Navratri, this year, has been made special by the replacement of song and dance with closeted allegations and withheld claims of the women of our country finally seeing the light of day. The accumulation of atrocities faced by them behind closed doors, followed by their subsequent and ignored cries for help have resulted in the power and resilience with which our men and women are spearheading India’s #MeToo movement. Although nearly a year late, the MeToo movement is finally here and it is here to stay.
The seeds of this revolution were sown by Tarana Burke, a social activist, who coined the term “Me Too” in 2006. Through this phrase, she wanted to use empathy as a medium to promote empowerment among sexually abused women of colour, particularly from the underprivileged communities. Fast forward ten years to October 2017 when the hashtag MeToo began spreading virally on social media, giving birth to one of the most significant movements against sexual abuse, harassment, and assault
Sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, allowed #MeToo to take its full form. Within no time, some of the biggest names in the world were staring at the end of their careers.
A few weeks ago, actor Nana Patekar gave India its very own Harvey Weinstein moment. The actor’s tainted nature would have remained an industry secret had veteran actress, Tanushree Dutta, decided not to speak up about the harassment she faced while working with Patekar on the sets of “Horn Ok Pleassss” in 2008. Dutta received incredible support, not only in the form of encouraging words but also through similar incidents shared by people all over the country.
Tanushree Dutta’s decision was the impetus for the #MeToo movement to take over India, a country where every second child is a victim of sexual abuse. Since 2008, there has been a dynamic change in society’s outlook in life. Supposedly unspeakable topics such as rape and sexual abuse which were ignored and hidden away are slowly being taken out and examined, with a less ignorant perspective. It is this change in mentality which is allowing victims like Dutta to speak up. Alok Nath, another veteran actor who has been working in the film industry, for almost 26 years, was accused of rape and sexual harassment, an accusation which was under wraps for 19 years. Ten years ago, these abusers would not have dreamt of seeing their crimes come to light. India’s #MeToo has managed to take the country by storm. Overnight, it became one of the most talked about issues in the country, as it encompassed eminent personalities, from actors to politicians to stand-up comedians.
The movement gained its exponential momentum after comedian Utsav Chakraborty from the All India Bakchod (AIB) was accused of sending sexually explicit messages to women, including minor girls. This came as a shocker to many, as AIB is known for its roasts and skits revolving around the evils prevailing in modern Indian society. This controversy dragged AIB into further trouble, following the charges made on co-founders Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba, both of them “stepped away” from their involvement in the stand-up comedy group. The list is not only restricted to men. Stand-up comedian Aditi Mittal was accused by fellow comedian Kaneez Surka for kissing her on stage without her consent, an incident which left her “shocked, humiliated and stripped of choice”.
But perhaps, by far the biggest controversy rolling around the movement has to be the involvement of MJ Akbar, the Minister of State for External Affairs and a former newspaper editor, where 20 women accused him of charges of sexual harassment, assault and molestation. What is even more scandalous is the fact that both Akbar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have opted to maintain a denial response to the issue. Akbar later went on to file a defamation suit against Priya Ramani, a writer who first stated MJ Akbar’s name in the accusations. If she is not able to prove her accusations in a court of law, she can be sentenced to imprisonment of up to two years.
“In other words, the onus of proof has been placed on a victim and a survivor,”
– Barkha Dutt, a veteran journalist.
Akbar’s court affidavit lists an army of 97 lawyers, though the firm clarified that the outrageous number is only procedural, and only six lawyers will be present in court. But the sheer display of these luxurious resources is a shrewd attempt to shut the people who dare to speak against a powerful, politically connected man. These events have left even the supporters of the right-wing Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) embarrassed and agitated. However, after pressure both from the media and public, MJ Akbar finally resigned on 17th October 2018.
The #MeToo campaign is all about initiating a conversation.
