‘Shhhhh… I Need to Speak’: On Breaking Society’s Silence for the Sake of Justice

From a very young age, I was taught to be silent by everyone around me. To be silent in the face of conflict, to be silent in the face of disturbances outside and inside the home. I was told silence is a virtue to be learnt and treasured, especially in moments of conflicts that did not involve me.

I am beginning to question that age-old philosophy.

A YouTube video circulated in my social media feed a few days ago of two men gang-raping a woman in the holy Ganges river. I watched, transfixed with shock, at their audacity to rape and film their brutal attack.

The rape neither occurred late at night nor in a secluded part of the city. It was a bright day, around 11 am. Several women were washing their clothes by the banks of the river as this atrocity was happening a few feet away.

None of them spoke up.

My mind tried to explain this away. Surely, we cannot be so indifferent to a criminal act!

“The most prevalent form of cowardice in our day hides behind the statement ‘I did not want to become involved,’” wrote noted psychologist Rollo Reese May in her book The Courage to Create.

Being silent is being complicit in the act. This holds for both men and women.

We are trained to be silent right from a young age. Our families actively discourage any form of questioning. Our education system declares quiet students in school to be ‘good boys and girls’. Religious institutions focus on encouraging silence and obedience.

How, then, do we learn to speak up?

Deeply disturbed by the Holocaust, social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, conducted an experiment at Yale University in the 1960s. Students were ordered to engage in actions they believed would inflict increasing pain on others, actions which were likely in conflict with their conscience.  Would students disobey? Would they question orders?

Unfortunately, most did not.

“When you think of the long and gloomy history of man,” Milgram wrote in Obedience to Authority, his book distilling the lessons from his experiment, “you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.”

The same results hold today too. We are protecting criminals, within our own families and neighbourhood, under the veil of silence and obedience. In protecting them, we become guilty of that crime as well.

The easiest way out is to turn a blind eye to the events happening around us. It is easy to not question our neighbour when he beats up his wife, to not question our brothers and friends when they make sexist comments, to not intervene when a child is being abused and to hide our discomfort under a garb of excuses. ‘It is not my responsibility. It is wrong to interfere, maybe the victim actually deserves it. I don’t think I can create an impact, so why should I even try?’

We let this cycle of violence and abuse continue forever.

Speaking up is not easy. It is emotionally exhausting and scary to do it alone. Our intervention might fail, and we might even be put in danger. Hence, it is all the more important to do it together, so we can hold one another. To speak up to support the lone activist marching on the streets. To support the small group of citizens fighting to end crimes against women. To give each other time to rest while the marches and the protests continue. If not for your country, then for yourself.

For the next victim could be you.

Some of India’s greatest victories were won because we spoke up. We won our freedom because women and men in this land stopped remaining silent.

How can we then intervene in our day-to-day life and make crimes not-so acceptable anymore? Breakthrough’s Bell Bajao campaign gives us an example of small effective interventions.  The campaign urges men to intervene by ringing the doorbell when they notice an act of domestic violence happening in a home.

We women can ring that bell too, when we see violence around us. Each one of us can start exercising leadership in small ways around our lives.

Red Brigade, an organisation in Lucknow, teaches girls and women simple and effective self-defence techniques to not just protect themselves, but also to help others when they see an act of violence happening around them. The team teaches girls to speak up and fight against rape.

For a country that prides itself for its cultural values and religious institutions, isn’t it a mockery of religion to stand by and watch injustice happen before our eyes?

If we cannot speak up by the banks of the sacred Ganges for the sake of justice, where else can we?

If we cannot be courageous in the presence of human suffering, where else can we?

It is time we spoke up.

Mathangi Swaminathan is pursuing a masters in Public Administration in International Development at Harvard University.