#MeToo - five characters clubbed together, that have in some sense united women across the world. A single tweet in October 2017 by Alyssa Milano, using the phrase ‘metoo’ opened the floodgates to a powerful social media campaign that saw millions of women sharing their stories online, highlighting what had been an ‘open secret’ for so long - the fact that harassment and abuse of women is normalised and accepted as a part of regular daily life, everywhere.
But somehow #MeToo never really took off in India. There were a few attempts - a law student, Raya Sarkar based out of the US, put out a public ‘sexual predator’ list of Indian academicians that was widely circulated over the internet. But it got mixed reactions as the names were anonymously posted and the methodology was criticised for potentially discrediting the movement. There were also sporadic complaints of abuse in the startup eco-system and a couple of other cases over the past one year, but it has been relatively muted in India. However if the events of this week are anything to go by, things are changing.
A few weeks ago, actress Tanushree Datta was one of the first to openly accuse veteran actor Nana Patekar of harassment on the sets of a film they did together in 2008. Her case has got a lot of attention with reactions pouring in and different voices adding to the ongoing debate. Tanushree Datta may or may not have been a trigger, but in the past few days we have seen shocking revelations by several other women, especially across the media and entertainment industry. Powerful men are being named. Women are sharing information and corroborating each other’s stories, leading to a flurry of apologies and resignations. Perhaps #MeToo has finally arrived in India.
Heads are beginning to roll and accusations are piling up. Award winning director Vikas Bahl has been dropped from an Amazon Prime project after being accused of sexual misconduct. The Political Editor and Delhi Bureau Chief of Hindustan Times stepped down, while the resident editor of The Times of India in Hyderabad has been asked to go on leave, DNA’s former Editor and several other journalists from other media organisations have also been named. It is not just limited to newsrooms, the movement has reached the Narendra Modi government too, with fingers being pointed at MJ Akbar, Minister of State for External Affairs.
Bestselling author Chetan Bhagat has issued a lengthy apology on Facebook after screenshots of his WhatsApp conversations were shared. There have been allegations against two co-founders of All India Bakchod, a leading comic content production house. AIB’s CEO Tanmay Bhatt ‘stepped away’ for not taking any action after a women accused Utsav Chakraborty of assault. An anonymous women has also levelled allegations against Gursimran Khamba, another AIB co-founder. Filmmaker Rajat Kapoor, singer Kailash Kher, Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu, ‘sanskari’ Alok Nath…the list is long, and promises to grow every day.
There is a certain safety in numbers, which is maybe why more and more women are coming forward with their stories. The reason is not just limited to ease of social media activism. It is also simply that for the first time they believe people are listening. Chances are that there will be more names tumbling out over the next few weeks.
But as tempting as it is to watch the heads topple one after the other, it is important to ensure that this does not quickly degenerate into hashtag politics. We have seen the emergence of the ‘boys club’ in Trump’s USA, where there were enough voices actively defending Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, despite serious charges against him. Experts warn about rape jokes going underground, and men feeling ‘victimised’. In India there has been a deafening silence from most of the influential men in the news and entertainment business. There are very few who have spoken out or responded.
There is no doubt that #MeToo has managed to raise awareness on an issue that has been long brushed under the carpet, from serious sexual harassment to routine sexism that women face at workplaces every day. A conversation has begun. But it needs to be balanced between both the sexes. Women are raising voice on social networks, but the men need to speak up too. We need to collectively believe the voices, question work ethics, engage with each other in conversations and address the grey areas of gender relations.
Violence against women is a public health problem. It affects women from all walks of life. Not just celebrities or the privileged class, it impacts millions of domestic workers, sex workers, women working in factories, construction sites, wives, mothers, at home and in office. The numbers are huge. No wonder #MeToo found a resonance so quickly with so many across the world. The fact is that there are millions of women willing to come forward and narrate their individual, traumatic, uncomfortable and embarrassing experiences. But what next? Where do we go from here is up to us - both men and women. #MeToo is a powerful campaign, but we must remember it is also just a beginning.
The two simple words have been echoing around the world for the past year. The momentum generated by #MeToo can be an opportunity to bring real social change. Time magazine named ‘the silence breakers’, women who spoke up about abuse, as its ‘person of the year’. The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was given to a rape survivor and a doctor who spent his life defending victims of sexual assault during war. The issue of gender based violence is clearly being placed at the centre of the international stage. A personal story can be a powerful tool in moving public opinion. And it has only just begun in India.
(Ekta Kumar is a writer, columnist, artist and works closely with the European Union on gender and civil rights related issues. The views expressed are her own.)