By LK Sharma*
It has led to resignations in the media world, boycotts in the film industry and the closure of a famous film company. Junior foreign minister M J Akbar was made to resign. During a festival celebrating the Goddess who kills a demon menacing Gods, scores of educated Indian women have unmasked their tormentors and sparked a mini-revolution. A journalist has compared these #MeToo revelations to the “eruption of a volcano”.
These women had for years suppressed their trauma with silence, but when a visiting US-based Indian woman opened a can of worms, dozens of victims spoke out causing ‘quakes in the worlds of films, journalism, sports and literature.
Akbar, an editor-turned-politician, brazened it out for days and filed a criminal defamation case against one of the 16 women journalists for naming and shaming him by describing his alleged misconduct in the work place. Akbar denied all allegations. But finally, he had to resign as minister. The Prime Minister’s silence and the ruling party’s wait-and-watch policy failed to protect him politically for more than 10 days.
Akbar’s resignation got banner headlines. The Indian Express, having demanded days ago his exit from his work place, said it marked a new benchmark in politics – of women, by women, for women and men. The minister’s exit was hailed as a “watershed moment” and a “seminal moment” in India’s history.
One of the victims had alleged that when she knocked at Akbar’s hotel room door, he opened the door in his underwear and put on a bathrobe to talk to her about journalistic work. A woman commentator wrote that the garment that will be remembered in #MeToo India (and worldwide) not as the miniskirt for which women are blamed but “the bathrobe worn by men, from Harvey Weinstein to Dominique Strauss-Kahn to M J Akbar”.
The minister has called all his 16 accusers, including one in the UK and another in the US, liars. The women recalled in adult-grade graphic details their old humiliating encounters with Akbar when he was a powerful editor. A couple of these accounts are not fit to be printed in a family newspaper. The victims asked for a mere apology, what they got was denial and legal intimidation.
The ruling party that cries itself hoarse over women’s empowerment was indifferent. That firmed up the protesters’ determination to fight on. Many more women as well as men journalists took up their cause. A battery of retired civil servants wrote a letter to the President of India. Some Opposition leader asked the Prime Minister to say something.
The lack of apology by predators and the minister’s combative stand angered many more women and men with access to social media. The woman journalist against whom the defamation suit was filed shot back by saying that truth is her defence. A call went out for crowd-funding her legal expenses.
One minister, a political non-entity, declared that the complaints (coming from various parts of India and from a journalist in the UK and another from the US) were part of a political campaign linked to the national elections due next year. Many found this suggestion laughable.
Since politics is the thing in India, the allegations of sexual harassment have become a political issue. The ruling party spokesman refused to answer any questions about Akbar. The Prime Minister’s devotees hailed Narendra Modi as a strong supporter of women’s empowerment. A couple of women journalists wrote nuanced on-the-other-hand kind of opinion pieces. The pro-Government TV channels and newspapers underplayed the Akbar story.
by the preachers of ethics and morality. The ruling establishment initially thought that a select group of “elite” women with limited voting power might not pose too much of a political threat. The RSS chief, who mentors the ruling party, recently reiterated his “cultural” organisation’s commitment to character-building. He remained silent.
Akbar, before resigning, deployed 97 lawyers to persuade a judge to reject the allegations, punish the “lying” woman journalist and certify him as a man of sterling character! Court cases in India go on for years.
(As an editor, Akbar once filed a defamation case in the UK and won it. The Mail on Sunday apologised for publishing a report falsely involving this brilliant Indian editor in the case of a London woman publisher’s illegitimate child.)
The ruling party strategists hope that the political storm will be dissipated as the #MeToo visuals on the TV screens get replaced by fresh ones. Some are asking why these educated girls kept quiet for so long. They ignore the fact that the victims who registered complaints got nowhere. They were told that making a fuss will only harm them. The professional bodies, company managements and male colleagues asked them to get on with their lives as if nothing had happened.
Heroes and villains
Most victims suffered silently for years, suppressing memories, fearing stigma in a deaf and oppressive patriarchal society. One of the victims was Tanushree Dutta, a film actress whose complaint against a famous actor was ignored by all. Disgusted, she left the industry and moved to America to start a new life. But the embers of humiliation kept smouldering in her heart. The #MeToo movement in America steeled her will. She came to India and flung charges at the noted male artists with whom she had worked. Some film stars supported her but the heroes who vanquish villains on the silver screen played safe, avoiding questions by the media.
The former film star’s damning social media message triggered a movement and first-person accounts of sexual harassment started raining in. Scores of professionally successful women mustered up the courage to recall and record incidents of molestation by their male bosses or colleagues.
They got over the fear that a female victim does not get helped, only gets ridiculed. In social media they found a protest platform. Even this time, they did not hope for justice. They named and shamed predators in order to empower young girls to protest publicly against sexual harassment in the work place.
Considering the public response to the steps taken by the minister, legal intimidation is unlikely to crush the #MeToo movement in the India of 2018. Some see the use of social media by these long-suffering women as a consequence of the failure of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013. Good laws show few results because of poor enforcement. This law had followed the landmark Vishakha case of 1997 when the Supreme Court declared that sexual harassment at work violated a woman’s constitutional right to equality.
Many powerful men accustomed to cutting lewd jokes to attract female employees or making indecent proposals are surely being careful. Women are speaking up in English, and the women journalists working in languages other than English may follow. Their plight is reported to be much worse but then their compulsion to suffer in silence is greater.
