Rasheeda Bhagat

The raging #MeTooIndia maelstrom

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on October 15, 2018 Published on October 15, 2018

#MeTooIndia Growing anger   -  AFP

Women in India are beginning to make their voice heard and naming predators at the workplace

The surging #MeTooIndia movement received a set back on Sunday afternoon with renowned journalist and Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar striking a defiant stance against over a dozen complaints of sexual harassment. Against growing expectations that the Modi government would ask Akbar to resign once he returned from his foreign tour, it chose to remain silent, leaving it to the Minister, who turned it into a political vendetta.

Threatening legal action against those who had raised “false, baseless and wild allegations”, he asked why “this storm has risen a few months before a general election? Is there an agenda? You be the judge.” (The Minister has since moved court against journalist Priya Ramani.)

Akbar’s is the most prominent face of a huge bunch of men from various industries, predominantly the media and film industry. The stories coming from women, some of them in sordid detail, are shocking and heartbreaking. It was Tanushree Dutta who triggered India’s MeToo moment by reiterating sexual harassment charges against Nana Patekar over a decade-old incident.

And then journalist Priya Ramani disclosed that the senior editor she had not named in an article she wrote a year ago for Vogue following the Harvey Weinstein charges in Hollywood, was Akbar. And more women – over a dozen, two of then in their teens – came forward to tell their stories of harassment faced at the hands of the Minister.

Women’s workplace

At the core of this #MeTooIndia moment is the tragic fact that for thousands of bright young women dreaming of a successful career, the workplace was, and remains, a dicey place to negotiate. But 20 or 30 years ago, to which period some of the stories date back, a working woman had no means of getting her grievances addressed if she was harassed.

Why are women speaking up now, why not then, is the ridiculous and unfair question asked by the usual suspects, most of them men, but some women too. How many companies had mechanisms 20 years ago to address such complaints? And when the predator is the most powerful person, the top boss himself, who do you complain to? And, as most of the women victims of powerful predators cutting across industries, have said, their initial reaction was humiliation and sense of shame… as though they were the guilty party and not the molesters.

Also, the most likely scenario if the woman chose to complain then, or even now is that the men will smirk, call her a prude and over dramatic, and the women, except in rare cases, will refuse to get involved.

The compass of the needle

I never tire of quoting my favourite-most line from Khaled Hosseini’s book A Thousand Splendid Suns, where the mother tells her daughter: “Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.” The onus is always on the woman to prove that she did not ask for it.

It is the same old story of the woman being judged after a sexual assault or rape — was she drunk; why was she wearing such a short skirt or showing so much cleavage; why was she out so late in the night? One has heard such nonsensical questions being raised over the years while debating violence against women.

But for a senior and influential woman journalist to ask the woman who slapped on Twitter sexual harassment charges against Suhel Seth that why she went to his hotel room in the first place, is preposterous.

The other ridiculous charge against the raging #MeTooIndia storm is that these are “elite” and “ultramodern, urban” women who have captured the nation’s mindspace. What about the numerous young girls and women in rural India who are subjected to sexual harassment and violence on a daily basis? They neither have access to social media nor the language to tell their story.

Yes, it’s a matter of shame that in a country, or rather a world, where women continue to be the vulnerable gender in a largely patriarchal, if not misogynist society, the Indian rural women are even more disadvantaged.

So should urban women wait for their rural counterparts to get justice before demanding a safe workplace?

The only flip side of this entire saga is that there will be a percentage of women for whom a relationship has gone wrong will jump on the bandwagon too. So for the real victims or survivors to get justice, it is even more important to get some corroborative evidence, raise an immediate complaint. Today many organisations have an internal complaints committee against sexual harassment. Don’t shy away from complaining, even if those made earlier, did not get results. The onus is on women to turn the wheel… and keep at it till it moves.

Published on October 15, 2018
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