Posted by Ankita Rathour
I remember when Salman Khan—the bro of Bollywood—was convicted in the Jodhpur poaching case and sent to jail. I was relieved but the relief was short-lived—he was soon released on bail. Nevertheless, the moment was historic, and like anyone inundated with social media culture, I took to Facebook and posted this:
I welcome this decision, but what about the women Salman Khan has continuously tortured and abused? When will he go on trial for that?
It took three minutes for the first comment to appear. A woman I had known for almost seven years was angry. She wanted to talk about all the good things Khan had done, which she claimed outweighed the harm he had caused. That these ‘good things’ may have been cover for all the abuse Khan inflicted on the women in his life probably never occurred to my friend. I recalled my own experience of abuse by my ex-boyfriend. Being an upper caste Hindu, a terrific scholar, and the upholder of human rights in any form, his personal behaviour toward me was all about keeping me tamed. This taming included verbal abuse and threats against me, and my family. The thoughts came back, and I was enraged, and sad. I still am.
Now that I live in the United States and I see American cultural celebrities like Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, and Harvey Weinstein being called out daily, I struggle. This struggle is a mix of relief and fear that this reckoning couldn’t happen in this way in India.
It isn’t exactly fair to say that India isn’t experiencing something like #MeToo. In 2017, for example, Raya Sarkar published a list of sexual harassers in academia, causing a global stir. We almost expect to see abuse in the film industry, but it was shocking to many to see so many academics called out just the same. Apart from Raya, we have social media activism spreading throughout India. Facebook pages like The Spoilt Modern Indian Women, Pinjra Tod (a community fighting against discriminatory regulations related to women’s accommodation), and Koral Faces (an online support group for individuals to share their stories of abuse) help build healthy virtual communities, which help people, especially women, cope with the stigma of abuse and believe in the merit of their individual voices. One could not be prouder.
But when I consume ongoing #MeToo stories, both from India and the USA, I still find a lack of perpetual cultural space to discuss issues of sexual harassment or gender violence or simple sexuality in India. The daily news and social media are full of political debates, but unfortunately women haven’t yet become a national political interest. Irrespective of our continued efforts, we still have a long way to cover when it comes to a cultural awakening. And this is the ‘way’ which still needs to be achieved.
I am not pitting India against the United States or the West. I am merely trying to borrow the American/Western experience and speculate on its possibility in an Indian setting. I am trying to link them in a harmony. It is not that the cultural shift to discuss these issues was easy for the United States. Feminists here have worked for decades to achieve a common vocabulary and ethics that are slowly turning into social change. Books, films, and television have continuously expanded the cultural imagination of what is possible for women, and that has impacted how girls grow up, regardless of how they are raised by their family. Sadly, that is not the case in India, at least not majorly.
I find a lack of cultural space to discuss issues of sexual harassment or gender violence or simple sexuality in India.
Traditionally, in India, women are raised strictly to uphold the honour of men, and hence the family. If we are abused, the ‘honour’ dies. If we raise our voices, we bring shame upon the family. And, god forbid, if we resist the constant shaming we face from family, friends, and society at large. Even by writing this piece I am risking my family’s honour. By referring to my experience of abuse, I fear that I am jeopardizing my family’s security. For many women, factors like these, weigh heavily upon any thought of calling out abuse.
The comedian Hannah Gadsby reveals the same pattern when talking about the experience of coming out as a lesbian in her native Australia. In her spectacular Netflix comedy special, Nanette, she talks about the pain of internalizing shame, which leads to self-hatred. Gadsby narrates her ordeal in trying to fit in the gender binary. When at the age seventeen she was assaulted by a man, she did not file charges because she thought that she deserved it.
Gadsby’s honest and courageous storytelling will strike a chord with women, but at the same time it frightens us. In India, internalization of shame and patriarchal gender roles lead to internalized misogyny, which happens to be the prime obstacle for anything like #MeToo to capture a wider consciousness. The fear of social, and familial ostracization still looms over us.
