In 2006, Tarana Burke started the MeToo movement in New York – partly due to her history of struggling with sexual harassment and partly for young women of colour from low-income communities to come together on a common platform and narrate their horrific experiences. Thus, began a movement that has now come to define the gender dynamics of the 21st century. It has now become a potent tool in the hands of victims of sexual harassment – which has empowered them to come forward and narrate their experiences publicly.
MeToo is one of the most open and public ‘feminist’ movements till date. It has three distinct advantages – first, a large number of women have gathered the courage to come out and speak up even against the most powerful of patriarchs. New solidarity among women has emerged that was not seen before when coming out with stories of sexual harassment. Secondly, the media be it social, print or visual have become their core pillars of strength. It has primarily stood up for the victims; forcing people to take notice. And third is the public support, pouring in from every corner of the society. Thus, giving these women hope and courage and making them more resilient in the face of harassment by the patriarchal institutions.
The movement took more than a year to reach Indian shores. It started last month with former Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta speaking out against Nana Patekar accusing him of sexual harassment. It took some time for support to start pouring in, as many were either afraid or in doubt due to the sexism prevalent in the film industry.
Patriarchy is toxic not only for women but for men as well, which makes the liberal, pro-feminist section of men afraid to speak up. Take the example of Vivek Oberoi when he supported Aishwarya Rai when she accused Salman Khan of physically assaulting her. Salman did everything in his power to destroy Oberoi’s career; who later publicly apologised to Salman. The Movement has recently spilt over to the political sphere as well – as several women have accused MJ Akbar (Minister of state for external affairs) for his predatory nature.
Is the Indian version of the #MeToo movement an Indianised movement or is it a poor imitation of its western counterpart?
I believe it to be the latter. Here’s why:
Indian film industry has patriarchy and sexism running through its veins; where even men are afraid to speak out against powerful men, where ‘casting couches’, private auditions, and late-night knock at the door are an open secret. There is a particular fear psychosis prevalent in the industry. Their inability to acknowledge the victim is due to their personal equation with the accused. The lack of empathy for the victims makes them complicit in creating an environment where victims are named and shamed and made afraid to speak up instead.
Not a single A-list Bollywood star has spoken in support of the victims or the movement, no Khans, Kapoors or the Bacchans. Not even our top actresses – be it Padukone, Katrina or Anushka. Priyanka Chopra did put out a half-hearted non-threatening tweet, but no direct public support can be seen on her part too.
When George Clooney speaks against his former directors and co-stars in support of the victims of sexual harassment – it tells us that the #MeToo movement is not only a movement for women by women, it affirms it’s inclusiveness and supports men who champion for such causes, and thus, makes them equally important faces of the movement. However, as described earlier, in our film industry no A-list actor has come out in support of the movement except for a determined Farhan Akhtar. More importantly, no man has come out with his #MeToo story either.
Demanding sexual favours from men is not uncommon in the film and fashion line. Why hasn’t any man come forward then? Partly because the infant movement has already taken an aggressive stance, where only men are considered as harassers, and thus, it’s only targeting men. Or is it because our society is not ready for such a movement and men who dare to speak out will be questioned for their sexuality and shamed in the process? Is our society not mature or inclusive enough to accommodate men’s experiences of sexual harassment?
The film industry, given its presence in our society, was the most likely place where the movement could start. But, it has mostly remained limited to the industry only. Some spillover effect can be seen in the political sphere, but it would require a more inclusive, large-scale and radical movement to upset the patriarchal equations of power in politics. It has not yet touched the lives of the ‘Aam Aurat’ (ordinary woman), who mostly remain either aloof or confused regarding the nature of the movement. Primarily because – they undergo horrific experiences in their day to day lives while travelling in public transport, crossing a crowded street, going out with guys, or by wearing what they like, eating what they want, speaking the way the like or by just being themselves.
Such harassment has become mundane for them. Therefore, they find themselves alienated from the movement. Fault also lies with the front-runners of the movement – as they have failed to incorporate the struggles of these women into the sphere of this movement. Some are patriarchs themselves albeit unknowingly; thus suffocating the movement. Have you ever come across a prominent film industry actor showing support on issues such as ‘triple talaq’ or ‘Sabarimala’? These advocates of the #MeToo movement have divorced themselves from the ground realities of the common Indian women. Why should then an ‘Aam Aurat’ support their cause? It’s an elitist movement with a small sphere of influence – harbouring a class bias.
However, it has started this debate on every media channel which has percolated down to the households; bringing an open secret to the forefront. It provides an excellent opportunity for women to bridge their class divide and strengthen their solidarity and for men to speak up openly and to stand for what is right – even if it means going against the very patriarchal system that has nurtured them.
Moreover, it provides for a countrywide movement for women to claim what is rightfully theirs – an inclusive, safe atmosphere and equal standing in the society. This opportunity must be capitalised to bring about structural and institutional changes. It has opened up a Pandora’s box, which after all may not be the worst thing.