From the flappers of the roaring Twenties to The Feminine Mystique of the global Sixties, the feminist movement has come a long way. The latest addition to this stride is the #MeToo movement, one that started with the exposé of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of power to sexually assault scores of women in the film industry.
Two journalists with The New York Times, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, conducted a thorough investigation of the many crimes of Weinstein who is likely to face a jail term. Actress Rose McGowan, the bravest voice against Weinstein, who is not too pleased with the current state of the movement, has inspired women the world over to speak up against workplace sexual harassment.
Taking a cue from the #MeToo movement, the past few days in India have been positively tumultuous. A number of women stormed Twitter to “name and shame” their harassers. As the list kept growing, it laid bare the systemic misogyny in the country’s workplaces and elsewhere. What started with the shaming of online sexual harassers soon spiralled to accusing journalists, filmmakers, comedians and authors. Many women celebrated that India’s #MeToo movement is finally here—and about time too.
Courage spoke volumes and in this much-needed collective catharsis, several stories were shared. While writer-producer Vinta Nanda narrated a gut-wrenching account of her repeated rape by actor Alok Nath, allegations of sexual harassment at the workplace were levied against minister of state for external affairs, MJ Akbar, by several women. Vikas Bahl, director of the female-centric movie Queen, was accused of continuous mental and sexual assault by an ex-employee of Phantom films and charges of sexual harassment were filed against actor Nana Patekar by actress Tanushree Dutta.
However, every movement, especially one that spreads like wildfire, must pause and take stock of the way forward.
So far, when subjected to a close examination, the movement presents a discombobulated picture with respect to the allegations made, a glaring exclusivity in terms of representation, and an almost scary disposition of becoming a moral force rather than an empowering movement. Furthermore, the manner in which many cases are being reported by the media raises a number of concerns that must be addressed.
For starters, the movement started in and is confined to Twitter, a social media website largely used by the English-speaking upper-class of India. Conflating a movement led and sustained by the minuscule Anglophones to India’s #MeToo marginalises the vast amount of sexual harassment faced by the majority of women in India.
Moreover, given the diverse population of the country, any feminist movement devoid of intersectionality is just the tip of the iceberg. A few Dalit women took to Twitter to express how they are “unable to locate themselves in the current framework of the movement”, even as they expressed solidarity with all survivors of sexual violence. Without recognising the complexities of caste and class, the #MeToo movement lacks the gravitas required for it to be an India-wide movement. Even within upper-class circles, #MeToo is far from being inclusive. The toxic work culture in the Hindi media finds no voice in the movement, for example.
Besides being myopic in terms of representation, the tenor of the movement has been confusing. Stories about women surviving date rapes and sexual harassment in workplaces are being clubbed with stories that are not from the workplace, where men “demanded” sex from women too early on or not too subtly. These stories are important but such a mixed bag is highly problematic. Keeping cases of physical and mental harassment at par with differing expectations not only delegitimises the former but also trivialises it.
One would imagine that men and women soliciting sex from each other in a noncommittal way would be a welcome scenario, especially in a country like India where only a generation ago, sex outside the bonds of matrimony invited societal censure. It largely still does, which is why being able to ask and get asked for sex outside the narrow conventions of female sexuality can be quite empowering for Indian women by giving them agency and greater control over their bodies.
Men cannot be called harassers for simply wanting sex from a woman. Consent is key here and any violation of that should invite large amounts of shaming and a befitting punishment. Therefore, not only is grouping rape allegations with a flirtatious text disconcerting, calling out the latter as harassment is problematic.
Yet another worrisome feature of the movement is its moralistic tone. It reeked of patriarchy when, in some cases, women took to Twitter to shame men asking for casual sex because they were not a certain type of woman. The idea of feminism is to allow women to break free of the judgmental typologies devised by a patriarchal society in order to control their sexuality and curtail their liberties. Taking a moral high ground and disparaging women indulging in casual sex is no woman’s idea of #MeToo.
If anything, women indulging in noncommittal sex must be encouraged by all feminist movements. Moral policing casual sex only enforces the patriarchal notion that women look for “love” while men look for sex in relationships. Women can and should engage in casual sex and a movement as urban, elite and progressive as #MeToo has no locus standi to be judgmental.
The movement also suffers from a chronic lack of accountability. While anonymity is empowering, it can also be easily misused. A lot is at stake here—jobs are being lost, careers are being destroyed. Asking for some responsibility and due process is absolutely necessary. Recently, lyricist and comedian Varun Grover was accused of sexual harassment by a woman who purportedly went to college with him (the tweet has since then been deleted). Grover in his defence pointed out some factual inaccuracies in the account, asking for a basic verification check that has yielded nothing so far. The media reporting of such cases has also been disappointingly careless. Names are being piled on without any basic check. Apart from a lack of responsible reporting, there is also a lot of misreporting. The difference becomes rather stark when compared with Twohey and Kantor’s meticulous investigation into Weinstein’s many crimes.
This absence of responsible reporting also led to online harassment being meted out to not only women labelled as “enablers” but also women completely unconnected with any of the #MeToo allegations. Women associated with the accused were named and attacked. Dystopically, sexual harassment was alleged in an account vicariously shared on social media without any consent from the woman involved. Despite the alleged survivor’s repeated refutation of the account, social media continued to accuse the woman of not speaking up. Harming women and attacking them should be antithetical to the very nature of the #MeToo movement, not one of its many aspects.
For the Indian women it represents—the urban, elite, social media-using minority—#MeToo is a great opportunity to expose the patriarchy inherent in a majority of workplaces in India. It’s a rallying cry against men who are sexual harassers, serial molesters and rapists. Therefore, it is imperative that the movement succeeds by bringing into its fold the vast majority of women who suffer in silence, an end that can only be achieved if the movement proceeds in a more responsible and non-judgmental manner.