Let’s try to assess the consequences of calling out harassers in context to Bollywood. Case in point. In 2011, the Bollywood actress Payal Rohatgi accused director Dibakar Banerjee of attempting to take advantage of her. Seven years later, Banerjee is poised to work with Yash Raj Films, whereas Rohatgi has lost her footing in the industry.
So then how do we make sense of the widespread support of Kangna Ranaut’s unabashed honesty about Hrithik Roshan and her criticism of Bollywood’s nepotistic cult? People point out that her voice is being heard, and they are correct. But it is only taken seriously because she is a ‘star’ who is adored by the masses. She is the exception that proves the rule. For a lesser-known actress like Rohatgi, the chances of being heard are nearly impossible, and for a regular person even less. When threatened, the Bollywood family can severely banish one of its own. A woman who wants to stay in Bollywood’s good graces must be careful. Meanwhile, Bollywood continues to support serial abusers like Salman Khan, Aditya Pancholi, and Amitabh Bacchan, and simply avoids talking about them.
Payal Rohatgi accused director Dibakar Banerjee of harassment. seven years later, Banerjee is successful as ever, whereas Rohatgi has lost her footing in the industry.
When it comes to Bollywood, in India, it is nothing short of a religion—just like cricket. We do not have fans but ardent worshippers and followers. When the head of the religious organisation Dera Sacha Sauda—Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh—was convicted in 2017 by CBI on two counts of rape, his followers led a widespread riot that left 30 dead and hundreds injured. Riots and abusing women go hand in hand in India, and when they are coupled with right-wing nationalism and religion, there is no exit for women at all. Cries of patriotism, nationalism, and religion permeate Indian politics, but women’s issues remain neglected.
The situation in the U.S. proves to be quite useful in this context. The U.S. is far from perfect, of course, but there has been a cultural revolution in recent years. Even though national politics in the U.S. are currently right-wing, the media and dominant culture are mostly liberal. In the West, especially in the States, mainstream journalism at least attempts to allow minorities to be heard.
Is the same happening in India? Again, I think it is. Yes. But the difference is that in India the consequences are rarer. I see Weinstein being slammed in Cannes Film Festival and shunned for his acts. He was even arrested and is awaiting legal prosecution. I see Kevin Spacey, Aziz Ansari apologizing publicly, and it has affected their careers. I see their decades of privilege and patriarchal ego in ruins.
However, I see Salman Khan and Aditya Pancholi still in positions of power, still reigning without public acknowledgement of their crimes. I see women like Rohatgi, and even stars like Ranaut being shamed and called ‘mad’, ‘mentally unstable’, ‘disturbed’, and ‘liars’. Ranaut still has her stardom to her rescue in some way, but women like Rohatgi just vanish.
We now need our Indian men to face penalties, both social and legal, which they have easily brushed off for ages. And honestly, I think it is now possible when people in power—especially feminist male allies—rightfully align themselves together for this common cause. Having the public’s ear is a privilege, and it comes with responsibilities. The women who hold sway over public opinion—women like Kangna Ranaut—owe it to all of us to help create a space for meaningful conversations around issues of abuse and sexual violence.
We need our Indian men to face penalties, both social and legal, which they have easily brushed off for ages.
When such women (and male allies) take the initiative, perhaps all of us who have been trying to hold men accountable will come together and help create significant cultural change. Once the ‘star-struck’ Bollywood fans in India have examples in front of them, will see that no one of any class can get away with their horrifying behavior towards women. We will see that even the mighty can be taken down by women’s collective voice. We will see our cultural consciousness getting better.
Ankita Rathour is PhD student and lives in Louisiana, United States. Her research area is Global film, literature, and gender studies. She recently launched a blog called https://sanskariladki.wordpress.com as a platform for Indian women to come out and share their stories with the world.
Featured Image Source: Hindustan Times