#MeToo: How Does the World Judge the Wives, Daughters, and Sisters of Sexual Harassers?


#MeToo: How Does the World Judge the Wives, Daughters, and Sisters of Sexual Harassers?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

There’s black and there’s white. There are claws and there are wounds. There’s the predator and there’s the victim. Forms and definitions of abuse might change, but one thing is clear – that in this war between the sexes, women are the losers, even when predatory men are brought down.

As India’s #MeToo moment has proved, women are the collateral damage everywhere: Either as primary victims, or as secondary ones, when the men closest to us are exposed. And this is what puts women such as Mallika Dua (Vinod Dua’s daughter), Farah Khan (Sajid Khan’s sister), Ashu Singh (Alok Nath’s wife), and Richa Dubey (Vikas Bahl’s former wife) in extremely precarious positions. Their father, brothers, husbands have been called out, and now they are forced to take sides.

Wives and daughters of perpetrators – alleged or convicted – don’t have it easy. Psychiatrists loosely include them within the ambit of “secondary victims” given the sheer trauma they endure. And though Dua, Khan, Alok Nath, and Vikas Bahl are not hardened criminals and the allegations against them are yet to be proved, in an age when social media is the jury, judge, and executioner there’s hardly any time for these women to detach and have a dispassionate view of things crumbling around them.

Imagine waking up one morning and the world suddenly heckling you, telling you that the man you loved, adored, looked up to, or simply are with isn’t who you think he is. Instead he’s being accused of an act that stems out of deep-seated misogyny – reducing women to playthings. He’s a sexual predator, a possible rapist. Where does that leave you?

The first reaction from women in the lives of these men is more often than not vehement denial. Is this why Alok Nath’s wife Ashu Singh or Vikas Bahl’s former wife Richa Dubey didn’t bat an eyelid while questioning the story of the survivors, Vinta Nanda and Kangana Ranaut? Is this why Mallika Dua, who has spoken in support of the movement, Instagrammed a picture of her “hero”, her father?  

We live in a fast-to-vilify, quick-to-crucify world, but is it right to expect wives, daughters, sisters, and partners to look at an offence rationally?

Which brings us to the question of, are you really blind to the transgressions of your loved ones? There’s enough research out there that suggests otherwise. In most of the cases, the wife of an offender is aware of his misgivings. And yet they choose to look the other way. In a Telegraph report titled “What makes a woman stick by her rapist husband?”, Paula Hall, a sexual psychotherapist, says the partners of men convicted of sex offences know them in so many more ways than the headlines allow. “There may be some partners who stay out of naivety, out of their own fear of leaving the relationship because it is all they have known.”

That’s probably why Alok Nath’s wife did not believe her best friend Vinta Nanda when she confronted her after the assault. And that’s why she continues to back her husband, years later. Richa Dubey, Bahl’s former wife, too came to his defence and shamed Kangana for “giggling and going wining and dining” with her husband.  

This defence probably finds its roots in the centuries of social conditioning that women are subjected to. We are conditioned to “tolerate” men, to “adjust” and this culture of male impunity is not just ingrained in the minds of men. It’s ingrained in our minds too.    

Farah Khan, who was quick to tweet that if allegations against her brother Sajid are true, he had a “lot to atone for”, recently urged people – especially women – to imagine what would they go through if their fathers or sons were accused of sexual harassment. She asked people to be sensitive toward the families of the accused. Because they are still grappling with a reality that has turned their world upside down.

The sheer turmoil of coming to terms with what is and isn’t, is reflected in Mallika Dua’s post responding to sexual harassment allegations against her father by filmmaker Nishtha Jain. She wrote, “If at all my father is truly guilty of what you described, it is unacceptable, traumatic, and painful.” While she explicitly says, she is “in solidarity with the movement,” she also states that she will “stand by her father” in this battle.

We live in a fast-to-vilify, quick-to-crucify world, but is it right to expect wives, daughters, sisters, and partners to look at an offence rationally? Does it erase what the person has meant to his family? According to Debra Borys, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and sexual harassment expert, that’s the one question that never ceases to haunt the family of the accused. The answer, she says, is an emphatic no. It doesn’t. A “single bad incident” doesn’t begin to define a person. And yet, just how bad is that incident? And how far can you ignore the fact that there is another woman – or series of women – who have accused him of doing horrible things to them?  

What is the price you pay? How does the world judge you?

For Hillary Clinton, it probably cost her the presidency. Hillary, over the years, has refused to label the relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky an abuse of power, a stand Donald Trump was able to exploit during the presidential campaign. According to a Vox article, “Bill Clinton’s history has put Hillary Clinton in a difficult position. She can either call him to account publicly — and possibly leave him — or she can keep silent or defend him, knowing that in doing so, she discounts the experience of women who say he harmed them.” If a woman as powerful as Hillary sees shielding her husband as non-negotiable, is it fair to expect anything different from the other “regular”, not-so-influential women?  

Once again, however unfair it may seem, the onus is on the women. Today, we expect Mallika Dua, Farah Khan, and Ashu Singh to punish the men in their lives. To put on their superwomen cloak and look at the bigger picture, to fight the battle on behalf of other women. To clean up the garbage left behind by the men. Or else they’d be judged like how the world judges Hillary – the woman who lost the opportunity to make a dent in the fight against sexual harassment.   

No matter how it all unfolds, you will always find a woman at the losing end.