July 2015: All praise for her speaking out about being gang raped in the viral Humans of Mumbai post.
They say there are two reasons one keeps secrets—because something is private or because something is wrong. Over the years, I find that secrets play an increasingly insignificant role in my life. Because, in my quest to have/be an ‘integrated personality’ (my friend Jordyn’s term for being the same person in all situations while responding to context, of course), I’ve been seeking to dispel the ‘private’ and reduce doing—and creating secrets of—things that I consider ‘wrong’.
In one aspect, Sapna’s and my views on secrets differ. “It took me 20 years to voice my incident, but for me a woman keeping it all within her because she has no other choice isn’t a sign of weakness—it’s a mark of strength and something we need to start respecting,” she says in her viral Humans of Mumbai post about being gang raped at 24. To my mind, the “no other choice” bit of the sentence contradicts the ‘silence is a mark of strength’ assertion, but I’m going to let that slide. At this point, I cannot compliment Ms Bhavnani enough.
Though she and I know each other and say hello when we see each other at parties, we’re not friends or anything. I’ve always admired her spunk, from the time she was writing those Sex and The City-style columns in Mumbai Mirror back in the day. Over the years I’ve watched her become increasingly activistic on Facebook where we are connected, stray cat this and village that, making the shift away from Bollywood that had claimed her for a brief moment. Then there was her role in the evocative play Nirbhaya…
And now this. Her post is a win in so many ways, big and small.
There’s the casual back-at-ya censure of society for labelling a 14-year-old a "whore" for talking to boys, driving motorcycles and smoking; and the contrast with Western freedoms. There’s the appropriation of the word ‘whore’, loud and proud.
Most important is her assertion that she never let the incident break her spirit.
One of the many problems with Indians’ attitudes towards rape is the exaggerated ‘haaaaw’ that society reserves for survivors. Even when it’s well-meaning: there were those who said it was good Jyoti Singh Pandey died, whatever would the poor thing do without her honour if she had survived?!
Don’t get me wrong: being raped is a terrible thing to happen to someone, raping someone is one of the worst things you can do. But victims of sexual violence left with no permanent physical damage could well choose to deal with the emotional scars by brushing the incident off as just another stick in the hole, no permanent physical damage done, big deal.
I have. Sapna took a (deeply symbolic) shower, and then pushed the incident to the back of her mind. This is not an option for women in environment where there are permanent social repercussions to reinforce the momentousness of that moment—as though your own emotional and physical trauma wasn’t enough.
Unlike most victims of sexual violence who internalise blame, it appears that Sapna kept the rape secret because it was private, and not because she felt she was in the wrong.
“I still wear short dresses and the brightest red on my lips,” she says, standing out as a beacon of hope. Yes, there can be—and is—life after rape. (Or anything else for that matter. As Jung said, “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.")
I’m glad she’s said it, after “keeping it all within her” all this while, and for the number of people it’s reached. I scroll down her Timeline and, 10 minutes of scrolling later, I’m still only seeing the flood of congratulatory messages (filled with words like "inspiration", "hero") coming her way about this post.
An edited version of this article appeared on iDiva in July 2015.