In 2018, the #MeToo movement swept across India. Many women came forward with charges of sexual harassment at the workplace. It started with the List of Sexual Harassers in Academia (LoSHA), compiled and shared by law student Raya Sarkar on Facebook. Earlier this year, journalism, entertainment, and advertising industries too had their #MeToo movement. The movement proliferated on social media, which allowed for anonymity in some accounts. Responses and reactions to survivor stories ranged from full support to criticism to disbelief.
Responses To #MeToo In India
Firstly, the accountability eschewed by choosing to stay anonymous was picked on. Even prominent Indian feminists criticised the culture of naming and shaming in LoSHA, and suggested that due process should be followed. The veracity of individual accounts was threatened. Therefore, multiple women, who had been offended by a particular man in power, came together in support of each other’s accounts. Many of the men accused were multiple offenders or sexual predators.
Secondly, survivors were criticised for bringing things up years after the incident, and not right away.
Thirdly, some people saw these accounts as attempts at defamation. Some men accused took to undermining accusations against them by fighting lawsuits rather than apologising for their behaviour.
There were little attempts to understand why women speaking out against powerful men would need anonymity or time before they came forward. As accounts against the lyricist Vairamuthu reveal, speaking out against an established man in the film industry would end one’s career before it began. It became implicit that women had to put up with sexually predatory behaviour from the men who called their shots to stay on in the industry.
Responses and reactions to survivor stories ranged from full support to criticisms to disbelief.
#MeToo provided a safe public space where these accounts would be acknowledged and appropriate action would be taken against them. Whether or not all individual accounts are true, as a whole they indicate that sexual harassment at the workplace is widely predominant.
#MeToo And Its Backlash In The Film Industry
There is an increased concern to protect men, their reputations and their chances in life. As a result, victims are sometimes blamed, while the accused mostly go scot-free. Thus, justice is a far cry.
The singer Chinmayi Sripaada tweeted that conceiving of the film industry as another ‘workplace’ was problematic in that everybody in the industry was a freelancer. Women who have come forward and spoken have been denied work. For speaking against the lyricist Vairamuthu and the dubbing union head Radha Ravi, Chinmayi’s dubbing union membership was terminated. This means that she can no longer find work in the Tamil film industry.
Kannada actress Shruti Hariharan stopped receiving offers for speaking out against her co-star Arjun Sarja. On the other hand, Sarja is signing big projects. Malayalam actress Parvathy called out the misogynistic dialogues in the superstar Mammootty’s movie Kasaba, and faced rape and death threats from his fans. Some blamed My Story’s box office failure on Parvathy’s speaking out, though the Director blamed it on Parvathy and Prithviraj not promoting the movie enough. Parvathy’s offers too are dwindling. Yet, she stands firm and committed to her cause of a safer workplace, even if that means less work for her.
In Bollywood, Tanushree Dutta’s career came to an end with her calling out Nana Patekar for on-set sexual harassment in 2008. Vikas Bahl, the director of Queen sexually harassed one of his employees. Television director Vinta Nanda was criticised for speaking out over twenty years late, against Alok Nath, who filed a defamation case against her. Television actress Sandhya Mridul subsequently left acting because of Alok Nath’s advances.
Himpathy engages in victim-blaming, premised on the rape culture rhetoric of boys will be boys.
Though #MeToo provided a space for survivors to call out the men who abused them, society remains unprepared to offer them justice. A commitment to safer workplaces for women is simply lacking. Rather, the response is to remove women who have problems. It seems far more convenient to side with the abusers. One alternative is to be wary of hiring women, lest they raise their voices.
#MeToo And Himpathy
The word ‘himpathy’ was introduced by Cornell philosopher Kate Manne in her 2017 book Down Girl: the logic of misogyny. Himpathy refers to “the inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, homicide, and other misogynistic behaviour”.
Himpathy is a phenomenon which is disturbingly familiar in the Indian context. Though primarily an affect or emotional state, himpathy is embedded in institutions and practices. Himpathy serves to gaslight and undermine survivor accounts. It engages in victim-blaming, premised on the rape culture rhetoric of boys will be boys. It vouches for the character of the accused. It cites incidents as one-off, or as anomalies in an otherwise remarkable career. It values the work of men over the safety (and work) of women. It raises questions like “How many years should a man suffer for his minutes of misconduct?” Himpathy makes us apathetic to the trauma which arises from having been sexually assaulted.
Himpathy turns women against each other. Bahl’s wife played down Kangana’s accounts by stating that she continued to work with him on the set, and so his behaviour may not have bothered her as much. Even though MJ Akbar stepped down as minister, no substantial action has been taken against him.
As long as there is himpathy, injustice will prevail. To arrive at safer workplaces for women, we must unlearn our internalised misogyny and forgo all the comfort we derive from holding on to it. We must listen to victims, trusting their accounts, and build a culture of support. We must acknowledge that sexually predatory behaviour at the workplace is indeed unacceptable, and work towards fighting it. We must respect the dignity of work, workers, and workplaces.
Featured Image Credit: Frances Murphy