Posted by Malini Gopalakrishnan
Winter has come.
No, I am not referring to the much-awaited, final season of Game of Thrones, but the very real war that is now upon us. Nearly a year after the #MeToo movement took its monumental flight in the US, its reverberations rocked the rigid rock bed of India’s social skeleton. Over the last couple of months, we all have watched the #MeToo movement gather its forces and unfurl in a fashion that would make the mother of dragons gasp.
Of course, a war involves two warring factions. So, upon whom does this throbbing, swelling legion march? Increasingly (going by social media threads) it seems as though the #MeToo movement has registered in the public consciousness as a battle between the sexes – women vs men. From righteous #NotAllMen and Trump’s declaration that it is a “very scary time” for men to the flippant jokes made at its expense and downright persecution of its partisans, the campaign has received more than its fair share of backlash.
All of this, while vilely infuriating, is to be expected, make no mistakes about that. The #MeToo movement is anarchist. It seeks to subvert a system steeped in oppression and violence. It is a mirror held to the most unflattering aspects of this society. #MeToo is a bitter pill to swallow especially when chased down with #BelieveHer. But there’s more to it than that.
#MeToo is a beacon to individuals who have experienced sexual harassment to know that they are not alone.
As I see it, this campaign started out as a bid for women who have experienced sexual violence, especially at the workplace to have a safe space to come out and say, “This terrible thing happened to me. Maybe I didn’t know then what it was. Maybe I knew but was too scared to do anything about it. Maybe I didn’t know what I could do about it. Maybe my inaction led to it happening again. But, fact is, it happened and I have been carrying it with me, alone and ashamed, for so long now.But now, I neither want to be alone, nor ashamed. I know that you have felt what I have felt and I want to let you know that you are not alone and that you have no reason to be ashamed either.”
I don’t know if Tarana Burke ever imagined that those two words – me too – would turn into the revolution that they did. #MeToo is a beacon to individuals who have experienced sexual harassment to know that they are not alone, to be able to find their voice and share their stories; it is a movement of solidarity.
Moreover, #MeToo is about shining the spotlight on this culture of masochism and oppression, to call out those who have thus far wielded too much power to be called out. And yes, it is also about enforcing accountability on each individual and to force each one of us to think about whether our actions and behaviour could cause someone pain.
With hordes of women coming forward with their stories, each one its own brand of terrifying and abhorrent, one thing became very clear – sexual violence is everywhere, irrespective of class/caste/literacy/worldview/ideology or whatever other filter one applies its perpetrators. Now, this is where things started getting heated.
Unlike a rapist hailing from the ‘vestiges of human excess’ – so deplorable he incites the mob into calling for his castration, the chief accused here are the crème de la crème of civilised, educated and cultured society, breaking yet another common misconception happily held by the society. The ever-lengthening list of perpetrators includes men we have known, revered and trusted. It includes scholars, artists, egalitarians, and advocates of humanity – many of these men were considered benchmarks of the liberal, progressive and free world. This is a problem. How could these men, the yardsticks against which all men were measured this far, be capable of something so loathsome?
Making things more uncomfortable is the nature of the allegations themselves. A hand very deliberately placed on someone’s ass – definitely predatory. A kiss placed forcibly on someone’s lips – totally creepy. A double innuendo-ed text – maybe a little shady. But, occasionally staring at someone’s chest – “Aise toh, everyone is a sexual predator!”.
So now, everybody has started squirming in their seats, unable to navigate the greyness, a few get really worked up and even call it all bullshit. Call it libellous. Call the Dr. Catherine Fords and Tanushree Duttas (two more different women you’d never find) of this world liars. Because, if she’s not a liar, it could very easily have been any one of us being called a predator. Every man must then look back at all the ‘harmless’ jock-ing about in his past and wonder if a woman somewhere out there is sitting in front of her laptop and achingly reliving moments of dehumainising humiliation and fear that you are responsible for it. It is easier to be skeptical about these claims, much easier.
Let’s remember that for every case that gets reported, there are hundreds of thousands that don’t.
Enter #BelieveHer, a spin-off of #MeToo, conceived to counter widespread suspicion and eschewing of women who shared their stories. Unfortunately, this leg of the campaign has been grossly misused and misrepresented as ‘toxic feminism’. Let me say this once – #BelieveHer does not equal #BelieveWomen. It does not imply that a human being, simply by ‘virtue’ of being female is incapable of lying or misrepresenting facts. Neither does it imply that a woman would never lie about something like that. This skewed image of #BelieveHer places women on a ‘moral high ground’. Sacrosanct. Pure. From a women’s rights angle itself, this view is problematic for the same reason that arguments like “She’s like your mother/sister” are. This view undoes the good work of the #MeToo movement, colouring women in that white-pink, thing-to-be-protected hue.
No, women are not saints; they are prone to every human vice. Yes, there will be cases of false allegations. But if statistics are anything to go by, that is 8 women in a hundred. What about the remaining 92? What is about the very real, very frightening response girls and women face when they speak up about abuse? What was the first thing you thought the last time you read a #MeToo thread? Think about it.
“Why did she go out with him if she didn’t want to take things further?” “What was she wearing?” “What was she doing out so late?” “She must have led him on.” “She reaped the benefits then. Why complain now?” “She should have told someone immediately.” “She should have just given him a tight slap!” “She’s probably just looking for publicity. Why did she sign those two movies if she wasn’t?” “She’s trying to besmirch his good name.”
(Just a few of the hundreds of thousands of variations)
It is a conditioned response in us all. We are all guilty of it, irrespective of our gender. It’s not even that the two possibilities occur simultaneously – “Maybe she is lying about it” and “How could he do this to someone?”
#BelieveHer serves as a reminder that when someone comes forward with their account, let’s scrutinise the accused too.
But again, acknowledging that these men – specimens of their kind – could have possibly violated other human beings, that they, who should have known better, misused their power over another, is distressing.
This is why #BelieveHer is the most crucial to counter gender-based violence. While #MeToo is a reflection of the enormity of this social problem, #BelieveHer serves as a reminder that when someone comes forward with their account, let’s scrutinise the accused too. Let’s remember that for every case that gets reported, there are hundreds of thousands that don’t. That someone who has gone through the trauma of sexual abuse, at the hands of a perpetrator who is likely to keep at it unless he is called out, is going to read the comments you have left on one woman’s story and choose to hold her silence forever.
As #MeToo and #BelieveHer stand together, let it be known that this is not a war on men. This is a war on a social fabric that is stained with oppression, that reeks of misogyny, and that is infested with suffering. This is not an argument. You do not need to get your side of the story in. These are the facts. This is a problem, one that affects us all. And there is something you can do about it.
Instead of feeling threatened by a year-old campaign think about how every woman you know (at least every woman I know) has actually experienced gender-based violence and more specifically sexual violence. Acknowledge every privilege you have and introspect if that translates into a play of power.
Instead of demanding recognition for never violating a human being, ask your friends, colleagues and peers how you can help make the environment more conducive for them. Stand up to locker room jokes, call out your mates on their behaviour, raise your children to understand respect and consent.
Instead of tearing down the next complainant, empathise with her. Odds are that she is telling the world a truth that has tormented her. Let her know that she is right to have come out into the light. Stand with her.
If not, we are just tearing each other apart in this war, oblivious of the growing threat from beyond the wall.
Malini Gopalakrishnan identifies herself as a poet and a feminist. She is an editor at a Hyderabad-based publishing house.
Featured Image Source: The Times