The siren call of #MeToo simply refuses to die down. For a year now, its insistent ululation has sounded, first from distant shores but now in our very ears. No longer constrained within the domain of feminist discourse and activism, it is now sounding within nunneries and temple precincts, on movie sets and sporting fields, in science labs and lecture halls, rudely disrupting the silence, cruelly disturbing the status quo.
Significantly, it has brought together women from discrete spaces, varied backgrounds and with heterogeneous experiences to articulate three common themes: The ubiquitous nature of patriarchy and sense of male entitlement which are closely entwined with class and caste privilege; the strong linkage this has with the way in which working spaces are structured and run; and, finally, a sense that their experiences of sexual harassment, intimidation and assault constitute an important reality that is not just theirs alone to address but one that demands a response from society.
Some questions are, therefore, in order.
Why did it take so long for this siren to sound seeing that sexual harassment is one of the most familiar patterns of human subjugation, having played out across the millennia from tales told in the Mahabharata to confessions emanating from the Clinton White House? #MeToo emerged from the serendipitous coming together of a bunch of circumstances — a tide in the affairs of women which taken at the flood had led to a worldwide response. If, for instance, the Harvey Weinstein story had not appeared in an international newspaper like The New York Times a year ago, if his deeds of sexual predation were not so blatant, if Hollywood had not been a world cultural capital of sorts, if some of its most well-known stars had not shared their experiences or mounted unqualified support for those violated by him, perhaps none of this would have happened. Here, in India, there is a different set of “ifs”. If Tanushree Dutta had not returned to Mumbai with her 10-year-old story concerning one of the biggest stars in India, if Sri Reddy had not stripped herself to expose the casting couch in the Telugu film industry, if young women journalists had not revealed sexual harassment in newsrooms of today, this story would have dissipated in a trice.
Which brings me to another query, often put to me personally, as to why women journalists of an earlier era had preferred to keep silent when confronted by such instances. My answer may seem like a personal exculpation but I would argue that calling out male privilege in all its man-ifesations (couldn’t resist the pun), should be seen as a continuum. As a journalist who first came into the profession in the later 1970s, I had benefited from some of the gains achieved by the women who had come into the newsroom before me, including things as basic as toilets, more substantial beats, and trade union rights. Ours was the generation that wrote about India’s incipient new feminism, understood the importance of “consent” in sexual relations — popularly theorised in that brilliant ‘An Open Letter to the Chief Justice of India’ (September 1979) — argued for epistemological changes ranging from displacing the universal “he” in our text to bringing in gendered news stories on to the front page and prime time. We also occasionally came out against sexual harassment — but in episodic and case-determined ways that could be dismissed or ignored by the male decision-makers within newsrooms and managements or allowed to run on for years in courts of law.
The fact remains that while some of us articulated these issues — even, in the process, being called “activists”, with all the implied opprobrium — we did go on to achieve a degree of upward mobility within our professional space. That upward mobility also perhaps signified that we had simultaneously gained admittance into a largely male club with its status and privileges. Was this a pact with the establishment, bristling with secrecy and “good behaviour” clauses, that was entered into by those of us deemed “worthy enough”? For our personal “empowerment”, did we fail to rock the boat when we had to? Did we trade in the well-being of a larger cohort outside the door that identified itself as female? These are questions that don’t go away easily.
But it is also true that if the earlier generation of what constituted the second wave of the women’s movement in India had not agitated and legislated, #MeToo may not have played out in quite the same way as it does today. A communication technologies angle also needs to be brought into the frame. What we are now seeing is the network effect. Paul Mason, in his book ‘Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere’, got it right when he observed that “not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy — the ad-hoc network has become easier to form (thanks to new communication technologies)”. #MeToo is all about how online network trumped the hierarchy, allowed the spread of ideas even as they were being generated, expedited the sharing of strategies of resistance, and of course lowered the threshold of being part of a global partnership of storytelling.
I end with a final question: Can an online campaign like #MeToo, with its “weak ties”, upend patriarchy with its millennia-long history and which is buttressed by bottomless reserves of cash and class status? I would advise everybody enthused by it to watch out for the blowback. Although it is difficult to predict the form that such a blowback would take, it will surely come. A recent piece in The New Yorker by Jia Tolentino, ‘One Year of #MeToo: What Women’s Speech Is Still Not Allowed to Do’, is rife with post-Kavanaugh angst: “It will be said that Kavanaugh was confirmed despite the #MeToo movement. It would be at least as accurate to say that he was confirmed because of it. Women’s speech. has enraged men in a way that makes them determined to reestablish the longstanding hierarchy of power in America.” Would it not be overly optimistic to believe that the same will not happen
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