I have remained silent for over a year about the sexual assault/rape of an American Fulbright researcher by the founder-storyteller of the art form Dastangoi and the Peepli Live co-director Mahmood Farooqui.
But now that the fast track court trial is over, I want to speak about what I have known during this period.
First off, I would like to say that I know both the man convicted of rape by the court and the woman-victim of the rape.
I have known Mahmood Farooqui for about 5-6 years now. I was a huge admirer of his Dastangoi work. I had asked him to write an essay about this theatrical story-telling artform as intangible cultural heritage for a museum journal I was guest-editing. He is an intellectually sharp man and a creative powerhouse. After that, I began going to his home for the monthly story-telling practise sessions called baithaks. And met other members of his family and the Dastangoi team. Over the past 9 years, I have followed the Dastangoi stage performances keenly.
I am also a friend of the rape survivor, the American citizen. She and I met for the first time to have a conversation about museums – this was a few months before the incident occurred. And then after that, we became friends and met some more times. She has been coming to India for many years and is an Indophile and is an expert in languages and scriptures.
Two days after the incident occurred, the survivor messaged me and asked to meet. I was in my office. I did not know what it was about. She came over and she narrated the entire incident for two hours – in tears, anger, shock and loathing. She had been friends with Mahmood Farooqui and his wife. She had met Mahmood Farooqui for help with her research work in Gorakhpur (Mahmood Farooqui hails from that place).
She met me that day not because I am a journalist. But as a woman-friend. In her narration to me, there was a lot of shock and disbelief over what he had done to her. She wrote an email to him telling him what he did to her was wrong, and that he should know he cannot go through life doing this to other women. He replied to her email with a short apology.
But her anger and trauma did not end there. It wasn’t just an apology she was seeking.
She went back to the U.S. to be among her people, friends, family and her university system. She complained to the university. She sought legal advice. She tried to heal. She tried to process the incident mentally when she was home. Then she looked at her little niece and said to herself – “I always teach her to stand up and fight if someone harmed her. Would I ever be able to tell her that again if I remain silent now?”
Mahmood Farooqui is socially and intellectually influential. He enacts stage performances about injustice, human rights and gender. He is a Rhodes scholar. How can such a learned man ever do this, many asked.
Others said: She knew him, they were close friends. How can it be rape?
As if education and familiarity negates the act of rape automatically.
Even if I have known a man for long, a sexual act without my consent is rape. It has nothing to do with his education or his progressive support for the right causes. It has everything to do with the fundamental inability to hear and understand the meaning of the word “No.”
She said to me: “I have always been the person who owns her body and sexuality. What happened to me that night took that ownership away.”
She returned after a couple of months to India and filed an FIR.
Questions were asked about why she delayed filing the FIR. It is not always easy when you have known and trusted the perpetrator. It is easier to rush to the police station when it is a cab driver, or bus driver or stranger lurking in the shadows of the street. But when you know the assaulter – you go through several stages of coming to terms with it – shock, hurt, anger, loathing, self-questioning, shattered trust and so on.
She was also afraid of the rampant victim-shaming that goes on in India in rape cases. She wondered aloud that day if she would be able to survive the “blame-the-victim” mind-set that is so prevalent here.
And she did face that a lot during the pre-trial stage and in court. During the trial, her family in the U.S. and other places were inconsolable. She told her mother not to come to India because she did not want to expose her mother to the barbs and hostility she faced from Mahmood Farooqui's family and friends in court. She went through the court trial alone.
Overnight, a number of Mahmood Farooqui’s friends shunned her. In that circle, it was a virtual warzone and the lines were drawn over whose side you were on. The male friends and supporters of Mahmood spoke of a certain “bro-code” that needed to be upheld.
They even called her friends and asked them to “mediate” and drop the case. When we read in the newspapers how village elders and Khap elders attempt to "mediate" in rape cases, we get so angry and call them backward. But when we do it in the cities for our friends, it is part of a "bro-code."
The survivor did not think about the outcome of the trial. She is not out to get revenge or send him to jail for x number of years. Her impulse behind filing the FIR was simple – she had to act. Silence was not a choice. She wanted to believe in the law and the system. And by that mere act of believing in the system, she moved the battle forward – not just for so many other women like us but for her own path to internal recovery. She reclaimed some of her own sense of who she was.
“I will not let Mahmood Farooqui’s act rob me of my idea of who I am,” she said to me.
In this, there is a lesson for all of us. We are too familiar with the way the system works. We complain about police investigations, court trials, victim blaming and so on. But only if we keep pushing the system – and acting as if we believe that the process of justice is 100 per cent perfect – will the system eventually work.
She did not have the luxury of silence. And we do not have the luxury of cynicism.
First posted on Facebook by Rama Lakshmi