As far as awakenings and online revolutions go, we tend to think of our generation as significantly more enlightened, gender tolerant, and liberated from society’s regressive mindsets than ever before. And for some, it might even be true. Yet, recent events across the globe signify that we haven’t even scraped the surface of more insidious issues like sexism and harassment. In the last week itself, strong cases have been waged against Harvey Weinstein and international musician the Gaslamp Killer, singer Bjork has shared experiences of harassment at the hands of a Danish Director and closer to home, the management of Pune’s High Spirits and its proprietor Khodu Irani have come under fire for sexism and harassment against multiple individuals. Though the jury is still out on some of these cases, it’s clear that the issue itself is a pandemic, and our culture a toxic one. Not to mention, the spaces we deemed safest are far from any Utopian ideal. As revered as artistic communities, careers and spaces are for their more progressive attitudes towards matters of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation and more, the truth is that sexual harassment is an all-pervasive problem and the only time to tackle it is the present.
A major part of the issue can be contributed to deeply internalised conditioning that is the result of generations of patriarchal mindsets and traditions. It cannot be undone overnight, yet acknowledging its existence is a very vital first step. Even this, however, comes with its burdens. Most women implicitly know that speaking out about such incidents can alienate us, if not render us completely isolated. Victim-blaming is real. It explains why, even in 2017, 70% of women are too scared of the repercussions to report incidents of sexual harassment at work. It explains why despite 848 women reporting sexual harassment in India every day (as per a 2014 survey) we haven’t even begun to put systems in place for its prevention that are even mildly acceptable. Let’s not deny that this number is probably far smaller than its reality, because it doesn’t take into account just how many women don’t have the opportunity or the means to actually complain formally. This is exactly the narrative the ‘Me Too’ campaign seeks to be a part of and re-initiate.
First started by Unshame - and revived yesterday by actress Alyssa Milano in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein case - the ‘Me Too’ campaign serves to remind survivors of sexual harassment that they are not alone. Women all over the globe are contributing their own stories (or two words) to the campaign and it’s heartening to see the pace at which it’s picking up in India too.
Simply posting these two words on social media may finally give us an idea of the scale at which sexual abuse has infested our lives, without forcing those still struggling to articulate or not wanting to articulate their personal abuses, from actually saying more than they are comfortable with at the moment. It is an opportunity for people who have been made to feel they were wrong about being wronged to speak out. Almost every woman we know can relate. We know this because we’ve asked. If you’ve felt uncomfortable in a situation that was later laughed off as a joke, if you’ve been called a prude for not enjoying a joke that was explicitly discriminatory or a ‘friendly butt slap’, this is the chance to have your say. And it is a chance to stand with others who have been through the same and are fighting against it.
It is also an opportunity to introspect. What is the scope of sexual harassment and what does it entail? How can we challenge ourselves to move beyond our deep societal conditioning to recognise all people’s humanity? Most importantly, how can we be more empathetic to all people around us, regardless of their caste, class, religion, gender, sexuality? The campaign is already expanding to include all people, including men, who have faced such harassment, as it should be if we are truly to attempt tackling the problem.
In India, things are more difficult than ever–the problem itself reaching fever pitch. We trivialise the term itself by calling it ‘eve-teasing’ and struggle to address abuse. Much of the time it gets shrugged off because we’ve bought into the belief that reporting a crime to the police will be an arduous and eventually fruitless pursuit. While there is a grain of truth in this, there are absolutely other avenues to take when reporting harassment, whether it’s to the management of an establishment, a women’s rights NGO or simply putting the message out on social media. Every voice that does speak out empowers more people to share their experiences and push towards change.
Sometimes it’s hard to apply terms as incendiary as abuse when the action comes from people you know and trust but you need to know that it’s definitely not ok, it’s not your fault, and more importantly you are not alone. Speaking out against a harasser may seem like a difficult choice but doing so may protect so many people in the future. As someone who has come face to face with harassment in my own home at the hands of a person I knew, I’ll start the ball rolling and hope that it keeps going until no man or woman is afraid to call out their aggressor.
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