In the past few weeks, the #MeToo movement in India has shaken the very foundation of our society, confronting structures that have been in place since the country’s inception. There is no doubt that it has been an emotional time for many, especially the brave women and men who have come out with personal stories of sexual harassment and assault. These are stories of trauma, fear and discomfort as much as they are products of long-overdue anger and a vehement demand for equality and accountability.
That being said, every movement that challenges age-old social structures is bound to have a few disparagers. Some of these are predictable, like the mass of men instinctively crying “false accusations!” or those that make flippant, dismissive remarks instead of confronting uncomfortable truths. But some are subtler and more complex – like the many women who have decisively shunned the meaning of #MeToo by calling it a product of misguided “liberal feminist” rage, a redundant movement spearheaded by weak and self-victimising women who “were asking for it,” or by justifying the actions of those accused in some way or another. And when the women behind these criticisms have public and social clout, they undermine and invalidate any chance of a united resistance.
Ultimately the movement is about raising a collective voice against centuries of patriarchal oppression against women from all walks of life – and by opposing and undermining other women’s testimonies, the women critiquing the #MeToo movement are using the same tools of silencing that men have been using for years. They are perhaps products of internalised misogyny, by which I mean the genuine, subconscious belief that women – including themselves – are subordinate and are at fault for many of the problems that women face. These can be expressed by minimising the value of women, mistrusting them or believing gender bias in favour of men.
Last week, Tavleen Singh, a renowned political reporter in India, published a piece criticising the #MeToo movement. She stated that social media outrage by “liberals” is provoked by the smallest things and asserted that #MeToo is inherently a movement of privilege – calling it “as irrelevant as those militant Indian feminists were who burned bras when feminism was fashionable.” She details a number of brutal acts of sexual violence and honour killings against rural women, calling it “the real abuse of Indian women” that should get the same media attention as #MeToo, before a quick plug saying she always sought out women who had been abused in her own reporting.
Now, she is certainly not wrong that there are far more vulnerable groups of women that often face harsher realities and levels of violence than the frontrunners of the #MeToo movement, and that they, too, deserve to have their voices heard. But what I personally fail to understand is why we so adamantly believe that suffering is zero-sum. It is not a competition of who has greater trauma, nor is it a competition of which lives have more value. One woman may feel as traumatised by an incident of sexual assault as another woman who has survived repeated domestic abuse. No one has the right to police another person’s story or determine who is a greater victim.
The current discourse around #MeToo may come from the country’s most privileged, and it absolutely has to become more intersectional and diverse – but it’s a start. It’s only the beginning of a long-overdue movement that, if able to flourish, will set the stage for a radical shift in the way our entire society is conditioned. It is an even more privileged thing to claim you’re speaking up for subaltern voices when in fact you are speaking over them, against stories you can never truly empathise with.
NDTV personality Nidhi Razdan tweeted earlier this month: “Some jerk you met on a date or some creep in the office who tried to get too close doesn’t qualify as sexual harassment. Unless the person didn’t back off when you said NO, please don’t trivialise what women are going through with sexual predators [especially] at work.” Again, these are not mutually exclusive. Yes, the spectrum of sexual harassment and violence is incredibly broad, and the same punishment may not fit all the crimes. But what makes #MeToo particularly powerful is its refusal to reject any harassment claims – however small or big. At the end of the day, they are all crimes and should be tackled accordingly. More importantly, it is ridiculous that women have to assert that they do not consent. So deeply ingrained is the normalisation of male entitlement that women have to explicitly shout “NO, we do not want to be assaulted or harassed” (let alone how often those fall on deaf ears) in order to be free of creepy advancements from men. Calling men out for that behaviour is not trivialising the experience of other women – they are all part of the same problem. As one tweet succinctly put it: “when I have not at any point said yes, why is the burden on me to say no?”
Everything that is not a yes is a definite, absolute no. That should not be so hard to understand and accept.
In a sharp and poignant video calling them out for sneering at women who are leading this fight, Barkha Dutt responded to Tavleen Singh, as well as Seema Mustafa and Manjeet Kripalani. “Instead of making men accountable, you have put the onus on women to remain safe from predators. Isn’t that bizarre?” she says. I can say with full confidence that every single woman in India has felt the onus to be safe against predatory men. That responsibility has always fallen on women, so perhaps it’s not surprising that even in the #MeToo movement the burden of proof continues to fall on women.
Why did you wait 30 years to speak up?
What proof do you have before you make such maligning allegations?
If he was being creepy, why did you keep going to his house?
Why didn’t you say no? Why didn’t you fight back?
That – the idea that women should have fought back immediately, in the moment of the assault and not stayed silent for so long – is what seems to be at the crux of the arguments made by female critics like Tavleen Singh. Two days ago, she responded to Barkha Dutt’s video in an article titled ‘Women like me are fighters not victims’, saying that #MeToo implied victimhood. “My generation of women fought for our place in the workplace –not by being victims but by being fighters. Rights are not usually given to victims but those who fight for them,” she writes.
