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Net loss, net gain

Rihan Najib | Updated on: Oct 19, 2018
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A loud revolution is sweeping across India, but not on the streets or city squares. The battle against sexual harassment is being fought on social media, giving rise to a host of prickly questions in the process.

American novelist Rebecca Solnit makes a compelling point about revolutions in her essay ‘The Butterfly and the Boiling Point’, which discussed the social media-powered public uprisings across countries in 2011. “Its coming is always a surprise,” she writes, “but its nature should not be.”

A loud revolution is sweeping across India, too — but not on the streets or city squares. A Union minister has just resigned after filing a criminal defamation case against a former colleague who accused him of sexual harassment. Twenty women — all of whom had worked with ex-minister MJ Akbar when he was a newspaper editor — have offered to testify against him. In a similar vein, two veteran actors from Bollywood filed defamation suits against the women who had accused them of rape and sexual intimidation.

For the past three weeks, prominent names across the entertainment, media, design, and advertising industries in India have been called out on various online platforms in the context of sexual harassment, each allegation suffixed with the marker of an ongoing revolution — #MeToo.

Public insurrections such as the 2012 protests in the wake of Jyoti Singh’s gang rape and murder, or, for that matter, the farmers’ march from Nashik to Mumbai earlier this year, have had a definitive physical imprint. They were public reckonings that happened in public spaces. Roads were blocked, crowds gathered, slogans were chanted, placards were raised, demands were asserted.

For the scale and the speed of the currently unfolding #MeToo movement in India, the streets bear scant traces of a sweeping, long-held rage whose time has finally come.

The revolution is elsewhere.

Locating the battlegrounds

Me Too Rising, a Google Trends data visualisation tool that maps the activity around the #MeToo movement through an interactive map, provided the perfect visual of where the movement can be located — across India, but online.

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Behind the screens: Women are driving the movement forward, sharing their stories through smartphones and laptops

 

In the Me Too Rising visual, Google searches for the viral hashtag show up on the world map as dots of light, and a recent image from the website showed all of India lit up brightly. This visualisation challenged the detractors of the movement who had argued that the #MeToo movement in India was predominantly restricted to the urban elite, who have access to smartphones and the internet as well as an online-savvy vocabulary of articulating experiences of abuse and violation. The map showed that most online searches for the term were not from India’s urban centres, but from smaller towns such as Chicalim in Goa, Maharashtra’s Bhusawal, Punjab’s Zirakpur, and Bhanwreli in Chhattisgarh.

Journalist Rituparna Chatterjee, who manages the verified #MeTooIndia Twitter handle, underlines the close relationship the movement has had with the social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. “This is a movement begun online, driven by people using their smartphones and laptops to tell a broader, larger story about abuse, violence, and violation of bodily integrity and mental space,” she says.

Women, she adds, are sharing their narratives through screenshots of conversations from WhatsApp and dating apps. “They are using tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram stories — all of which are familiar aspects of how we interact with each other today,” she tells BL ink over the phone.

Chatterjee, along with an informal collective of journalists and activists at the forefront of the movement, has been receiving close to a hundred direct messages on Twitter. “You begin by hearing out every single case,” she says. “Sometimes, women send messages about their experiences only to request later that they be deleted. They tell me that they just wanted to talk about it in a safe environment. They just wanted someone to hear their story.”

Due process and its discontents

The #MeToo movement traces its roots to 2006, when African-American civil rights activist Tarana Burke coined the term to highlight sexual violence in women’s lives. The phrase found new life in 2017 in the wake of allegations of rape and assault by over 80 women against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which culminated in his arrest.

In India, the first wave of #MeToo was brought about by law student Raya Sarkar, who last year published what was called the List of Sexual Harassers in Academia (LoSHA). The list circulated on social media and quickly devolved into an intergenerational slanging match. One set of feminists supported due processes of law to settle allegations of sexual harassment, while a younger, tech-savvy group of feminists believed the established processes of seeking justice were punitive to victims.

The movement’s second wave in India was triggered on Twitter three weeks ago by writer and poet Mahima Kukreja’s allegations against stand-up comedian Utsav Chakraborty. Her tweets — which came soon after Bollywood’s Tanushree Dutta accused a veteran actor of sexually harassing her on the set of a film in 2008 — encouraged many to share their similarly traumatic stories.

“I’m sure even Mahima couldn’t have predicted that she would set off this online wave with just one tweet. But social media has the power to snowball movements, and make the whole world sit up and take notice, which is what has happened here,” says Asmita Ghosh, a campaign manager with the online platform Feminism In India.

