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Women Talking: Rethinking Our Discourse on Sexual Violence
Sexual violence is not happening in a bubble of few individuals who are cruel but in a worldwide context of patriarchy which must change.
“It is possible that the men in prison are not guilty of attacks, but is it possible that the men are guilty of not stopping the attacks? Are they guilty of knowing about the attacks and doing nothing?”
“We do know that the conditions have been created by men and that these attacks have been made possible because of the circumstances of the colony. And these circumstances have been created and ordained by the men.”
“It’s the elders’ quest for power that is responsible. Because they needed to have those, they’d have power over.”
“And, they have taught that lesson of power to the boys and men of the colony. And the boys have been excellent students.”
The premise of ‘Women Talking’ - survivors of sexual violence sitting down to talk about what must be done for them to survive after they were attacked - itself is an uncanny representation of how our society deals with sexual violence. In the movie (which won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2023 Oscar Awards), after the attacks, the women go to the police and the elders of their colony. The results in the arrest of some men of whom only few can be identified by eyewitnesses because most of the survivors were drugged using animal tranquillizers and hence could not identify their attackers. As the women sit down to take stock of their options they do so alone. They are aware that soon the men who were arrested will be let go on bail and nothing will change for the women. There won’t be any justice and there won’t be anyone to protect them from further attacks. Only these women who are the direct victims of this violence are present to try to find a way for themselves. And, as the discussion goes on there is a scene which brings up this gap in accountability and the centre for where the culpability for such violence lies.
What is said in the dialogues mentioned at the beginning of this essay is of importance because we need to take a hard look at the conditions which allow for sexual violence to go on in our society. There are power centres of patriarchy within all the leaders of communities which allow for sexual violence to go unreported, unpunished, and continue to be rampant decade after decade. It is visible in our legal systems, social systems, and even in how sexual violence is dealt with within homes.
This dialogue also reminded me of author Shashi Deshpande’s thoughts after the rape of Jyoti Singh from her book, Listen To Me. She said that above all else, rape is an expression of contempt and hatred for all women. After the incident the remarks made by many politicians such as, ‘boys will be boys’ also spoke to Deshpande as statements smacked of hatred of women. She asks “Where do these statements come from? Where does this hatred come from? And how can we expect men, whose minds are dark pits of such ideas and thoughts about women, to be passing laws that benefit women?”
Sexual assault is not and never has happened in isolation. We must stop viewing perpetrators of sexual violence as exceptions to ‘not all men’ as many writers have said, we must first acknowledge that there is a problem before we can solve it, ‘Women Talking’ does exactly this. It is spelling out the problem in the clearest way possible that sexual violence is not happening in a bubble of few individuals who are cruel but in a worldwide context of patriarchy which must change. So, when we talk about rape, we must talk about patriarchy and the decision to control one group’s (women) sexuality and bodies by another group (men). We must talk about how ‘the way things always have been’ and ‘how the world works’ are actually comfortable segues which try to wash away the truth of what men in power are doing to women’s lives every day.
With this understanding of how few men are interested in making the world safer for women and other gender minorities, it begins to become clear how disheartened we feel as a group with men who are choosing every day to do nothing. As we go on with our lives how often are we seeing justice and actions to address causes of violence around us? There is grief here from being let down by our fellow humans who make the choice to allow us to be hurt again and again. There is deep discontent and sometimes even hatred for men. The movie once again displays this sentiment brilliantly in a scene where the women are discussing their options for the future. One option is to stay and fight, quite literally with their lives and hence give up their lives; another option is to leave the colony entirely and start again elsewhere. Here, one of the women of the group, suggests that maybe they can ask the men to leave instead, when one of the oldest women present, Agatha, played by veteran actor Judith Ivey, says,
“None of us has ever asked the men for anything. Not a single thing. Not even for the salt to be passed. Not even for a penny, or a moment alone; or to take the washing in, or to open a curtain; or to go easy on the small yearlings; or to put your hand on the small of my back while I try again for the 12th or 13th time to push a baby out of my body. Isn’t it interesting that the one and only request that we women would have of the men would be for them to leave.”
When an oppressed group is given no right to a voice, when they even stop asking for things they need or imagining that they can ever have them, perhaps then we can see how heartbreakingly deep the oppression is. While across groups of women with different amounts of privilege there will be those who are able to ask for the things they want, but most of the time we just settle for the idea that ‘at least he doesn’t…’ and you can fill in the blank. Some may have the privilege to say about the men in their lives that at least he doesn’t hit, rape, leave, cheat on me and the list goes on. But many others cannot say the same.
Even those who are able to say this are bartering or as author Bonnie Burstow in her book, Radical Feminist Therapy says, ‘buying protection from men at large at the price of submission to an individual violator.’ - these basic human rights for many other daily injustices and living diminished lives. This line from Burstow puts in context the above dialogue as well, that since we have already been granted ‘protection’ (from other men) by the men in the family, asking for anything more makes women seem ungrateful and greedy by men. To be able to ask your spouse to pass the salt, do laundry, or just be gentle seem like daunting tasks and are often fought for even by those who might have the spouses who will abide.