This is the fight for the implementation of the rights we already have in the Constitution. Generations before us have fought to give us a better future, and now we are expanding that fight. Our tolerance for things that were notoriously “accepted” by previous generations have changed – and that is not a bad thing. Saying women are victimising themselves by not taking immediate action is not only a technique of silencing in itself, but it is also logically flawed. Just because you – or the generations before you – have tackled an issue a certain way, it does not become a hard-and-fast guide on how everyone should tackle that issue. The argument that “if I did it, then they can too” conflates a personal experience with a systemic one.
No one has the right to dictate how someone processes abuse, how (and if) they speak out against it, and what their capacity is to resist what is being done to them. Instead of telling women that they should be “fighters, not victims,” how about we just tell men not to put women in situations that force them to be either? And whether it’s about someone with privilege or someone belonging to a vulnerable group, the “ability to say no” is not something you can just pick up in an online class or by sifting through some brochures. In a country with virtually no formalised concept of consent and appropriate behaviour, how can you blame a woman for not speaking up about the discomfort inflicted on her when all she’s ever been told is that this is simply “what happens”? When we have spent centuries teaching women to be submissive, we cannot expect miracles overnight, and we certainly cannot dismiss the movements aiming to challenge those. Let’s not disregard the sacrifices and myriad of ways in which women have resisted and fought against the structures that oppressed them that don’t fit into this “fighter” category.
Writer Geetanjali Arora wrote in a troubling Facebook post that went viral: “A strong woman does not wait 30, 20, 10 years to speak up. She slaps him on the first ‘bad touch’ and knocks him out. You were scared to say NO then because it’s hard to stand up for what is right and you were scared to lose your status and position in the workplace, so YOU CHOSE to accept the molestation and went back for more. It’s very easy to play the abla nari card later and gain sympathy.” Standing up for oneself is a commendable feat but that has little to do with Arora’s blatantly misogynist words. In the same vein, Rakhi Sawant’s ad hominem attacks and ostentatious and vile slut-shaming of Tanushree Datta, and a number of political personalities like Latha Kelkarthe’s proud insults that women “aren’t that innocent either,” are all symptomatic of a society with an internalised misogyny problem. The way we degrade and shame other women only works against us – you are no better than your male counterparts for those words and in fact, are totally complicit in the harassment and abuse of other women. When Tanushree Datta filed three complaints in the years after her incident with Nana Patekar, not a thing was done about it until the onset of this movement. We live in a society designed for men to have full impunity, and even the bravest of fighters get worn down.
Female complicity in itself is a wide spectrum. Many women have spoken up in defence of men they know that are charged with sexual assault. The magnitude of this movement has impacted every one of us – we all know someone who has been on the receiving end of #MeToo. Many of us know men who have been on the giving end as well. Nushrat Bharucha spoke up in defence of Luv Ranjan, saying she “always felt safe, protected respected and cared for” in his presence and that he has always taken sexual assault allegations seriously. Tavleen Singh’s article talked about the “smear campaign” against her friend Suhel Seth, and a whole slew of women siding with alleged assaulters like M.J. Akbar and more. Then there are those women who present a shaky understanding of feminism by doing everything to not seem “feminazi,” calling #MeToo a one-sided movement that doesn’t give men a say. But men are the only ones who have had a “say” - for centuries - in how societal norms are constructed. This movement is the space for women to finally respond. These are only some of the cases that have been engaged with on a mainstream level, but these ideologies have trickled down into every level of society, in every #MeToo allegation that has been made.
It is no doubt a difficult reality to grasp when you find out that someone close to you has been accused of such horrific behaviour. And while there is some credence to false or exaggerated allegations, it’s a small percentage. Almost every man called out has categorically denied the charges, and to us, that seems statistically implausible if nothing else. But for women who rush to the man’s side, it doesn’t have to come at the expense of the entire movement. The ways in which Nandita Das and Malika Dua handled the allegations against their fathers says something about the possibility and potential for nuanced understandings of what this movement is all about. Host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah, is right when he says that two things can be contradictory and true at the same time; someone you know to be outstanding and respectful to you personally can be someone entirely different to another person in ways that may be unrecognisable to you. But that doesn’t make them untrue and denying it won’t get rid of the skeletons in their closets.
The global wave of #MeToo has only begun to hit the shores of India with a ferocity and fervour that missed previous attempts, like the Raya Sarkar LoSHa list that made the rounds last year, which were met with scepticism and indifference. There is plenty of work to be done to make the movement more intersectional, inclusive, diverse and effective – but it begins when women stand in solidarity with each other despite their differences, emotional experiences and divergent opinions. We are taking on a system of deep-rooted patriarchy and our collective voice has to be louder than ever before. The only burden we should bear is to spearhead this movement together - because after all, a rising tide will lift all boats.
Feature image credits: (L) Utsavpedia and (R) Roma Rajpal Weiss.
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