#MeToo hashtag came into being as long as a decade ago to build social solidarity among survivors of sexual assault in Canada who may not otherwise have been able to properly access institutional support systems. But since Hollywood’s powerful producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of rape and sexual assault by more than 50 women less than a fortnight ago, #MeToo has soared up and away, burning up the social media universe in several languages across the world.
Sexual harassment is as old as the hills, probably older. But something struck a chord with the calling out of Harvey Weinstein – perhaps it was his class or colour, or the fact that he used privilege to shut up women who wanted to climb the ladder or, simply, be. Certainly, Harvey Weinsten used the casting couch to great effect and in the bargain congealed the conspiracy of silence that surrounds sexual harassment on a daily basis.
In the US at least, #MeToo has had precedence. In 2014, a shooting in California triggered the #YesAllWomen social media campaign against misogyny and misogynistic violence. Soon, though, a counter-narrative of ‘YesAllPeople’ and ‘NotAllMen’ emerged to argue that violence is perpetrated by “some bad men” only, an attempt to deflect attention from misogyny and patriarchy as structural roots of violence. We have seen similar responses to #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLives Matter — how social media campaigns generate direct political responses and retaliations whenever campaigns against specific oppressions go viral.
The #MeToo campaign appears to be different. A few men have gone into safe, self-reflective ‘confessional’ mode while others have indulged in paternalistic trivialization. It has triggered a range of responses on print and electronic media. It has also led to questioning who the onus should be on, on survivors to stand up on social media and be counted or on the guilty party in question. But it has not yet generated a backlash of the kind we saw earlier to #BlackLivesMatter or #YesAllWomen.
Here in India, the street protests in the wake of the December 2012 Delhi rape did culminate in relatively stronger laws against sexual harassment in India. Some battles against men in powerful places, for example against Tarun Tejpal, R K Pachauri and Mahmood Farooqui, were launched, but the celebrity cases have not led to a snowball effect in less privileged spaces.
Perhaps the protests in India’s urban university spaces like Jadavpur University and Banaras Hindu University as well as the ‘Pinjra Tod’ movement show that significantly more students are rejecting both silence and silencing to create collectivities against sexual harassment. The #hokkolorob movement started in Jadavpur University in reaction to the University’s abject failure to address a case of sexual harassment, is a strong and important example. It culminated in the removal of the Vice Chancellor who had called in the police to assault protestors. But it could not be sustained to allow the creation of an autonomous and uncompromising institutional structure that would address cases of sexual harassment on campus.
In BHU, the outcome so far is similar. While, the recent dismantling of the Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) in JNU is an example of how institutional authoritarianism in Indian academia is coalescing to dismantle just redressal of sexual harassment complaints by weakening structures that had evolved through collective struggle.
The biggest challenge, of course, is the social impunity of patriarchy that privileges class and social location to its perpetrators. The difficulty of fighting each case also depends upon the class, social and institutional location of survivors and complainants.
Social cultures ensure that assertions against sexual harassment don’t take place automatically. Social media, regardless of its many benefits, is an institutional space bounded by class and privilege. Sometimes, it becomes a source of oppression, harassment and violence as much as it also reflects competitive individualism of ‘posts’ rather than creation of safe spaces through collective endeavour that can provide space for individual expression and solidarity.
In all unequal societies structured by class and social differentiation and more so in grievously unequal societies like India, privilege definitely structures individual assertions on social media. Such assertions cannot ensure safe social spaces to expose perpetrators, leave alone deal with questions like the enormous battle for justice and recovery from physical and psychological trauma. Nor do they challenge perpetrators of sexual harassment.
As for a recent “list of accused” doing the rounds on Facebook and supposedly calling out academics that are alleged to have sexually harassed women, such “naming” hardly leads to either shaming or makes a difference to the cause of just redressal. So what is the counting for ?