#MeToo is now a tender, strong, boisterous twelve-years old. While Tarana Burke coined this term and launched the movement in 2006, it was barely a year ago that #MeToo exploded onto the global consciousness and gave every hurt, abused, harassed woman a simple but powerful rallying cry. There are many lessons to be taken away from this fledgling movement and India serves as a classic case for its successes and divisiveness.
1. Who’s Afraid Of Lists?
The biggest meltdown triggered by #MeToo was the existence of anonymous, crowd-sourced lists of sexual harassers. The Shitty Media Men list provoked plentiful debates but it was LoSHA (List of Sexual Harassers in Academia) in India where the divide between feminists became palpable so much so that prominent feminists resorted to a 10,000 word declamatory essay to denounce it. But the question is: why?
Much as their diatribes would like us to believe, it was not a question of due process versus reckless naming and shaming – it was a matter of inconvenience. LoSHA was seen as ‘targeting’ left-wing academics. While factually incorrect, the reasons as to why it featured them was left unexplored by detractors. Perhaps because Indian academia primarily leans left? Perhaps it is due to the implicit faith that women have in men who self-style as feminists only to end up abusing that trust? The reasons could be many.
If it were a simple case of due process, one would have expected more nuanced engagements than smearing the list creator.
But for many establishment feminists, too many of those names hit a bit too close to home. It is acceptable, laudable even, when a Harvey Weinstein is accused, nobody has any stake in defending him. But Rajarshi Dasgupta and Lawrence Liang are their friends, colleagues, acquaintances. They form part of the edifice, the network that props up their privilege, their prestige. Attacking them is attacking the very culture that insulates all of them. If the gatekeepers cease to exist then the gates itself comes crashing down.
If it were a simple case of due process, one would have expected more nuanced engagements than smearing the list creator. In fact, one of the Kafila statement signatory, Kavita Krishnan, is still peddling the canard that ‘Raya Sarkar is not a Dalit’ to launch broadsides against her and the list whilst championing the movement at international conferences. Other signatories like Nivedita Menon seem to have precious little to say about the recent spate of anonymous allegations or the fact that many survivors have abjured her favoured due process.
Also read: Kashmiri Women Embrace #MeToo As They Come Out With Their Stories
There is much irony in schooling younger feminists on the importance of due process when they have absolutely no compunction supporting workers’ strikes and violent uprisings of the subaltern. Those who denounced these lists forgot that consistency in applying one’s principles can rarely be faked, it can only be proven.
2. The Great Divide
#MeToo is said to have exposed the supposed fault-lines between two distinct groups- younger versus older feminists. Others have tried to dissect it in different ways- for instance, between an individualist feminism (Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in, if you will) vis-à-vis communal feminism.
To me, the divide is at a more fundamental level – there are some women who still have some faith in the existing system and believe that with a few changes, education, and tweaks here and there, things could improve significantly. Hence, the over-reliance and over-deification of due process.
For them, asking survivors to soldier on patiently towards the chimera of justice through unreliable institutional processes (if they exist at all) is patently unfair.
Then there are the feminists who see the system as irrevocably skewed against women, corrupt to the core, and irredeemable. Due process cannot work because what it entails, includes, and is informed by are not principles of justice but the unwritten rules of a deeply misogynistic society. The only recourse, then, is to create your own recourses whilst working to bring down the extant structures of such a system. For them, asking survivors to soldier on patiently towards the chimera of justice through unreliable institutional processes (if they exist at all) is patently unfair. What they seek is complete reformation, not a palimpsest version of the existing normal.
3. Who Started The Fire?
For years, women, across timezones and locations, have been speaking out against their harassers, battling insurmountable odds. But the kind of collective outpourings of stories of sexual harassment and abuse triggered by #MeToo is unprecedented in its sheer scale. However, as many have pointed out, despite multiple attempts by national and international media, #MeToo in India isn’t a one month-old phenomenon. Its first salvo was fired on October 2017 by LoSHA.
The question has been asked and deserves to be asked again: why this blatant oversight? The reasons are manifold – the list was created by a Dalit woman with little access to the power and social capital that savarna women have been traditionally known to rely upon. It directly indicted several darlings of the left, progressive bastions. It provided a platform for survivors to speak out anonymously without taking on the additional burden of revealing the lurid details of their abuse (women are still expected to provide fodder for trauma porn for the consumption of the media and public if their stories are to be considered credible). Also, since it was a list of academics, the media could later deem it unimportant while at the same time leave named harassers and allies to defend themselves and generate further outrage and traffic.
