-->

19 August 2021

It's Time to End This Silence

This is a film and music blog. I rarely make personal posts here, nor do I opine on current matters. But in recent days, the Malayali community has been roiled by allegations of sexual harassment against current and former officials of FOMAA, the Federation of Malayalee Associations in Americas.

I’m aware that most people seek these organisations out to remain connected to their roots. And most of these organisations do stellar work in the community. But – a disclaimer – I am not part of any Malayalee organisation in the US. The general gender separation (I refer to it as the ‘Parting of the Red Sea’), the cliques and gossip made it very uncomfortable for me, personally, to remain in the organisation that I was part of for a few years.

So, I heard about this news second-hand.

Does this affect me? Not personally, no. But as a woman, and as someone who’s been extremely outspoken about her views on gender discrimination, gender parity, misogyny and patriarchy, this young woman’s story hit a nerve.

It takes guts to come out publicly and speak about sexual harassment or assault. We all know how women who speak out are treated in public domain. The press release that was released by the organisation immediately after her first social media post made no mention of any internal investigation to check the validity of the young woman’s claims. Instead, it went on counterattack, alleging some deep conspiracy against the organisation. It is that that cemented my resolve to lend a platform to amplify her voice.

Angela was 27 years old when she joined the organisation. As a first generation American, she had always been interested in her roots, in searching out the culture of her immigrant parents. Now, having graduated and working in a state far away from her family, she turned to the Malayali organisation in her city for familial comfort. As she herself states, she was proud of being referred to as a ‘thani naadan penkutti’ or a perfect Malayali girl. 

She worked extremely hard to be a part of the organisation, and to further both its digital footprint and to bring several of their causes to fruition. When she left, it was with deep regret for the causes she was leaving behind.

Over to Angela. This is her story, her voice, her truth. (I have added additional comments, to clarify or add some context to the story.)

You have made some serious allegations in your Insta story regarding current and former officials of the organisation known as FOMAA. What is the issue at hand, and why have you decided to speak up?

Angela: There have been serious concerns regarding instances of pervasive gender discrimination, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, body shaming, defamation and victim blaming, within the organization of FOMAA for the last several years. No one was proactively speaking up about it. After hearing that the current leadership is continuing the pattern instead of being the public servants they are meant to be, I decided to speak up in order to create some sort of accountability.

When did the harassment you detail in your videos occur?

Angela: The first instance dates back to 2017 and it continued to persist in different forms until 2020.

Was it one person or several?

Angela: There are four individuals in executive positions in the current organisation who have harassed me verbally, physically and sexually.

[Angela has provided names, dates and screenshots to bolster her claim. She has asked that I withhold the information, since the matter is now being handled by her legal team. Suffice it to say that she has provided enough proof to back up her allegations.]

These instances of sexual harassment occurred many years previously, and on a regular basis. Why did you remain silent then? Why did you continue in the organisation?

[I know precisely why women remain silent in the face of sexual harassment and assault. However, these are questions that pop up every single time a woman speaks out about such behaviour.]

Angela: I was living alone, miles away from home, as a graduate student. At the time I was about to lose my internship with a company. A few people had suggested I contact the abuser as he had "connections" and might potentially help me in attaining another job. I trusted this individual to help me and as such, welcomed his advice and unsolicited lunches.  But he took to texting and calling me daily and eventually, coming to my apartment late at night with a bottle of alcohol in hand.

At the time, I had no furniture or anything at hand to push him out of the apartment. I felt stuck and cornered. I told him several times that I would call the police which didn't faze him; he kept telling me to lie on his lap which I consistently refused. Ultimately, I had to call a prominent community member to come pick me up, keeping him on speaker phone [so the unwanted visitor would leave].

I decided to continue in the organization because I truly did believe in the mission of connecting, uniting and in the progress of the Malayalee community. I really did feel there was genuine opportunity. I am a Kerala girl at heart and as a person who wished to continue to be a part of the culture – being a part of a nationally recognized organization was, I thought, the way to go. 

And I did achieve great things – I was able to finalize and develop the organization’s branding; social media handles; kickstart the first ever digital fundraiser raising well over $22k which led to the FOMAA Village (which I consider the most humbling experience to date).

Did you complain to the organisation leadership? What was their response?

Angela: I had sent emails detailing my complaints to the President and Secretary, who directed me to the Judicial, Advisory and Compliance Counsel. Suffice it to say that the response, which included a meme to the effect of "What about that day in 1992 when you said 'Shut up' to your mother?" , was definitely not the response I expected, or could tolerate. 

['Forgive and Forget' should be the victims' choice, not anyone else's.]

Why do you choose to speak out now?

Angela: Several reasons. The most important is because I had several first and second-generation youth come to me asking, "Is this how an organization is run?" One of them even said that the organization made them feel "worthless".

Also, since the first incident, I am no longer the anxious individual I once was. I have since graduated, have a good career and a strong support system to back me. (Malayalees for Social Justice – avolunteer-led Malayali organisation that seeks to advocate, uplift and educate thecommunity and fights against the many forms of oppression). 

It's alarming that too many women in South Asia and beyond have come to consider sexual harassment and violence a regular occurrence in their daily lives.

You have filed a change.org petition to hold FOMAAaccountable. What do you hope to achieve?

Angela: On behalf of all who were/are wronged -- we are tired of being ashamed and browbeaten into silence. I too am a young woman; this is not restricted to this organization. I recall other experiences where I was mistreated, lied about, harassed, and assaulted. Not once did I get an apology or even an acknowledgment of the things that I've experienced.

This petition is a sign of solidarity and support to other women like me who have gone through these experiences. We are battling to hold these members accountable for their actions, remove them from their leadership positions, as well as to create a much needed progressive and systemic cultural change that our community needs. 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Since I began writing this post, Angela and I have exchanged more text messages and emails; I have seen screenshots of multiple missed phone calls, flirtatious/ downright creepy messages, and the less-than-stellar responses to her complaints.

There were also shared experiences and encouraging voices. One screenshot was the social media post of a former woman member who had previously resigned from her post as Women’s Representative following similar harassment. The woman had gone public with her statement, but nothing seems to have changed.

Other women have stepped forward to share their horrifying experiences and to offer support. Whether these voices will opt to go public along with Angela remains to be seen. The fact that they are there is, in and of itself, a validation of Angela’s claims.

As always with sexual harassment claims, it is easy to negate the victim’s experience as ‘He said, she said’ or ‘There are two sides to every issue.’ No, there isn’t. Sexual harassment is wrong – whether the perpetrator is man or woman. That is not even a debatable point. The ambiguity only arises when the harassment happens in private. Which is also one of the reasons why many women (and some men) do not come forward. In this case, Angela has documented several years’ worth of chat messages and unsolicited photographs.

Let's be very clear that this is not the story of one woman, one community, one organisation. The issue of harassment is endemic. There’s a veil of suppression that’s cast around this subject even today. It is this silence that enables abusers to harass their victims with impunity. When there are no consequences, when everyone looks the other way, when actions are swept under the carpet under the dubious claim of ‘honour’ and ‘reputation’, we, as a society not only enable, but endorse this behaviour.

[I have reached out to FOMAA for a response. If they do reply to me, I will update this post.]

I believe that silence is complicit in abuse. It is time to end this silence. ‘No’ means ‘No’ but not saying ‘No’ doesn’t mean that the default is ‘Yes’.  It is time to stand up and say, ‘Enough!’

And that is exactly what Angela is doing

If possible, please do amplify this post on your social media handles, especially if you are Malayali in North America. At the very least, sign the petition on change.org. It is time to make this world a safer place.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Back to TOP