Early last week, I wrote about class and the rewriting of certain feminine narratives pertaining to the body of the woman in the public sphere. I mentioned, in that essay, a certain silence around liberties taken with the female body in spheres of privilege, and in spaces celebrated for their elite freedoms. I realized later on that I too had conveniently remained silent about an issue that I had gingerly touched: harassment, and abuse in private domains such as the home, the houses of friends and extended family, empty classrooms in schools, behind closed office doors. I also realized that as the debate on harassment spiralled, the question of abuse wanted desperately to linger alongside as well, evoked here and there by an impassioned Tweet, or by a rather transparent Facebook share. Speaking about harassment and the silence surrounding it, for many readers, had come to stand in for speaking about abuse.

I am asking myself, as I write this, whether there is a real difference between speaking about harassment and speaking about abuse. Harassment, as I understand it (and I am no expert) is perhaps a violative act that takes place in the public domain of the workplace, educational institutions, parks, public transport. It may or may not be repetitive. Abuse, on the other hand, I think is marked by its deeply private, sometimes even intimate nature, and its dependence on beautiful things such as close relationships, trust, friendships, blood ties. To speak about abuse, unlike harassment, then, is to speak also of those things. To speak about abuse is to try and describe a cancer that lives within both the abused and the abuser. To speak about abuse is, I think, impossible because it is one of those things that isn’t allowed to make sense.

In the class narrative that I alluded to last time, a certain liberal discourse marked by its proximity to foreign education, its freedom of attire, its dependence on social networks, and its self proclaimed affiliation with a certain moral rightness worked against women who spoke out against harassment. When it comes to the question of abuse, this discourse works even more dangerously. In the mind of the shiny, brash, self-confident upper class of Pakistan, bad things only happen to other people. They happen in our conversations, in Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy’s books that sit on our coffee tables. They lurk in Salman Toor’s paintings that hang on our walls. They happen even to the people working in our homes, and to their over-large extended families. But they don’t happen to us. Mashallah, indeed.

Because they can never happen to us, or even take place in our homes, there can be no narrative about them either. In this case though, unlike in the case of harassment, we are all complicit in a systematic forgetting, a carefully crafted oblivion around the issue. Once we hear of abuse, whether of a child or a woman, we tell ourselves it could never happen to us and move on. If the abuser is one of us, a husband, a father, an aunt or uncle, a cousin, a brother, a tutor, or a friend, we forgive, forget and eventually pretend we weren’t supposed to know in order to keep up relations. Other abusers remain largely unnamed, the driver, the cook, the maid. They’re forgotten quite easily.

For the victim, I think, to train him or herself to forget often appears to be the only solution. If I forget hard enough, he or she thinks, it’ll go away. If I forget that initial shame, I will be free of this. If I keep forgetting on a regular basis, there will come a time when the incidents will finally be erased from my memory. If I forget, things can go back to normal, I will have a normal life, just like everybody else.

And yet, I have learnt this past week that a heated, on the whole, rather uplifting debate on harassment has also somehow cracked, and exposed the flaws of this exercise in forgetting. In other words, talk, crude, angry, naked, loud, proud talk about harassment has brought with it more latent whispered confessions of abuse. I wonder whether whispers are good enough to counter a social behavior that doesn’t acknowledge its own root. How does one speak of something that one has forgotten or that one has trained oneself to believe didn’t quite happen to begin with? And if one does say something, what would be the point? Unlike sexual harassment that seems to be a public issue and that can be exposed through public institutions, sexual abuse seems to have no nemesis.

It would be nice to conclude with some fine rhetoric on speaking out about abuse, and by encouraging the world to be one big support group for those brave enough to share. I am convinced in this moment that the question of abuse is going to ride on the coat tails of that of harassment. That is to say, it may not be the worst thing in the world if one is conflated with the other, if one confession emerges in a heated moment created for the other. What harassment and abuse share, of course, is their attitude towards an unprotected, vulnerable body. The difference comes in the way that each imprints a memory upon this body, a memory that no number of mental exercises can undo.

That’s the reason I don’t want this debate on sexual harassment to go away anytime soon, to be covered up by campus politics, leftist debates, or HEC strictures. I’d rather we keep talking, even if it’s in coded, veiled sentences, hints, allusions, riddles, and rhymes. If we keep talking about sexual harassment, we may arrive at the point where it begins, at the point where all of us, boys, girls, men, transgenders, and women first learn to be silent.

I’ll end with a nonsensical beginning: Winbrick, the other room, late nights, quiet, the top of the house, pink tiles.

 The writer is an academic.