India’s #MeToo moment is here with editors, actors and now a minister being publicly accused of behaviour that ranges from outright sexual harassment to routine sexism. Finally, a very public conversation has started about a gamut of transgressions by men which only happened because of their sense of male entitlement and its cultural acceptance. Everyday, more women are joining this conversation with their individual stories of trauma, embarrassment, fear and helplessness in the face of male power and unstated patriarchal codes that have thus far inhibited female resistance.
Just the fact that individual trauma and lonely struggles against predator bosses or patronising colleagues are now part of a collective movement marks a welcome progression. That such a large number of women now feel comfortable enough to relate experiences that they were thus far too inhibited or fearful of recounting needs to be celebrated as a step towards a more fair and just society. It is a cry for change for the better — for office spaces where they do not feel threatened or undermined, for creating new codes of behaviour and attitudes that respect a woman’s dignity. Amorphous and disparate as it is, there is no mistaking that this is an expression of women’s solidarity and a collective challenge to patriarchy. But like any other movement, there are discomfiting dimensions to the ongoing campaign. Questions are being raised about why men are being accused of harassment years after the alleged encounter took place. In public “naming and shaming”, there is the inherent danger of personal scores being settled in public. There is a dilemma that both men as well as women face about the ethical aspects of naming harassers without them being afforded a chance to be heard. As women’s voices get louder on social media platforms, a backlash has simultaneously surfaced about where this movement is headed, what are the institutional processes it seeks to install and who is accountable for naming someone falsely. BJP MP Udit Raj has gone so far as to suggest that women are “indulging in extortion” and “taking money” to “spoil reputations”.
Raj is clearly out of line but the ethical aspect of this kind of mob justice and instant gratification in calling out and naming men would be worrisome especially for those who have struggled to initiate and institutionalise due processes such as the Vishakha guidelines to prevent sexual harassment at workplaces and effected amendments in the laws concerning sexual crimes. But the fact is that despite these institutional processes and related amendments in the laws, the culture of male entitlement and patriarchy is still so prevalent that most victims have thus far preferred silence to the alternative of risking one’s career or facing the derision of colleagues. #MeToo is a challenge to these attitudes that enforce a culture of silence. By speaking out, if women force sexual predators to reflect and step back, it would be a giant stride towards a more gender equitous society.