The #MeToo revelations are like the eruption of a volcano which was imminent, given the journey working women have covered. It was not easy to make public what they had gone through, and take on powerful men.
Had the government insisted at the outset that M J Akbar, against whom there are not one or two but over 20 allegations of sexual misconduct by women who had worked under him, step down as minister pending an enquiry, it would have sent a clear message that it had a zero-tolerance policy towards the sexual initimidation of women. Not only did Akbar refuse to resign, he did not even express a willingness to face an enquiry. Instead he slapped a defamation case against one of the complainants, knowing she did not have the political or financial heft, that he enjoys.
Other “lesser” organisations have insisted that those accused by women step down while they conduct an enquiry into the allegations. They include Prashant Jha, political editor of The Hindustan Times, K R Srinivas, resident editor of The Times of India, Hyderabad, Mayank Jain, principal correspondent of Business Standard, and Gautam Adhikari, founding editor of DNA, who resigned from a US think tank. Even actor Nana Patekar was compelled to walk out of the film, Housefull 4, because his co-actor refused to work with him till the allegations were dealt with.
But the largest organisation in the country — the Government of India — did no such thing until Wednesday. For nearly 10 days, it only “distanced” itself from Akbar, while allowing him to continue in office, with all the advantages that power brings, making the fight an unequal one. It is also disappointing that strong women like Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Sushma Swaraj and Sonia Gandhi remained silent.
Yes, the government may have been worried about the domino effect of Akbar’s resignation. Yes, there is the potential for the misuse of #MeToo. Anyone can level a charge against anyone on the social media, and dent a reputation — to fix a political opponent, to get back at someone who “wronged” the woman, not necessarily sexually, but by pulling her up, or by not giving her the break she was looking for, etc.
But then, with any new law or effort, there is a potential for its misuse and we will have to address the problems as they crop up, and put safeguards in place. But can we make a case for putting a lid on the anguish, the inner violation, and injustice these women have had to carry, bottled up inside for years, and the impact this would have had on their lives, careers, aspirations just because it might be misused in the future by the unscrupulous?
Twenty years ago they could not — or did not — speak up because they were vulnerable. Today #MeToo has given them a release and a sense of empowerment. Theirs were no ordinary allegations. And it called for an out-of-the-ordinary response.
The brutal December 16, 2012 gang rape case was a milestone in the journey of Indian women for gender justice, because, suddenly, the woman who was raped and murdered, was not viewed as the victim of a brutal act, to be stigmatised by society, which rape victims have been for ever so long, but she became an icon of the nation. People poured out on the streets to protest, facing water cannons. So many other victims, including those who had suffered at the hands of family members, suddenly found a voice. They began to get sympathy and support, not ostracisation.
Similarly, the revelations by women journalists is a seminal moment in India’s Herstory. Their testimonies have shattered the silence that had surrounded SH (sexual harassment), with every woman thinking she was alone and had to either continue to suffer or fight her battle alone, which was intimidating, given the powerful position the predators in authority held.
Today, even those in the regional media where the problem may be more rampant, will know they will not be alone, were they to speak out. They would know that there will be many in the media, and other professions, who will stand by them. There will be women lawyers who would be prepared to fight their cases. That’s the change taking place.
Hopefully, #MeToo will restrain potential predators. That will be a change more far reaching than an enactment of any law. Hopefully, it will make the internal complaints committees functional and effective at workplaced and bring in representation from outside to reduce the pressure that can otherwise be brought on their members.
But it must not become a woman versus man fight. For not all men can be tarred with the same brush. We have all been part of newsrooms where there has been camaraderie, trust and respect for each other, vigorous discussions on issues, and banter. We must not lose that.
Those of my generation — doing political reporting in the turbulent eighties and nineties with both the journalistic profession and politics being male-dominated — also had our battles to fight. We were lucky in our editors and the quality of leadership of the media then. To gain respect and be considered as good as men meant hard work. Sometimes we had to “defeminise” ourselves, in the way we dressed, or keep a formality in our work relationships, to prevent the focus shifting away from our professional persona, of women who could break news stories — and glass ceilings. What also helped was the stellar support we received from our families, who accepted our long hours at work, or driving back home alone late at night (my one fear used to be a punctured tyre), as governments were made or unmade.
The present generation of women is taking the battle to its next level with their public non-acceptance of sexual intimidation at workplace, which will go to strengthen all women — urban, semi-urban and rural. We are all part of the same journey — for our due place under the sun.
One final word. And this is an appeal to the Chief Justice of India. Given the seriousness of the charges made by so many women against Akbar — and they are credible names and bylines — would the Supreme Court of India consider converting their testimonies into a Public Interest Litigation and hear it expeditiously? Ever since Justice P N Bhagwati’s time, when PILs came to be accepted as a tool for justice, the SC has sometimes converted a letter to it, or even a press report, into a PIL, taking suo motu cognisance of it, because of its public import. What could be more important, or involve greater public interest, than the safety and security at work place of women in India?