Rage, uninterrupted

Rihan Najib | Updated on January 04, 2019 Published on January 04, 2019

Keeping the fire lit: Among those narrating their accounts of sexual harassment at the workplace are older women   -  THULASI KAKKAT

How the #MeToo movement can sustain its momentum in 2019

In the 2009 film An Education, the teenaged protagonist Jenny Mellor is about to abandon her studies to get married. When her teacher expresses her disapproval, Mellor retorts with a sharp critique of the promise of formal education and the limited future it affords women. “It’s not enough to educate us anymore, Ms Walters. You’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it,” she says.

Written in the context of 1960s England, her words, however, ring just as true for present-day India. And the questions being raised are not just about education, but workspaces too.

Mary E John, a professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), has been a close observer of students’ agitations, especially those of women demanding autonomy, safety and equality in university spaces. And she has witnessed the extreme vulnerability faced by young women entering workspaces.

“Look at the #MeToo movement today. Among the loudest voices are older women who have tried to put the past behind them, have left their jobs or changed professions, and have spoken out years later from a position of relative security,” she tells BLink.

The movement, she holds, has foregrounded important conversations about equality at the workplace, while also heralding a new visibility and willingness to believe women’s accounts of trauma.

A heavy cost

In September 2018, the #MeToo movement dominated headlines in India, beginning with former actor Tanushree Dutta accusing her co-actor Nana Patekar of sexually harassing her on the sets of a film in 2008. Shortly after that, writer and poet Mahima Kukreja tweeted about her experience of harassment from fellow comedian Utsav Chakraborty.

The subsequent months witnessed an online deluge of personal narratives from women who had faced similar — or worse — sexual violence and intimidation. It was a public reckoning of workplace-based sexual harassment and the continued impunity enjoyed by the men in power who are facing multiple allegations of violence.

The movement, women’s rights activist and Zubaan Books publisher Urvashi Butalia points out, has a history. “There is a long record of women in India having the courage to speak out, naming their harasser, and fighting long battles. The rage we witnessed in September is a culmination of having to spend years putting up with abuse, sacrificing your health and career to it — that kind of rage never goes away,” she says. Butalia cites the case of Rupan Deol Bajaj, a senior bureaucrat, who spent 17 years fighting a 1988 case of sexual harassment against IPS officer KPS Gill. It was finally in 2005 that the Supreme Court upheld a 1996 verdict holding him guilty.

Butalia says, “I have lost track of the times I have heard the argument that some man’s reputation is ruined. Yes, but there are thousands of women whose entire lives have been put on hold because they dared to speak out. That cost is conveniently ignored.”

Gaining ground

For independent journalist Sandhya Menon, who is among the women spearheading the ongoing movement, 2018 was a critical year. She had called out the sexually abusive behaviour of journalists Gautam Adhikari and KR Sreenivas, which encouraged other women to share similar experiences.

A new sisterhood: Women express solidarity with catholic nuns in Kerala demanding the arrest of rape-accused bishop Franco Mulakkal   -  THULASI KAKKAT


Along with a few others, she had taken on the mantle of verifying and amplifying women’s personal narratives on Twitter, demanding accountability from the employers of the accused while also connecting the survivors with lawyers, mental health specialists and other forms of support.

“This year has been all about learning what my rights are, and getting familiar with the law on sexual harassment at the workplace,” she tells BLink. Despite the severe financial and emotional strain on her, she seeks to continue doing what she has begun, hoping it will eventually become her “life’s work” in 2019.

This includes working on amendments to the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act to make it more relevant to contemporary workplaces, conducting sensitisation workshops, setting up internal complaints committees for organisations and collaborating with regional media to improve the coverage of women’s issues. She has also been involved with movements against sexual violence in Kerala and has been working with Father Augustine Vattoly, the whistle-blower priest who has been campaigning against Jalandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who is accused of raping a nun.

Since September last year, significant ground has been covered, she feels. Enough momentum had been generated for the government to constitute a four-member Group of Ministers in October 2018 to strengthen legal and institutional frameworks to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace. The move was instated shortly after former journalist MJ Akbar resigned as union minister, following allegations of sexual harassment and rape levelled against him.

“Employers facing a crisis of credibility are feeling the pressure to conduct investigations in a transparent and accountable way,” Menon says, but adds that intent doesn’t always translate to action, as evidenced by the way the investigation of allegations against The Wire consulting editor Vinod Dua was recently suspended owing to the lack of “unconditional consent from both sides”.

