Why Are We Silent? #MeToo in South Asia Subcontinent and Diaspora: A Conversation

By | December 3, 2021

This week, in a series of blog takeovers, we’re looking at #MeToo and Literary Studies with posts from the collection’s contributors.

Guest post by Somia R. Bibi and Nidhi Shrivastava

In this conversation, Somia R. Bibi and Nidhi Shrivastava discuss the limitations of the #MeToo movement in the South Asian subcontinent and diaspora. In particular, we question – why is there silence in the subcontinent and the diaspora surrounding the representations of raped and abducted women of the 1947 Partition in our respective communities and mainstream media discourse? Ultimately, we conclude that mainstream media construct narratives that privilege the stories of some over others, with issues of shame, izzat and policing women’s bodies compounding the silence in South Asian communities.

Shrivastava: Recently, Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old US blogger, went missing during a cross-country road trip. A media storm grew and millions followed her story in newspapers, broadcasting news channels, and across social media. One of the criticisms emerging from this case was that the media does not react in a similar way when Indigenous, Black, or other minority women go missing. What are your thoughts?

Bibi: I think the criticism is valid and it highlights the disparity of representations in America and other countries, who like to say that they are progressive and inclusive. These gaps, silence in the news coverage reveal the tensions that exist, with how Indigenous and non-White women are represented. It potently reflects the structural discrimination they continue to face. Interestingly, on social media like Twitter, you will see more posts and groups highlighting the discrimination and issues that indigenous/non-White women experience but mainstream media does not do the same. There is a hierarchy of privilege in which voices are heard/highlighted the most – at the intersections of race, class and age.

Shrivastava: Yes, I agree. When we think of the #MeToo movement and what challenges and struggles the movement faces. I was reading Tarana Burke’s memoir, Unbound. Burke feared that the hashtag would not be used for the right purposes as it was designed to instigate feelings of empathy among rape victim-survivors. In the literati group that I am in, many were shocked that a Black woman founded the movement, not Alyssa Milano. This similarity ties into the rape crisis in India. The turning point for the Indian rape culture in India was the 2012 Delhi rape case. In the aftermath, however, newspapers only covered rape cases that dated back to the 1970s, but none discussed the experiences of raped and abducted women of the Partition. Have their experiences been discussed in the UK diaspora?

Bibi: There have been no long-term or sustained mainstream conversations of these women’s experiences. It can be argued that our society does not like to confront the past. Society is massively uncomfortable with something that is unpalatable and recognising the dark side of colonialism and its consequences. With that said, there is a British Partition Education group working on embedding Partitions Studies within the educational system here. The online magazine DESIblitz also had an article looking at what women experienced during the partition – the article was emotive and painful in the facts it highlighted. However, the Partition was not mentioned in my school, when I talked to my friends and family. Even now people just don’t talk about it, outside select spaces.

Shrivastava: Yes, it is the same with my upbringing too. I did not learn about the Partition until undergrad in my South Asian Studies politics course.

Bibi: Yes, also because of the current political conflicts that have happened, it becomes so much more difficult to find the language to speak about it. We also have to keep in mind the silence exists in the diaspora communities as well.

Shrivastava: Yes, there is the 1947 Partition Archive in Berkley, California, which has been collecting stories of Partition survivors. There is an attempt to preserve South Asian culture in New Jersey, Connecticut, and even Massachusetts, where I am from. There are temples and cultural centres which celebrate Hindu festivals, for example, but there is no memorialization of the Partition; forget about women’s experiences. In fact, in the U.S, I would argue that while there are memorialization efforts in academic spheres/archives, it is scattered and in certain regions.

Bibi: Another issue is that within South Asian communities in Asia and the diaspora the shame associated with rape and gender-based violence leads to a lack of vocalization. When it comes to sexual violence, even child abuse, it’s not discussed as it makes people extremely uncomfortable, especially since female bodies and virginity are compellingly tied to ideas of izzat (Hindi/Urdu: honor). The silence is deafening and infuriating.

Shrivastava: Indeed, it is interesting that diaspora communities feel the repercussions of shame and feel the need to preserve their culture more. The pressure of preserving a woman’s izzat is so great. But, still, we have to discuss the experiences of women during the Partition, rather than pretend they didn’t happen. But, the shame also means the shame of women who lost their honor to men from rival communities.

Partition remains an emotive and polarizing issue within South Asian communities. The tensions framing the subject of Partition are compounded when discussing the realities of the gender-based violence women experienced. The abject discomfort and silence within Asian communities, in Asia and the diaspora, on the violence women endured and legacy of such acts needs to be shattered. This is a part of our history that needs confronting, but how do we do this in a manner that is not restricted to specific academic and activist spaces?

Dialogues and stories need to be engaged with, within communities, a medium through which this could be fostered is the inclusion of Partition studies in schools and more mainstream media and cultural discussions.

It is important to recognize that while #MeToo has brought the issue of sexual violence to the forefront, our work has only begun.

Somia R Bibi is working on completing her Sociology PhD thesis at the University of Warwick. Her research focuses on a nuanced exploration of British South Asian women’s lived experiences of racialized beauty, with a specific focus on shadeism and skin lightening. In her research, she has found academic scholarship and public focus is prevailingly outside the context of Britain and the South Asian Diaspora. She is also an Outreach Worker at Himaya Haven CIC and a writer at DESIblitz.

Nidhi Shrivastava is a PhD Candidate in English and Writing Studies at the University of Western Ontario. Her research focuses on the limitations of the #MeToo movement in India vis-a-vis the shifting representations of raped and abducted women in Hindi cinema and television. Her research focuses on gender and sexual violence, media studies, genocide studies, and Partition studies. She also teaches as a part-time faculty at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT.

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