On Sisterhood And Solidarity In Context Of The ‘MeToo’ Movement In India: Part I

People ask survivors (the original quote had the word ‘victim’ but I chose to replace it with ‘survivor’ as a testament to the courage of the people who fought and continue to fight, to survive such traumatic experiences) why now? Why 20 years later? And use that as a reason to dismiss allegations. One needs to understand the power assemblages at work that silence and prevent survivors from speaking out. Why am I doing this now? Because I feel Harvey Weinstein’s case has started many discussions and people are now more open to believing survivors instead of ‘liar until proven innocent‘,” said Raya Sarkar in an interview to BuzzFeed News, when asked what prompted her to create the list of sexual harassers in academia (LoSHA). The ‘MeToo’ movement in Indian started when 24-year-old Dalit, queer, Ph.D. scholar Sarkar decided to publish the list based on first-hand testimonies. This unparalleled act of courage was met with mixed responses.

A group of twelve prominent feminists and activists including (but not limited to) Nivedita Menon and Kavita Krishnan expressed their disagreement with Sarkar’s methods by publishing a collective statement on the website Kafila, asking them to withdraw the list and follow due process. “It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability…This manner of naming can delegitimize the long struggle against sexual harassment, and make our task as feminists more difficult.”, the statement read. Some of these individuals who signed the statement expanded on parts of the statement in an individual capacity, bringing to light issues such as vigilantism, transparency, and the lack of clarity about the resolution of these cases.

Others applauded Sarkar’s ‘naming and shaming’ approach, which was seen as a response to the failure of institutional mechanisms. “I put the list out to make students safe,” said Sarkar in an interview to BBC. Those who agreed with the politics of the list also brought up legitimate concerns about Internal Complaint Committees (ICCs) such as the non-existence of ICCs on college campuses, accessibility, and gender-sensitivity of ICCs. Supporters see the list as an outlet for the anger and frustration experienced by young feminists who had to bear the brunt of abuse of power by their professors.

LoSHA began to fade away from public imagination as people continued to debate its validity. As is the case with most trends in India, the ‘MeToo’ movement managed to capture public imagination once Bollywood (as the Hindi film industry is popularly known) got on board. The second wave of the ‘MeToo’ movement snowballed into a widespread, leaderless, social phenomenon when Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta spoke up about actor and activist Nana Patekar physically and verbally misbehaving with her on the sets of the 2008 film ‘Horn ‘OK’ Pleassss‘. She also implicated the film’s director, producer, and choreographer for not interfering or helping her. Patekar has since been given a clean chit in the case by Mumbai police because they couldn’t find evidence to support Dutta’s narrative.

Bollywood, an industry that is riddled with gender injustice in the form of casting couch, dismal participation of women behind the camera, pay gap, etc. was shaken to its very core with the outpouring of sexual harassment experiences from within the film industry. It could no longer claim ignorance or brush ‘inconvenient’ matters under the carpet when women were sharing stories of abuse on public platforms. An industry that prides itself on being ‘apolitical’ had to take a stand because of the sheer number of women who spoke about their awful experiences and because of the nature of these experiences. Directors such as Sajid Khan and Subhash Kapoor had to step down from films that they were at the helm of after they were outed as abusers by women who had worked with them previously.

The ripples of Dutta’s fearless assertion were felt in all spheres of Indian lives such as the creative arts, journalism, politics, etc. Indian politicians have never been particularly sensitive when speaking their minds in the aftermath of heinous crimes against women including sexual violence. Everything from chowmein (noodles) to jeans and cell phones, everything but the toxic behaviour of men has been held responsible by them. Their arguments, devoid of logic, are made with the singular intention of letting men off the hook by perpetuating the ‘boys will be boys‘ rhetoric.

Another high profile case involved Indian journalist and politician MJ Akbar who was forced to step down as Minister of State for External Affairs, after more than fifteen women used social media to recount the harrowing details of their abuse at the hands of Akbar. He responded by filing a case of criminal defamation against journalist Priya Ramani who was the first of the lot to speak her truth to power. In response to this, twenty women who worked at a newspaper Akbar founded (Asian Age) released a petition in support of Ramani, asking New Delhi’s Patiala house court to consider their testimonies against him. They said that “When Ms. Ramani spoke out against him in public, she spoke not only about her personal experience but also lifted the lid on the culture of casual misogyny, entitlement and sexual predation that Mr. Akbar engendered and presided over“.

The ‘MeToo’ movement in India has been criticised on many counts. In a country, where not everyone has equal access to the internet or social media, the movement has largely been restricted to the urban milieu, with most survivors and perpetrators coming from dominant caste (“Caste in India means an artificial chopping off of the population into fixed and definite units, each one prevented from fusing into another through the custom of endogamy.” – B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis, and Development’, 1916), class locations. Furthermore, the movement lacks inclusivity in terms of being accessible to individuals from marginalised caste, class locations and to individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community. Sexual orientation and gender identity are important markers that interact in unique ways with one’s experiences of abuse and the resulting trauma. Unless such individuals feel like they can contribute to the larger debate by opening up about their ordeals, these voices will continue to remain missing from the conversation.

Readers Can Access Part II Here.

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