#MeToo is here to stay

Finally, Indian women start speaking up against sexual harassment at the workplace. They demand: dignity and justice

ridhima

Ridhima Kumar | October 15, 2018 | Delhi


#women journalist   #time up   #women safety   #Tanushree Dutta   #MJ Akbar   #molestation   #office harassment   #sexual harassment   #MeToo  
Illustration: Ashish Asthana
Illustration: Ashish Asthana

It was a volcano waiting to erupt. And it has belched lava in India more than a year after the #MeToo campaign of Hollywood. Every few minutes, women are posting heart-wrenching stories of sexual assault and harassment by powerful men in the entertainment industry, advertising, and the media. On Twitter, Facebook, and through other means, the word is out on the sickening behaviour of men in positions of authority. Some of the assaults happened many years ago. Women say they were unable to speak up then but have now found courage through social media. Braving all odds, they are shaming their past and present molestors. Some even offer proof: screenshots of creepy, cringeworthy messages and obscene pictures they received on WhatsApp. They are no longer afraid to expose men who think it’s okay to harass and humiliate women.

In the October 2017 edition of Vogue magazine, journalist Priya Ramani had in an open letter to a male boss warned predators (she was referring to journalist-turned-politician MJ Akbar without naming him) that they would all be caught one day – at last, her words are coming true.

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But what took them so long to come up? And why now? That’s the general perception surrounding the campaign.

To answer this, one has to look at the #MeToo beyond its hashtag. #MeToo is not simply starting a conversation; it is giving voices to women who have been silenced for generations. It’s giving them an opportunity to come out and speak “Enough!” they all want to scream.

#MeToo is a watershed moment women have been waiting for and it’s important for India. Here’s attending to the nagging doubts that still hold many back:

Are you sure?
From the human resource department to colleagues (male and female), this is the first reaction you get when you muster the courage to speak about your ordeal. Not believing the victim is an unsaid rule at most workplaces. The woman, who has already suffered trauma at the hands of her predator, is made to feel she must have misunderstood her senior male colleague’s behaviour. “He must not have meant it in that manner,” is a common enough response. And they are too ready to dismiss the allegations.

If that is not torturous enough, there is another gem often hurled: “You must have invited this.” Maybe the skirt was too short, the neckline too low, the makeup too loud, your manner too friendly. Character judged, victim shamed.

Which is why we need #MeToo.

Think about your career!
If the predator is in a powerful position, which happens to be the case mostly, the woman has to face the consequences of speaking up. No matter which sector or industry you are employed in, powerful males can ruin your career. The scenario scares independent women into silence.

Bollywood actors Flora Saini and Sandhya Mridul were labelled “arrogant” after they exposed their perpetrators and suffered career setbacks. The role offers dried up, or they were not offered good roles any more. In journalism, women facing up to their predators have had to quit, change jobs, move to new cities, or resign themselves to doing unimportant assignments.

Which is why we need #MeToo.

You are not the only one
Women facing sexual harassment or assault is nothing new and cuts across caste, region, religion. Since childhood a girl is taught how to sit, behave, talk, walk. Supposedly to ensure that she does not cross the line to invite unwanted attention. This is why many women feel guilty of attracting their assailants. This is why they don’t speak up. But if you speak up, it may encourage someone you know to speak up too. #MeToo has taken a wrecking ball to that wall of silence.

Which is why we need #MeToo.

But he’s a gentleman!
The men so far named are all so-called “respectable” figures. In fact, Alok Nath, an actor accused of rape by a writer, is considered the personification of sanskar or decorous culture and often given roles in that mould. People are not willing to believe them capable of doing what the victim alleges.

The #MeToo effect

  • Gautam Adhikari, the founding editor of DNA Mumbai and former executive editor of the Times of India, resigns as a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress
  • KR Sreenivas, resident editor, Hyderabad, Times of India, asked to go on an administrative leave pending inquiry
  • Hindustan Times political editor and bureau chief Prashant Jha steps down
  • Enquiry initiated against Business Standard journalist Mayank Jain
  • Author Chetan Bhagat and actor Rajat Kapoor have apologised publicly
  • Phantom Films, a production house, is dissolved. Partners Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane publicly apologised for mishandling an employee’s complaint against the third partner, Vikas Bahl
  • When a complaint came against Utsav Chakraborty, a member of All India Bakchod (AIB), a popular comedy collective, sexual misconduct came into light, the company’s CEO Tanmay Bhatt stepped down from his position. There are allegations against co-founder Gursimran Khamba too. Hotstar has canceled their show ‘On Air With AIB’ and their film ‘Chintu Ka Birthday’ has been dropped from the MAMI film festival.

 

Journalist Ghazala Wahab’s account whereby she narrated how she was harassed by MJ Akbar, whom she idolised at one point, shows the shock and disillusionment she feels with the man and the persona of erudition and brilliance that everyone associates with him. Class, income, rank, erudition, success – these cannot define a man’s character. Or excuse his wrongdoings.

Which is why we need #MeToo.

There’s no committee
Although the Vishaka judgment has mandated committees to look into sexual harassment charges at every workplace, not every organisation has them. Then, there are sectors like entertainment, where companies, banners, production houses are often temporary entities and last only for the purpose of making one or two films. It’s a shadowy area. The vast majority of employment is in the unorganised sector.

Which is why we need #MeToo.

**** 

#MeToo is not a wave or a movement. It’s the sad everyday reality of a woman’s life. It has given voice to women silent for centuries. Its inclusive sorority comforts every woman who has endured slobbering, grasping, lewd, base bosses.

Sadly, it is restricted to urban, elite India – where women at least have a say in things. Rural India, where a woman doesn’t even have a voice, leave alone a choice, has much more horrifying stories. Remember, when girls from a Bihar school protested against sexual advances by their classmates, they were beaten up by the same boys and their parents. And this is just one incident.

Also, so far, only women from the entertainment and media industry are speaking up. An acquaintance even quipped, “These things happen a lot in media.” Does that mean sexual harassment is not happening in other sectors? The answer is an obvious No.

The time has come for us women to seize this opportunity and bring about a change, no matter how painfully slow it will be. #MeToo will soon touch the lives of women in other sectors and from rural India.

Moreover, the campaign needs to go far beyond naming and shaming the abusive men. Inquiries should be initiated and a strict legal action should be taken against the guilty – maybe this would encourage other women to come forward.

As women across the country unite in this collective catharsis, there are murmurs of their allegations being baseless, that they are trying to settle scores. But one thing these sceptics overlook is that these women are choosing not to remain anonymous. They are boldly declaring their names and revealing their identity. And hence the need for such a movement.

#MeToo will have its side effects, agreed. But it’s a start which should not be stopped. The sceptic in me is obviously worried that this momentum will soon fade away just like it did after the Nirbhaya incident in 2012. But when some heads started rolling in big media houses, it gave me a ray of hope – to which the woman in me wants to cling wishing that one day workplaces will become safe and inclusive for all of us. 

ridhima@governancenow.com

 

(The article appears in October 31, 2018 edition)

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