Drivers of a movement

The movement, so far located online, prompts a discussion on what social media is able to do that other platforms cannot. Osama Manzar, who heads the Digital Empowerment Foundation, a platform working on digital literacy, points out that social media is an effective tool for campaigns because of its open nature.

“It unfolds in real time and is interactive and participative. Therefore, it is extremely useful for highlighting an issue, rallying voices around it and signalling the need for people’s attention to be diverted to a particular cause,” he says.

Social media is also an ideal platform for social justice movements because, he stresses, it makes a storyteller out of a survivor, instead of confining the person to being just a complainant. “The personal nature of the content strikes a chord with other people who feel similarly, and can relate to it,” Manzar adds.

This is seconded by filmmaker-writer Paromita Vohra, a vocal proponent of the movement. “The great power in telling the story of your harassment is that you are doing it on your own terms. At one point people would shame a woman by bringing up her sexual history whenever she narrated an encounter of sexual violence. Here, the women are taking that power away from them. They are saying, ‘Yes, I was harassed. Let me tell you what it meant to me. You don’t get to define what it meant’.”

Challenges of accountability

However, the cascading accounts of various kinds of harassment, especially in the form of anonymous screenshots, have drawn fire from critics of the movement. Some fear that there is no accountability in the way the allegations are brought forth on social media. There is no verification of an allegation that is retweeted, shared and reposted multiple times on social media. All allegations, anonymous or not, are presumed to be true.

Senior journalist Padma Rao discusses this while emphasising the heavily opinionated and often coarse language with which many Twitter users react to the allegations, which shuts down all possibility for a discussion around the issue. “Women have been sexually harassed and treated as sex objects at the workplace for so long that one has to give them the benefit of doubt at face value,” she says. “At the same time, there seems to be a lot of people allied to the movement who are making allegations without any personal experience of their own, but out of a vendetta towards a particular person. There are many people on the fringes who are hopping on to the bandwagon to use this as an opportunity to settle accounts.”

Chatterjee, however, brings out the detailed work that goes into verifying each allegation as much as possible before she or anyone in the movement publishes it online.

“There are a lot of legal dangers here, and people’s lives and careers are at stake. So we are meticulous about corroborating each anonymous story we receive, including asking them their basic details such as email and phone numbers,” she holds.

The process discusses in detail various forms of evidence in emails, WhatsApp conversations and witness accounts, she says. The people involved also try to persuade senders to put their names to their stories, and put together clusters of multiple accounts accusing a single harasser. “We can’t let this be limited to a social media call-out,” Chatterjee says, as she points out how many survivors are waiving their anonymity, emboldened by the testimony of others.

But the question to be asked, insists Vohra, is not why people are making unverified allegations, but what compelled women to speak up on social media. “When women file a complaint, they are the ones who get harassed, the ones who leave their jobs. Why is the system not working in a way that helps women? #MeToo is a response to a failed system.”

A section argues that the movement equalises the many kinds of traumatic experiences women face. An inappropriate hand on the knee or a sexually loaded joke is seen as heinous as an allegation of rape. To which Vohra responds, “These things are connected to each other — they are connected to the nature of masculine power.”

The critics see another gap in the movement: the fact that it does not include voices from the margins. “It is clear that the more privileged voices are the ones that are heard the loudest right now, and this is a recurring problem when it comes to sexual harassment. The struggles of Dalit women, transgender women, Kashmiri women find far less resonance,” says Anja Kovacs, director of the Internet Democracy Project in Delhi, which works on free speech, democracy and social justice. But for a campaign to be successful, it has to be all-encompassing. “Either things improve for every single one of us, or they won’t fundamentally improve at all,” Kovacs warns.

Imagining change

For a movement that is still in its incipient stages, a key aspect that observers are keenly following is how it will move from a place of pent-up rage towards reformative as well as restorative justice. “It is imperative in every movement for us to imagine change. Movements are about change, and they are about an imagination of how we want the world to be different. I don’t know if that is the job of the law, though. That is the job of culture, people, conversations. And that is what we are hoping to do here,” concludes Vohra.

Along with Vohra and Chatterjee, Ghosh too feels that the movement will have to be taken to other offline venues — courts, Parliament, panel discussions, HR practices, schools and so on — to sustain what it has started.

For now, though, the revolution may not be televised, but it will certainly be live-tweeted.

Published on October 19, 2018

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