But the most rewarding aspect of the movement has been a willingness on the part of men to introspect. “Many therapists have told me that their male patients are asking them about consent. Their patients say, ‘I did this. Is that consensual?’ If men are examining their own boundaries as well as their awareness of women’s boundaries, it’s fantastic,” she says.

Keeping men in the loop

Menon’s view of slow changes unfolding in the realm of private conversations is seconded by journalist Rituparna Chatterjee, who manages the @IndiaMeToo handle on Twitter. “Men have to be part of the conversation in 2019,” she says. “This isn’t about negotiating with the aggressor. To better navigate spaces that are hostile to women, it’s important that we involve our allies in men.”

Those involved with the #MeToo movement, along with a group called Gather Around Sisters, have been organising what they call Listening Circles across various Indian cities. These circles are spaces where women are able to share experiences, be heard, seek and share advice on negotiating complex terrains of power at the workplace.

An upcoming Listening Circle, hosted by activist Kavita Krishnan, is scheduled for January 6 in New Delhi.

During one of these sessions, Chatterjee met two women who were hearing-impaired. “I was then told about how most women who are hearing-impaired are also sexually violated often, but have difficulty articulating their experiences. All mainstream material on MeToo currently online aren’t deaf-friendly,” she says.

“The most important thing for us to work on in 2019,” she says, “is to simplify the processes by which women are able to report abuse. Seeking justice should not traumatise the woman further.”

Kukreja, who had sparked a blaze by calling out the toxic masculinity celebrated in the Indian stand-up comedy scene, feels that there has been a marked change in the jokes being cracked lately. “There is definitely a decrease in casual sexism. The #MeToo movement has elevated conversations,” she says.

But the movement, she stresses, has to focus on long-term remedial measures. “Not every case merits punitive action; sometimes what is required is therapy, and a commitment to change one’s behaviour. In 2019, we have to focus on figuring out ways to ensure that genuine behavioural change happens,” she says. “The survivor has to feel that she has been served justice.”

Entrenched challenges

Though unprecedented in its scale and reach, the #MeToo movement in India owes a debt to several early movers.

The stage for a geographically dispersed but digitally connected movement, which named the perpetrator while keeping the complainant anonymous, had been set in 2017 by law student Raya Sarkar, who published what was called the List of Sexual Harassers in Academia (LoSHA).

Sarkar credits dalit social worker Bhanwari Devi for bringing about a landmark change in the movement for the protection of women’s rights at the workplace. Devi, who was raped by a group of upper-caste men in Rajasthan in 1992 for attempting to stop a child marriage, filed a case which became the basis for the 1997 Vishaka Guidelines. These, in turn, were formalised into the sexual harassment law in 2013, after the 2012 gang rape and murder of a physiotherapist in Delhi.

Despite a dalit woman bringing about such a landmark judgement, the voices of dalit women were conspicuous by their absence in the early weeks of the #MeToo movement unfolding in 2018. Strident critics of the movement included dalit activists, who decried the urban, upper-caste, English-speaking bias in the movement as well as the fact that dalit women had been facing such violence for decades, without any hope of redress.

“It’s evident that the movement has received so much exposure and attention because the people leading it and speaking on behalf of the survivors are savarna, therefore they are validated by default. Dalit women do not have this luxury,” says Christina Thomas Dhanaraj, a consultant for women and minority-led initiatives. “Our social locations cannot guarantee that our accounts of violation will be believed.”

Menon acknowledges this. “I can afford to put my accusation out there, since I don’t face an immediate threat. But this is not the case for women from dalit and marginalised communities.”

In October 2018, as the #MeToo movement raged on, a 14-year-old dalit girl was decapitated for spurning the advances of an upper caste man in Tamil Nadu. The lack of media attention on the case was highlighted by dalit activists as evidence of selective empathy for upper caste survivors.

For Dhanaraj, the #MeToo movement is a long-overdue outburst. “If all the legal frameworks worked without a hitch, if we were able to access justice in a way that was equal and egalitarian, we wouldn’t be having such a movement,” she says.

Given that justice has been elusive, and will perhaps continue to be so for longer, CWDS’s John calls for a different set of questions, which may also bring out the gradients of power that each survivor operates from.

“Who gets to speak out? At what point in their lives can they speak out? Under what circumstances can they feel the confidence of being heard and believed? What are the costs of speaking out,” John asks.

As 2019 unfolds, such questions perhaps will not only lead to a new education, but also to answers on what it is for.

Published on January 04, 2019
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