It acts as a platform for abuse victims from all over the country to share their own stories the movement quickly gained public attention. Further, seeing others recount their experiences tells survivors that they are not alone — that there are others out there who will believe and support them even if the people in their lives don’t. Sometimes, this inspires them to share their own stories or take action against their abusers.
Amidst all the allegations and counter-allegations, a group of journalists and lawyers have come up to provide service to survivors for free. ICC, which stands for Internal Complaints Committee, in many media organisations, are currently investigating the sexual harassment cases against their employees.
“Apart from encouraging women to come out and talk about their experiences, it is more important that they use the right outlet to express themselves after obtaining proper legal guidance as to how to go about the entire process. A lot of women are approaching social media and thereafter not proceeding with the legal recourse, which defeats the entire purpose as it results in a ‘he said, she said’ and things being taken out of context.”
–Laxmi Raman, a Mumbai-based lawyer who agreed to help survivors pro bono.
As actress Saloni Chopra says in an article sharing her own experiences with sexual harassment: “#metoo isn’t about Hollywood or Bollywood — it’s about you being able to speak up about people that have abused you… The fact that famous people are being named is supposed to give you the courage to speak up.”
What makes this movement so compelling, however, isn’t just that it highlights how many people have faced abuse; Sometimes, seeing a neighbour, friend or colleague tweet #MeToo is more grounding than hearing about harassment through the media. This realisation draws in support from bystanders and makes the oblivious listen and pay attention to all that goes on around them. Assault gradually becomes harder to ignore. But,
MeToo cannot just end here.
It isn’t enough to merely spark a conversation or spread awareness. Accusations and allegations though shocking, cannot bring about change on their own. Cases need to be filed and brought up in court. The accused need to be punished for their crimes. Assault needs to become a criminal offence associated with severe consequences. Society’s view on harassment has to change.
Using the Brett Kavanaugh case as an example, Cornell professor, Kate Manne created the term “himpathy” — the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide and other misogynistic behaviours. Given the current scenario, no better term can be used to describe the general perception of these allegations.
The reaction to most of these cases has been a ‘he does not seem like the type’ or a ‘why was this not brought up at the time it happened?’. An attitude like this single-handedly manages to make a mockery of a proof based justice system as well as the victim’s side of the story.
That said, it’s easy to sit behind a screen and point fingers. Many of the allegations coming out are about incidents that occurred years ago, and while this doesn’t mean that the victims are lying, there often isn’t any way to prove their claims. Some might use this to their advantage as the social and legal attention the movement is currently getting could easily be used to defame someone for no legitimate reason. This complicates an otherwise direct campaign. While it’s unrealistic to always expect evidence for such cases, it is equally unjust to punish someone for a crime they didn’t commit.
Furthermore, all the stories being told and allegations being made make it seem as though everyone has heard about MeToo. However, in India, only about 25% of the population has access to the internet, and even less uses social media. That’s more than half the population whom the campaign hasn’t reached— more than half the country’s women whom it has not yet touched. Is it still fair to say that the #MeToo campaign has ‘taken India by storm’ when it has only scraped the surface of the population? Especially when the millions of citizens whom it has not reached are the ones who, perhaps, need it most?
It’s easy enough to start from the top, by naming names that everyone has heard of and that the media cannot ignore. Perhaps, in the future educated survivors in a position of privilege will get justice as well. What of the remaining half of the population? What of the women who do not know that they are being abused and who consider it a regular part of their lives? What about every girl who isn’t in a position to speak up and who is not empowered by this campaign of “mass empathy”?
There is so much more that needs to be done for actual change to be brought about. MeToo cannot reach every corner of India, but there are other means to ensure that sexual assault stops being a norm for all the women of the country and something that men are told to enjoy
Moving forward, that’s the conversation #MeToo should begin to spark. That’s what we need to aim for in the future: An India where every citizen knows the power of saying no and the consequence of not listening to it.
Naintara Singh, Aarohi Sarmaand Rishi Kant for MTTN