Does a movement derive its legitimacy only from the voices of the famous, the privileged? Since last year, stories of harassment have abounded on social media, not only in the form of LoSHA but also the second list and social media posts where ordinary women with zero clout have named their perpetrators but now, they find nary a mention in mainstream media. What this kind of revisionist narrative of #MeToo in India has proved is that even among supporters, certain kind of hierarchies still exist, depending on one’s location, identity, social capital.
the list was created by a Dalit woman with little access to the power and social capital that savarna women have been traditionally known to rely upon.
Perhaps all journalists and activists who have hailed this moment as nothing short of a ‘revolution’ need to reckon with their own internal biases against those whom they and the current avatar of the movement are wont to ignore. Women from marginalised communities have always been at the forefront in the fight for gender equality and this is true for #MeToo as well. While all women are at risk of sexual violence, caste and class compound them in several ways. In the west, black feminists taught white women about intersectionality; in India, savarna women are yet to internalise its basic lessons.
4. It’s Still A Man’s World
As predicted, think-pieces and online narratives of a witch-hunt against men have already started emerging. One lone case of a possibly false accusation against Varun Grover has people raising red flags about the movement but the fact that multiple women need to speak out against one male perpetrator for the allegations to be taken seriously finds little analysis or concern.
Much as some men and their enablers would like to believe, men have not become the oppressed gender. Let’s look at the figures. The number of men indicted by #MeToo in this country is in the few hundreds. Many of the allegations are against the same man as the trend is that one survivor’s story is usually followed by corroborating evidence from other women (which shows that such predatory behaviour is never a one-off mistake, it’s a pattern).
Considering the fact that crimes against women are rarely reported, the stigma and backlash that comes with identifying as a victim, and the deafening silence associated with domestic violence and marital rape, there is enough reason to assert that #MeToo has barely scratched the surface of the horrific, socially-sanctioned rape culture in our country, let alone make a significant dent. If some men are now running scared because other perpetrators are being held accountable for their despicable (and criminal) actions, it is an encouraging start towards dismantling the structures that uphold male impunity.
Narratives that attempt to portray men as the grieving party by gaslighting and doubting survivors are poorly-disguised deflecting tactics.
This kind of fear-mongering, scare tactics, and cries of reverse sexism serve a useful purpose – they shut down survivors from speaking out. Raising the spectre of false allegations or the importance of due process is one of the oldest tricks in the patriarchy rule-book. It’s designed to maintain the status quo and ensure women are too afraid to come forward and too busy and traumatised in the rigmarole of due process.
As many studies have proved, false allegations is rarely an issue (under-reporting is though) while history has shown that due process cannot truly work in a patriarchal world where rape culture abounds. Bhanwari Devi is still waiting for her justice. In high-profile cases such as the Mahmood Farooqui one, judges famously re-define consent, decreeing that “a feeble no can mean yes”. Recent examples of due process failure include the Ashoka University harassment case and the light-slap in-the-wrist for convicted harasser Lawrence Liang.
Narratives that attempt to portray men as the grieving party by gaslighting and doubting survivors are poorly-disguised deflecting tactics. Due process itself is a misnomer because it automatically assumes that it operates in a fair context when the reality is that certain testimonies are considered more credible than other testimonies and certain truths are difficult to establish when power structures effect not only public spaces but our private bedrooms. This doesn’t mean we abandon due process wholly but to recognise that it cannot be the panacea for sexual crimes till patriarchy itself is demolished.
#MeToo isn’t perfect, it will continue to adapt and evolve. It necessarily has to grapple and integrate with the many aspects of class, caste, religion, disability, and many other. However, what naysayers of the movement should avoid doing is using the voices of the marginalised to further their own agenda of denouncing the movement. It may come as a surprise to savarnas but DBA women are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. Stating that #MeToo hasn’t done much for working-class women is true, but using it to delegitimise gender violence and discredit survivors only helps in entrenching and normalising misogyny.
Also read: An Open Letter To Tavleen Singh: Stop Using Your Privilege To Discredit The #MeToo Movement
If one isn’t actively working to combat sexual harassment or to make this movement more inclusive then most of these critiques are lazy, self-serving intellectual exercises, faux attempts at providing a fair and balanced point of view that cherry-picks certain stories to dismiss the overall movement. #MeToo is not separate from us or something that’s happening to others. It is what we make of it- survivors, supporters, allies, and all decent people of the world.
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