Thinky Post: Why Do We Hide the Names of Abuse Survivors, is It Related to “Sharam”?

Oh boy, a Patriarchy Post! And one that I don’t really have an answer for, that’s why it is a “thinky” post.

I just watched a documentary on the Hillsong church and it walked through a whole series of situations in which congregants were abused, most of them women abused by men. But there was one instance that really stood out to me. And it wasn’t a case of abuse, at least, not until it was over perhaps?

A celebrity pastor knew it was about to come out that he was having an affair, so he got in ahead and announced it himself. And then sent a message to his girlfriend, “don’t worry, I spent a lot of money to make sure your name doesn’t come out”. And then he ignored all her calls and texts after that. And it was THAT which made her feel the worst. She knew he was married, she knew he was a hypocrite who preached monogamy while cheating on his wife, she was age appropriate and experienced and not even a member of his congregation (they met fully outside of church). But to be told at the end of the relationship that he had decided for her that she would not want to be known, and then cut off, that was when she felt the least amount of control.

And I agreed with her. Yes, it was generally a toxic relationship, as these things with married men usually are. He lied to her, it was all on his terms, she was left waiting by the phone hoping he would call, and when she tried to break away suddenly he was love bombing her to get her to stay. But the idea of him telling her that she wasn’t part of this story, that he was separating her from the story, closing her off in a little silent walled in cell, that was the worst of it all. And so she spoke up, she reached out to the media herself because she wanted to be a face and a name and a voice in this whole thing.

This was one story of many, and most of them had the usual sort of victim blaming storyline. Woman is assaulted, she feels ashamed, she feels it is her fault, she finally comes out and reports it and is told “are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure you are strong enough for all the backlash? Why don’t we just handle it internally”. I knew that the coverup is almost always part of the crime, and leads to more crimes in a terrible cycle, but it hadn’t occurred to me before to think of it as a very particular kind of separate abuse.

If you are told “I will speak for you, I will hide your name, I will protect you from the world”, it says “I think you have something to hide, I think you have something to be ashamed of”. On the other hand, it is also a reality that many survivors of abuse will struggle to cope with public discussion of their situation, will have family or friends who won’t understand. But is it better to say “I will keep this confidential” or is it better to say “there is no reason for this to be confidential, you have nothing to be ashamed of”?

Bhavana Menon just did this. When word first broke about Dileep ordering her kidnapping and rape as punishment for disrespecting him, her name was public and available, even I saw it. And then the police shut it down, she was forced into this shadow world where everyone knew it was her but she couldn’t be officially identified (if nothing else, “well known Kerala actress who co-starred with Prithviraj and now hasn’t worked since 2017” is a really small pool). And now after 5 years, she is speaking up and saying her own story in her own voice instead of being hidden and silenced.

I actually ran into this in a tiny tiny TINY way in my own life. At my work, it is common for the group I supervise to share a lot of things with the general work conversation. Like, we won’t put “out for doctor appt” on the calendar, we will put something like “out for mammogram, blech!”. And my boss has mentioned multiple times that he doesn’t want us to feel like we need to justify our time off, we can take time off whenever. And every time he mentions it, one of my group will make a point of saying “but what if we WANT to say that?”

I don’t think he gets what we are saying. Telling us “don’t put mammogram or kids dentist appt or therapist on the calendar” says “I am expecting that you feel ashamed and embarrassed about those things”. Yes, of course, we know that we don’t HAVE to put everything on the calendar, and we don’t always. But if we say it, we want to say it. We aren’t ashamed, and who is he to judge that we should be? As I said, it’s a very tiny thing, but I think that’s why it bothers me. We have the ability to make our own decisions as to what we want to disclose and not disclose. And we have the ability to make our own personal judgements as to what we feel needs to be private and what doesn’t. Going to a therapy appointment, or getting a pap smear, shouldn’t be something we are ashamed of. And I’m not going to tell my staff “please don’t say that on the shared calendar”. I’m not even going to imply it, I’m going to contradict and say “but if you want to share, please do so”. Does that make sense?

So if I am, for instance, a survivor of sexual abuse (I’m not), and someone says to me “would you like to remain anonymous in the police report?” it is telling me “whoa, is there a reason I should be? Are people going to judge me for this? Should I be judging myself?” The kindly meant offer comes with a judgement. Even more so is the “you have to be anonymous” situation, a major decision has already been made for you, and you KNOW society is/will judge you.

That’s where the Indian films come in. It’s a semi-common trope in Indian films for the heroine to be not “ruined” really, but because of a misunderstanding, “ruined” in the eyes of society. That’s this whole situation turned upside down. There was no ACTUAL abuse, the only abuse is in the reactions people have to the imagined abuse. Which also means that all we need to do to prevent the bad stuff is to just NOT CARE.

This is a major plot point for Ayesha Takia’s character in Wanted, the evil cop trying to make her his mistress fakes a rape. So that she will be “ruined” in the eyes of society and have no choice but to be his mistress. And it almost works! The idea of “well, if everyone already thinks you were raped, what’s the difference if it actually happens?” is an expected argument.

Maybe another comparison would be the journey LGBTQ+ people have to make in some societies? We saw that beautifully in Badhaai Ho. There was no magical solution, society is still a disaster, but they just decided to live their lives not caring. They had nothing to be ashamed of, they had no reason to be “anonymous”.

I’m noticing this trend more and more in the true crime stuff I am watching. Survivors don’t WANT to be anonymous. They want to show their faces and names and tell their stories for themselves, their whole stories. It’s healing, it’s cleansing, it’s better than being wrapped in layers of cotton wool like the world will break you. There is an increasing use of, for instance, victim impact statements in abuse trials, people standing up and making the world see and hear them.

I don’t have an answer, that’s why this is just a thinky post. But I know sometimes survivors of abuse do need to remain anonymous for their own safety. And now I am also thinking about how sometimes even suggesting anonymity creates a new moment of abuse and shame.

What do you think? Is there a way to offer anonymity without layering on more shame? Should it ever be something that is decided FOR someone else?

And is this why #MeToo is so powerful? Because it gave woman a chance to stand up and say “this happened to me” without anyone telling them to be quiet for their own good?

4 thoughts on “Thinky Post: Why Do We Hide the Names of Abuse Survivors, is It Related to “Sharam”?

  1. This is making me think about the difference between “opt-out” and “opt-in” (for paternity leave, charity donations, vaccines…). In theory you have the same autonomy either way but which one is the default makes a big difference in people’s behavior.

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    • Yes! Or even giving an “opt in” option for not being anonymous. Like, your choice is “do you want to be anonymous or do you want to give a victim statement?” Versus, “do you want to be anonymous or just, like, on your own living by yourself?”

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  2. I think society is still in the process of catching on to the fact that talking about it is often healthier. Be that coming out, telling the kids they’re adopted, or, well, just sharing the fact that you have to have a mammogram. But I do agree with your boss that it’s also important not to force anyone into talking.
    Ideally, it should always be obvious to everyone that it’s always up to the individual how much they want to share of their own experiences. Even in criminal cases – of any kind, whether theft or abuse.

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    • Oh! This comes in in true crime conman cases too! Victims feel humiliated for “falling” for the con and are embarrassed to talk to the police. That’s a case where they often aren’t offered privacy, and maybe if you knew going to the police about the man who stole your social security checks wouldn’t result in yoru kids finding out and putting you in a home, you would be more likely to report it.

      On Mon, Mar 28, 2022 at 8:01 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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