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MeToo In India: The Women Who Dared To Speak Out

As most of the aggressors named and shamed in #MeToo remain unscathed, the women’s battles are far from over even though the social media-generated movement created unprecedented solidarity among women against their sexual predators.

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MeToo In India: The Women Who Dared To Speak Out
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Whenever actor-poet Shrutee Choudhary revisits the days when she chose to speak up against her harasser, she can hear a tired sigh emanating from the depths of her soul. It says: “I tried.” Trauma shows up at unexpected times. It did when a seven-member jury in the US directed Amber Heard to pay $10.35 damages to her ex-husband Johnny Depp for defaming him, discounting her claim that he had abused her during their marriage. In October 2018, Choudhary became flummoxed after a couple of cases surfaced against the co-founder of the company she was working for. It was during the #MeToo movement when a flurry of social media posts by women in the media and creative industries had slapped men in positions of power with charges of sexual abuse and assault. Their stories triggered the cold harsh truth of gender inequities in workplaces.

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When Choudhary read the accounts of other women against her superior, she noticed a familiar but ‘terrifying’ pattern, one that she had personally experienced: “I was in a state of shock, trying to process everything. At the same time, I witnessed those other anonymous confessions being questioned; their authenticity was up for a toss simply because it is our innate culture as a society not to believe women,” she tells Outlook.

The social media-generated movement created unprecedented solidarity among women against their sexual predators. It was India’s own #MeToo moment. The movement, which had its origin in the Harvey Weinstein saga, had gained momentum a whole year after several Indian women shared their tales of sexual harassment, alongside their global counterparts, in October 2017, following American actress Alyssa Milano’s call on Twitter. In India’s chequered history of women empowerment, it marked a seismic shift; women, forced to suffer their ‘shame’ silently for years, could not only speak up against the incarcerating culture of silence around sexual assault, perpetuated by the deeply-ingrained, toxic patriarchy, but also name and shame their sexual aggressors. On public forums.

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The term “Me Too”, which New York City women’s advocate Tarana Burke had first used in 2006 with the goal to empower local victims of sexual violence and harassment, had become a credo for feminists worldwide. “Girls are coming out of the woods/ the way birds arrive/at morning windows—pecking/and humming/until all you can hear/is the smash of their minuscule hearts/against glass, the bright desperation/of sound—bashing, disappearing/ Girls are coming out of the woods/ They’re coming. They’re coming,” these lines from Tishani Doshi’s poem, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, written six months after the gangrape-murder of  a paramedical student on a moving bus in Delhi in December 2012, acquired a deep resonance and was co-opted by those leading the movement in India. Earlier, online feminist activism had seen the emergence of campaigns such as SlutWalk, Pink Chaddi (Underwear), Hollaback, #IWillGoOut, Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage), #LoSHA (a crowdsourced list of sexual harassers in academia compiled by Raya Sarkar in 2017), the #WomensMarch and #TimesUp. But #MeToo unfolded on a bigger scale, putting in the dock the high and mighty. It also seemed to hold the promise of being a harbinger for far-reaching changes in gender relations, especially in the professional sphere.

Tanushree Dutta accused actor Nana Patekar of harassment. After her post on the alleged harassment went viral, the roles coming her way dwindled.

Four years down the line, that promise is still far from being realised. Cases of sexual violence continue to be reported. They are, however, only the tip of the iceberg: There are countless incidences, especially from the rural areas, that are either underreported or not reported at all. Choudhary, among the scores of women who shared their testimonies online, knows that even though she spoke up, it has done little to make workplaces safer for women. The culture of shaming and victim-blaming in India ensures that women who speak up are made the targets of trolling and doxing. A former correspondent of a national daily, who had accused a high-level editor of harassment, looks back at #MeToo with mixed feelings: “It would be a lie to call it a successful purging of irresponsible and socially reckless male journalists and editors. Rather, it ended as the purging of all the women who came forward from newsrooms and other spaces.”