#MeToo has shown results. A film company has closed down. Many professional bodies, for the first time, are issuing statements in support of the women recording complaints. They are taking complaints of sexual harassment seriously. A few resignations in the world of journalism have followed. Some complaints redressal committees and inquiry committees have been formed. This has sensitised both the people and the media.
This mini-revolution has surely knocked down the self-confidence of some powerful potential predators. It has made women less risk-averse and readier to protest against sexual harassment.
The departures caused by #MeToo in India have created a wave of jubilation, but the women activists rule out a speedy radical reformation. A long struggle lies ahead. Traditions enable the structure of patriarchy to withstand an occasional tremor. At times, even women will be divided, with many refusing to revolt against the oppressors at home or in work places.
Already some men as well as women are warning against a backlash. They say the #MeToo movement can be misused by women. Comics featuring deadly superwomen have started appearing. The movement’s critics may soon warn against the coming extinction of the male species!
The mini-revolution’s timing requires elaboration. The movement gripped India at a time when millions of Hindus are worshipping God as a woman. For nine holy days and nights, Goddess Durga enthrals the devotees and drives even the non-believers to her temporary temples buzzing with cultural and social events.
For the annual festival for worshipping the ten-armed Goddess, Mother Durga’s idols are made to reflect tradition with a modern touch. Some features show concerns of the day. One year several artists placed a mobile phone in one of the 10 hands of Durga. The Indian version of the #MeToo will inspire imaginative idol-makers next year to make the Buffalo Demon appear in a western suit!
This fierce Goddess represents woman power. She kills a nearly indestructible demon in order to protect gods. She proved herself to be more powerful than all gods and demons! The buffalo demon threatened the gods who bowed to the Goddess and sought her protection.
According to another version, the King of Demons, claiming limitless power to provide her with sensual enjoyment, asks the Goddess to choose him as her husband. He propositions her, but unlike a human sexual predator does not try to touch her! Durga challenges him to show his might. The demon goes after Durga to kill her! The Goddess radiates blinding energy. The Demon tries to flee and is slayed amid shouts of victory by the crowd of gods! An inspiring tale for the women activists of India where mythology is often used in political campaigns.
Goddesses in different forms offer not just protection but also wealth and wisdom! No wonder, the sacred Hindu texts place the woman on a pedestal. “Gods dwell in a place where women are worshipped” is a popular saying. Unmarried girls are ritualistically worshipped during a festival.
India riddled with contradictions
India was proud to have a woman Prime Minister when that office was only a glint in the eyes of Margret Thatcher. On a visit to India, Thatcher wanted tips from Indira Gandhi! The ratio of women scientists in responsible positions in India is much higher than in Britain. India’s history features eminent women scholars who were invincible in their power to argue.
Why should a country like this need laws to protect women from mere men?
Alas, India is riddled with contradictions. Whatever is true of India, its opposite is also true. Some tales from ancient India enrage even moderate feminists. Some women poets blame Lord Ram for his treatment of his wife Sita.
Many prominent women were dishonoured, humiliated, maltreated and exploited by kings and sages. They were treated as the property of men. Married women were seduced or abducted and impregnated in ancient India. A woman could be disrobed; a wife could be lost in a gambling bet.
In contemporary India, the abortion of girl foetuses is a major concern. This crime has been documented in books and in the notices hung in hospitals and medical imaging centres prohibiting the disclosure of the sex of the baby in the womb. The ratio of girl babies has declined.
Sonia Bhalotra of the University of Essex and her co-researchers found that when gold prices go up, fewer female babies in India survive their first month of life. The study attributed this to the curse of dowry given by the bride’s family to the groom. “Gold is included in bridal dowries – so when gold prices go up, the cost of raising girls rises and families tend to neglect or abort them.” Despite having been outlawed, dowry is widely prevalent in India.
The incidence of rape is very high. The insecurity of women at home, on the road and in public transport is seen as a major police failure. Informal courts run by different castes and sub-castes issue illegal fatwas against women straying from the path set for them by the patriarchs. Girls are denied mobile phones and asked not to wear “indecent” clothes. Dominating fathers select grooms for their daughters and many girls are killed if they decide to marry for love.
The sexual exploitation of tribal girls and poor women has been portrayed in countless films and novels. Generally, the oppressors are village landlords and tea estate managers and owners.
The message spreads
It turns out that women belonging to the jet-setting class fare no better when it comes to dowry deaths, domestic violence and sexual harassment in public. These educated women suffer silently for fear of being stigmatised and losing remunerative jobs or the financial security provided by the cruel husband.
The predator banks on the victim’s silence and does not fear exposure. Men in stylish suits, appearing to be gentlemen, carry on relentlessly and are never outed. Film-makers document the stories of poor women because that material is easily available. The #MeToo movement has altered that situation a bit. So, films and novels depicting a different class of victims and predators will follow. Many more accomplished and successful women are expected to come forward to challenge the oppressors by naming them,first users of social media as a platform for protest belong to the “elite” class.
Women journalists working in small towns for newspapers published in languages other than English are yet to speak even though their plight is reported to be worse. The situation is not very different in other professions. A women’s NGO from Gujarat, the Prime Minister’s home state, says, “For every woman who has courageously spoken up, there are tens of thousands of women who have remained silent”.
Gradually, the movement will empower these women. The Google search data shows that the #MeToo message has started reaching India’s small towns. The struggle for women’s empowerment will indeed be long but the mini-revolution has made sexual predators jittery and their victims more courageous. Women are less likely to extend the protection of their silence to those who harass them.
*Former European correspondent of The Times of India based in London, reported from Washington as the foreign editor of the Deccan Herald
This article first appeared in Open Democracy