this:
- By voicing your stance of personal disapproval.
- Taking course of the Police by an act of an FIR.
- Seeking out legal counsel.
- Talking to your boss directly.
- Approach women bodies for a support system.
- Fight back your oppressor, shout, bring attention
- Make Self Defense for girls a mandatory subject in school
Given the scenario crimes against women in India is up by 2.9% in 2016 over 2015, as per National Crime Records Bureau 2016: Cruelty by Husband or his Relatives at 32.6%; Assault on Women with Intent to Outrage her Modesty at 25.0%; Rape at 11.5%; Kidnapping & Abduction of Women at 19.0%, with reported Rape cases seeing an increase of 12.4% from 34,651 cases in 2015 to 38,947 in 2015. These are just reported incidences. What of the silent victims? India’s multi-million Media, Film and Fashion Industry looked upon as the fastest growing vertical churning money, dreams and careers, is NOT a safe zone. Often I tell mothers who send me photographs of their daughters wanting to model/act. I tell bluntly, “educate them instead. This is not a play field as your child or you assume.”
Movies depict reel life stories. Movies in reality are also dirty grounds for human exploitation, women being its recipients. I know actors by name who come on to even journalists. Designers who exploit models (female or male) for a break. Advertising CEOs who will pass on a talent for somebody who rubbed him the `right way.’ These are mine fields of our careers.
Given the reality, it is now a matter of policy that must dictate each organisation to install a mandatory legal body/cell to address sexual harassment at the work place. Because IT IS #TimesUp. Policy must make it mandatory for each media group –big or small –advertising conglomerate or agency, to appoint a cell as a mandatory checklist required for registration of a company. Each office must be enabled with a non-bias means to legal advisor/counsellor to front the issues of women at work. We, Women, must ask individually and collectively if an organisation has re-dressal bodies at the time of our recruitment by HRs, CEOs or Editors, as a fundamental right to ensure our own well-being. Because our hard work contributes to the growth of our employers. Our work places are extended homes. Same applies to our surroundings. It is our right to safety, as vital as breathing to stay alive. This policy must be enforced rigorously as a mandatory yardstick for organisations by Labour Departments across the country and cities, to ensure and check if each industry vertical meets the `Best Place to Work’ or `Best Practise’ norms to determine the safety of its employees. As employees we must have the freedom to decide if our employer deserves our hard work and time. A similar body for the fashion and film industry is urgent to empower every girl seeking to make a decent living, so that she is allowed to make a decent living without fear or compromise. Each woman at her home and work place must demand this as her right to live safe to collectively contribute a change in the #MeToo narrative, and bring quality to our lives, spirits, spaces.
This is my story. What is yours? Speak Up! Be brave, be self aware. Step out from the shadows.
Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise you that names will be withheld on condition of anonymity and your right to privacy.
Please download this HANDBOOK On Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace for Employers / Institutions / Organisations/Internal Complaints Committee / Local Complaints Committee by Ministry of Women and Child Development, Govt of India: https://www.iitk.ac.in/wc/data/Handbook%20on%20Sexual%20Harassment%20of%20Women%20at%20Workplace.pdf
*This article was published in the GOMANTAK TIMES, Feb 27, 2018