My upper caste, middle class complicit family had never found itself in this place before. A conversation with my uncle at the dinner table steered to the #MeToo movement that had now bled out of the realm of the internet and percolated into primetime television. As more famous men and household names are being outed, the murmuring has only gotten louder. When the accusations against Anu Malik resulted in him stepping down as the judge of the popular reality TV show, Indian Idol, my parents were shocked. “He’s also out. Me too,” my father exclaimed. His ‘me too’ sounded like a disease that had claimed yet another life.
My uncle asked me, the ‘feminist’ of the house, for my opinion on the #MeToo movement. On expressing it, he started with how it was ‘impossible’ that so many men are capable of bad things, that it was unfair for women to come out decades after the incident, that some women were falsely accusing powerful men for ‘attention’, and that men’s reputations were being damaged. None of these statements surprised me. But what riled me up was when he said, “at this rate, I’ll think twice before hiring a woman in my team. Who knows what she’ll do?”
why is it so hard for men to believe that sexual violence is an everyday practice? What stops men from understanding the spectrum of sexual violence?
This ‘concern’ has been quite the thing since the #MeToo movement hit the Indian internet once again in October. Some women tweeted that the men in their offices were now telling each other to ‘lay low’ till it ‘blows over’. Quora, a popular question/answer platform is saturated with people answering questions about the movement with the bottom line that it will make life worse for women because of how it is affecting men. This perception makes me wonder: why is it so hard for men to believe that sexual violence is an everyday practice? Within that line of thought, why don’t men understand how to behave around women? What is it that stops men from understanding the spectrum of sexual violence?
The ‘Othering’ Of Women
Women’s issues had not been given adequate attention in independent India till 1975 – the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI) presented an eye-opening report, ‘Towards Equality’ that showed the grim reality of women in India as it pointed out the highly skewed sex ratio, the abysmal state of girls’ education and marriage, and social practices that were taking a physical and mental toll on women. This report lay the foundation for the women’s movement in India – it stated that understanding women’s issues was integral to India’s growing economy and to democracy.
Over the years, steps have been taken to improve women’s status, but not without critique. One of the biggest critiques of the government’s approach towards women’s issues by feminist scholars remains that women always seem like an afterthought. They are never central to any policy or considered improvements, which indicates a deeper problem – women seen as the beneficiaries of welfare, not contenders of political and economic parity.
The State has a needlessly paternal role in women’s lives because of the male-dominated realm of politics and the Brahmanical notions of ‘respectability’ that govern them and their judgements centred around women. Men’s understanding of women’s issues has always been moralistic, be it regarding women’s inheritance rights or their right to divorce. In fact, historically speaking, neither of the examples mentioned were addressed without resistance by men in government. This is how Brahmanical patriarchy works – women are not seen as citizens but as people in relation to men.
In the first five year plan, the development of ‘women and children’ was placed under the same development strategies for disabled persons, indicating that women need help because their abysmal status was an accident – that masculinist institutions had nothing to do with it. The state views women as mothers, and their development is more welfare oriented than rights oriented.
This is how a layperson would see us too – women need to be taken care of because they are ‘somebody’s mother or sister’, but not because they are human beings. Women should be given the right to work because they have a family to care for, but not because they should have financial independence.
Women’s issues are seen as ‘social’ problems, which they are – but we ignore that subjugation in the social, economic, and political spheres are deeply intertwined and cannot be seen independently of each other. This ‘othering’ of women translates into our daily lives. As upper caste, middle class, urban individuals, we are aware of women’s oppression – the termination of the female foetus, dowry, domestic violence, and rape. But having this knowledge is where it usually ends.
Talking about women’s oppression in urban spaces often leads to people, especially men saying that ‘these problems’ don’t happen in urban spaces but in far-flung rural areas. This not only perpetuates a stereotype of savagery among people who don’t occupy urban spaces but also rids the urban male of any responsibility of reflecting on their own sexist behaviour. For urban dwellers, women’s ‘real’ problems lie outside of their geographical space, making them disconnected from the larger problem of misogyny.