I am not speaking here to the exceptions here who will say ‘not my husband’ or ‘not my father’; but to the others who have to live this reality. Looking at the collective group of women we will find, time and again, that they are unable even to ask for the violence to stop. Because the conditions around them ensure they can’t. When one then looks at women’s situation from these perspectives is it any surprise that there is discontent, and hatred one can feel for the oppressor?
Author Pauline Harmange in her book on misandry as a political stance, ‘I Hate Men’ speaks of something very similar. She says, ‘Ultimately, misandry is a principle of precaution. Having spent so much time being at best disappointed and at worst abused by men - all the more having absorbed the feminist theory that articulates patriarchy and sexism - it’s quite natural to develop a carapace and stop opening up to the first man who comes along and swears on his heart that he’s a really good guy.’
In the dialogue mentioned above and Harmange’s views, it starts to become evident that the generational trauma plus the lived experience of women have led us to this point where there is the lifting of the illusion that men are interested in changing anything at all. And eventually we must turn only to each other in order to even dream of a different future.
While the women in this movie contemplate leaving the colony and hence the men behind, a debate about the younger boys erupts. Claire Foy’s character, Salome, who has pre-teen and teen sons argues that they are her children and they must go with her. Some others wonder how safe the women will be, if the boys who go with them turn out just like their fathers. They turn to the colony’s schoolteacher, August (the only man asked to attend and quietly take minutes of the meeting), at this point to ask his opinion and his response which begins with a description of the nature of young boys is searing. He speaks of something that public discourse barely scratches the surface of. Can young boys be taught differently? It is of great relevance not just as a society to ask this question but more brilliantly highlighted in this movie because there are many women who have sons and many who will be mothers to sons. Is there hope that they can teach them a different way to be? The teacher says, “… with guidance, firm love, and patience these boys are capable of relearning their roles in the colony. I believe in what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought were the cardinal rules of early education. To work by love and so generate love. To habituate the mind to intellectual accuracy and truth. To excite imaginative power. He said, little is taught by contest or dispute, everything by sympathy and love.”
These dialogues are said between interchanging glimpses of the women talking to the teacher and montage visuals of young boys playing in the colony. The mise en scène causes shivers as a viewer, because the teacher speaks of the great amount of violence these boys are capable of, and also that yes, there is a way to teach them otherwise. There is a way to not see them and let them become beasts who not only hurt women but also each other. When I began watching this movie, I knew it wouldn’t be easy for me. It would make me sob and feel deep despair. But I didn’t expect that it could make me feel hope. And, yet it does that.
The word dreamers was used in the movie to describe something that can seem so far away that it often seems ephemeral, and that is a hope for change. In a blazing performance Rooney Mara, who plays the character Ona, says, “We are women without a voice. We have nothing to return to, even the animals are safer in their homes than we women are. All we have are our dreams. So, of course we are dreamers.”
Despite the suffering portrayed in this movie, it does what to me seemed impossible, which is make you hope. It also makes you smile. You watch these fictional women sit down and talk until they choose a way forward for themselves. You watch the youngest of the girls who were also raped, attend the meeting, but attend by running around the older women giggling as they play their games. And, witnessing this group’s solidarity, togetherness, tenderness makes you wonder if maybe we can also do the same for ourselves in the real world. It is not new information that women can come together to hold, support, and help heal each other, but the pivotal point is that this movie is a reminder that we need to reach out and talk about it. We women, trans, gender queer, and even many men are constant victims of sexual violence, the suffering from which seems like an immeasurable ocean with no end. Bonnie Barstow’s book also mentions the the one of tenets of radical therapy which employs the understanding that:
Action + Awareness + Contact = Power
To me this movie has said the same thing in a different medium. Eventually, Women Talking is a movie which adds substantially to the discourse on sexual violence by asking us to unite, and think about rehabilitation from sexual violence, as well as a way forward. We are suffering and we need to sit down together and talk. That is power, and how we can grasp and use it to dream of another reality. It is true that women are different when they are in a group without men. Typically in India, women aren’t allowed to congregate just to talk. From a young age they are drowning in labour in and outside the household. One of the few spaces that adult women are “permitted” to congregate without raising suspicion is for religious activities. So, maybe I can take Ona’s smile and hope with me and dream that when women in India get together to cook feasts for Ramzan, or attend a bhajan-mandali once a week, they start to talk about their future and that of women in general like the women in this movie. Even if it is only dreams, maybe the dreams will give us strength to survive.
Written and contributed by Stuti Saxena, a queer-affirmative therapist based in Mumbai. Stuti is passionate about feminism, poetry, and animals.
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