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When the journalist had spoken up against the editor at her former workplace, it was not her intention to ‘ruin’ anyone. But her friends, many being from the media, told her she was ‘ruining’ a good man’s life: “It didn’t matter that this man had done worse with so many other women—some of whom came forward and whose stories were scrapped by other high-level editors.” Her harasser didn’t lose his job. He didn’t even lose “a single-minute’s pay”. He was sent on “paid vacation,” and off Twitter, till another story hit the news cycle. It was the women who became an object of curiosity instead. She was called for an interview at a digital news outlet, but was told later that there was no job: “It was just so the editor could see who I was”. The women who had spoken up continue to face issues finding full-time work. On the other hand, all the men named are either back at their old jobs or have bounced back in a different field. A couple of months ago, a reporter who was named by nine women in 2018, struck up a conversation with the woman journalist on Twitter. He’d changed his handle, his bio, and his job. The only thing that hadn’t changed was his propensity to find victims online. “#MeToo India just let me know how little the men around me—be it family, friends, mentors, and colleagues—cared about or even respected women’s rights, which is to say: only when it’s convenient for them,” says the journalist.

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Chinmayi Sripada, a playback singer based in Tamil Nadu, was officially banned from working in Tollywood after she, along with 19 other women, accused a famous lyricist of sexual abuse. Her case remains sub-judice, and her complaints to the National Commission for Women and the DGP of Tamil Nadu, among others, have borne no result. Closure, to her, remains elusive. “The talks of women empowerment and progressiveness in Tamil Nadu are a mere façade,” she says. Tanushree Dutta, the flagbearer of the #MeToo movement in India, accused actor Nana Patekar of sexual harassment. After her post on the alleged harassment went viral, the roles coming her way dwindled. Left with no option, she decided to move to the US to try her luck in the IT industry.

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Illustration: Saahil

Days after Dutta made her allegations public, veteran television producer, writer and director Vinta Nanda accused actor Alok Nath of having sexually harassed her two decades back; the episode spelt the end of the projects she had been working on. Her colleagues termed her as a person who was “difficult to work with”. Nanda described what had happened to her in an interview in the Bombay Times way back in 2004/5. Though the news was published on the front page, her fraternity pretended they never saw it. The silence surrounding her admission meant that she was being ostracised, she stopped getting work as a writer or a director. When she went to friends/colleagues asking for work, they assured her of help, but didn’t move an inch to respond to her pitches and decks. Thereafter, she took a step back and dabbled in non-mainstream opportunities; she worked at an ad agency for a while, curated the film section of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival for two consecutive years, and did a bit of ghost-writing to pay her bills. Life started to look up after 2012 when she was asked to lead a programme for the Hollywood Health and Society, Norman Lear Center, USC Annenberg School for Communication, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. By 2018, her confidence returned and she revisited networks and studios with pitches. She had even started working on a project for a studio. Then #MeToo happened, and she ended up losing all her contracts.

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“I propelled change. There is a long way to go but at least the shift in perspective is happening. Men are wary now, a bit afraid, some even more respectful,” says actor-poet Shrutee Choudhary.

Nanda says the #MeToo movement has become agenda-driven; it’s politicised and weaponised: “As a whole, we have regressed as a nation. After the #MeToo movement, the space for debates has shrunk further. We are in a post-truth era, in which important issues remain unaddressed. The issue of women, as it always happens, is put on the backburner under some or another pretext. The movement is getting derailed in India because whenever there is a confrontation between the powerful and the powerless, the latter loses.” However, she says it was a great moment when journalist Priya Ramani won the case against former external affairs minister M.J. Akbar. “It was a victory for the India part of the movement and closure for many survivors like me,” says Nanda.

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To Choudhary, speaking up not just meant standing up for herself, but also against a prejudiced society: “No matter your experience, the onus always falls on women. Society allows men to walk away, unscathed.” When she wrote the long post on a digital platform, she believed that what she was doing had a strong impact; 16 women came forward with their experiences subsequently. To her, it was about putting the spotlight on the things we keep brushing under the carpet, fearing “what will people say?” Not everyone understood her. Her parents were embarrassed to read the account initially, and scolded her for talking about it publicly. Strangers on social media made judgements, called her names, and made her feel that she did it for “attention”.

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The #MeToo movement may have lost its steam, but Choudhary keeps telling herself that she took a step in the right direction: “I propelled change. There is a long way to go but at least with the #MeToo movement, the shift in perspective is slowly happening. Men are wary now, a bit afraid, some even more respectful. Women are breaking stereotypes and taking back their power. I just hope to see it continue.”

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Women Who Came Forward")

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