When #MeToo started – first with Raya Sarkar’s list – it defied everything we have been fed as the ‘perfect’ crime which is a ‘savage, dirty man’ performing physical violence on a helpless woman of modest character, and the woman often ending her life due to the trauma.
The women in this movement refused to succumb to their trauma and openly named their assaulters who looked nothing like the casteist and classist stereotypes we believe, and the idea that urban spaces were ‘not like that’ fell flat. Now, ‘respectable’ men couldn’t get away with violence. The women in the current wave of the #MeToo movement are fighting for their rights, and not acting as passive recipients of welfare from the institutions around them.
The ‘Raja Beta’ Problem
More girls and women are being educated and qualified for jobs in the formal economy since the 1975 report. But while we are empowering girls to be capable to live in a ‘man’s world’ in neoliberal times, we are still sculpting them to fit into masculine structures instead of changing the nature of masculine structures itself. This begins from home – girls are given an education while also being taught how to perform household duties, making them equipped to fend for themselves in today’s times.
Boys, however, aren’t taught household duties with the same enthusiasm because of the assumption that men will have to cook for themselves only until they find someone to cook for them – their wives. This differential treatment develops a sense of entitlement among them. This is the raja beta problem of neoliberal, globalized India – boys are coddled and girls are toughened up to survive in a man’s world. Women have to constantly make a space for themselves in masculine institutions, but these institutions turn less welcoming if she oversteps her space.
For urban dwellers, women’s ‘real’ problems lie outside of their geographical space, making them disconnected from the larger problem of misogyny.
In a recent article on whether #MeToo has hit Hindi media, journalists said that it was ‘unthinkable’ for them to speak up against harassment in their field because it would seriously jeopardise their careers. Survivors of assault and harassment inevitably find themselves in this position when they think about coming forward with their stories – they have to choose either standing up for their rights or keeping their careers from getting tarnished because it is understood that they may not be able to have both.
Even in private, survivors are asked out of concern whether they want to ‘risk’ outing their assaulters because of the fear around its consequences, which are always worse for women. The raja beta problem extends to masculine institutions elaborately – men’s careers and reputations are deemed more important than women’s sexual safety and freedom. This is one way in which women are forced to ‘toughen up’ while men continue to enjoy the privilege they have owing to these institutions.
When we expect women to adjust in the masculine world, we automatically make having masculine traits the rule. The problem doesn’t lie in having masculine traits or making women tougher, but in the assumption that ‘feminine’ qualities are not valuable, and that toughness itself is associated with masculinity, making men more powerful by default. Women get added in as tokens, and the root cause of the problem – toxic masculinity – remains unchallenged. Women are taught to regulate their ‘femininity’ in order to get ahead, but men aren’t taught to respect and co-exist with women in all their feminine glory and power.
What happens when you attempt to change an institution from its core to include women? In 2017, digital media company Culture Machine introduced a new policy – a menstrual leave which allowed its female employees one day off in a month during their cycle. This policy caused major debates – some opined that it made women look weak, some said that this would make hiring women more difficult, while some opined that this was a good idea to reduce the stigma around menstruation.
What is clear from these debates is that women’s bodies are seen as hindrances to business because male institutions do not see feminine qualities as valuable, even though women are the only ones capable of producing future generations of employees to take businesses forward. The backlash against the policy proves that we cannot imagine a world where men don’t control women’s bodies.
Also read: Dear Men, #MeToo Is Not A War Against You
Men finding it impossible to believe women’s #MeToo stories has its roots in the fact that they have been raised in a world where women’s problems are not theirs to understand. The male-dominated State and institutions have continually seen women’s problems as ‘social’ problems without understanding that they have political and economic repercussions, which is evident in the list of men who have stepped down from their posts after sexual harassment and assault allegations so as to save their companies from being harmed. Perhaps it is time men understood that it is indeed possible for so many men to be bad, and that women simply won’t stand for it anymore.
Featured Image Source: Laini Fletcher