In certain jokes floating through social media, I have seen the phrase “that escalated quickly” many times. Given the situations it gets used in, I find it hilarious. The same happened with the MeToo and MeTooIndia hashtags on Twitter – but in an extremely serious way. They started trending slowly but then hit the high notes so loud – that these hashtags are now on the brink of creating a crucial social movement.
It all started with the details of one powerful man floating around, but no one was ready to take his name. Then someone did. Women journalists pounced on it and his name became a raging wildfire. M J Akbar, a lion in journalism and now a cabinet minister in the central government. It turns out he was a predatory lion, using his centre stage stature in the journalism industry – to sexually abuse young women journalists, and use his cape of power and influence to silence his victims and devour their self-respect and dignity.
Bollywood actor Alok Nath’s name came up next. This epitome of culture, decency and ‘sanskaar’, is a good-old rapist. The embers have now caught fire and names of corporate honchos and familiar names from the film industry followed. Social media has lit up. Journalists and ordinary people alike – are baying for the blood of these sexual predators.
I got into a row with popular South Indian singer Chinmayi Sripaada on Twitter. She had called Vairamuthu, a songwriter of almost legendary stature, who has collaborated on many of the Tamil songs with A R Rahman. Many aspiring singers and artists who had been abused by him were reaching out to Chinmayi and asking her for help in disclosing their experiences anonymously. My problem with this is two-fold. How did the situation deteriorate to the level where so many women in the case of M J Akbar were reporting their abuse stories now when some of them had happened almost two decades back? Because they kept quiet. So, I wrote to Chinmayi requesting her to reveal the names of the victims, as keeping quiet for so long and hiding behind anonymity are the reasons why sexual abuse has become a daily affair and common practice in the corporate world. She replied to me saying that these women have their careers to worry about – which is why they cannot call out their abusers. Exactly.
Abusers are feeding on this fear to continue harassing women. If Chinmayi had spoken out about her experience long back, many younger singers might have escaped being preyed on by Vairamuthu. This is just one aspect of the situation. Victims are forced to compromise on their self-respect and dignity and they choose to suffer the indignity in silence. Moreover, all men have become potential predators in the eyes of women, it’s sad how women fear men trying to engage with them even in light-hearted conversations.
Women have also been complicit in helping create such a toxic work environment. While they have waded into a male bastion demanding equality in work and social status, this is not a utopian world where men would step aside and let women take over the reins of power from them. What would men seek from women in return other than sexual favours? The ones who agreed – laid the foundation stones of the system. From then on, everyone who went on to enter the system was conditioned to live in the system. Demanding sexual favours from female colleagues became accepted behaviour for men holding powerful positions.
Women who couldn’t deviate and come around to accepting all of this were scarred mentally because of the abuse. Now, the heritage of the system has been handed down to the next generation of men – who have only grown to become more brazen in their actions.
What is astounding now is, other than a few murmurs in the movie industry and corporate offices, there’s almost a deadly silence. It is improbable that the world of glitz, glamour, fashion and wealth could be a perfect world. Rather, it almost seems like everyone has taken shelter for the storm to pass. Shobhaa De, the acclaimed writer and journalist, was on TV to talk about sexual abuse in Bollywood, and she said the ones who have been caught in the net are the expendables and small flies. The big and the mighty ones are hiding in plain sight. She was right on the money. Women have had to go through hell and back especially in the movie, aviation (airline) and healthcare (nursing) industries to just hold on to their jobs. But not a single mouth is opening to complain. Goes to show the height of male dominance – which in turn shows how low women have been buried in the mire of sex, abuse, and oppression.
Every individual’s responsibility in society is to make it better for the next generation. It is not enough that we only try to make our children’s lives better. A life with self-respect and dignity for everyone should get priority over everything else in society. All urban men who become influencers in society are raised in similar environments. Then, how do some go on to become such wily predators? It is upon every individual to introspect and ask – do we want to continue living inside such a slimy system, where we have to keep worrying about our women’s safety and well being all the time?
MeToo and MeTooIndia is a desperate call for change. They are the atomic bombs of urban society, and their explosions have been triggered. What the abusers and predators fear is the mushroom cloud that emanates from it and envelops one and all. This movement may be the only chance for women to go up in arms against their tormentors. This has to become a revolution, cleanse the urban world, and its fire should also spread into rural heartlands. Women have always called out for equality and empowerment and their time to take centre stage – seems to have finally arrived.