March 8, International Women’s Day, is here to stay — from discount coupons in restaurants to editorial columns like this one, purple ribbons and pink balloons in public spaces, to even the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) celebrating the day after making a mockery of women’s issues in a public event just a couple of years ago. The origins of a day dedicated to women can be traced to the early 1900s. It’s heartening that the day continues to be celebrated today.
Reality check: According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, another generation of women will have to wait for gender parity. Why is it that even after a century of observing International Women’s Day we are nowhere close to achieving gender parity across the globe? And if the goal is so far away, is there really a road ahead? I am going to attempt answering this question from the perspective of women in cinema — specifically in the Malayalam film industry.
First, there is a lack of resolve to address the workplace issues of women in cinema. In the five years since the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) was formed, its very purpose has been under scrutiny. The biggest challenge we have faced is the lack of solidarity from our colleagues. Celebrating the accused and victimising the survivor or whistle-blower have been common practices. As Bhavana Menon, a survivor herself, rightly put it, when victims of sexual assault voice their experiences, they are looked down upon and often suspected of being disingenuous.
Lately, there has been some change in recognising issues affecting women in cinema, especially related to sexual harassment, by industry associations. But this is the outcome of constant public and legal scrutiny. There is more posturing than any real desire to bring about change. Let us remind ourselves that sharing the social media posts of a survivor does not take away the fact that she and her supporters were shamed by the very trade bodies of which they were once an integral part.
Second, grievance redressal systems are totally absent in this sector. Any abuse thrives because of two reasons, fear and silence, and the abuser will do whatever it takes to maintain both. The absence of redressal systems makes abuse a routine affair and normalises it in the workplace. When trade bodies refuse to take responsibility – their excuse is the informal nature of the sector — the state government becomes an important stakeholder in ensuring equity and safety for women. While the Kerala government did take proactive steps early on, it is disheartening to see the lacklustre pace, limited public accountability, and absence of tangible solutions. Even women’s legitimate right to safety at the workplace, through the implementation of the PoSH Act 2013, hangs in balance.
Third, deep-seated patriarchy and chauvinism lend themselves naturally to unequal opportunities. This reflects in the content and stories of cinema, the vast disparity in remuneration, inequitable access to facilities, glass ceilings and constant othering by male colleagues. Celebrating women and their role in cinema is always an afterthought because, unfortunately, that is the position they have been relegated to.
The future for women in cinema is no clear windscreen, but it is not hopeless either.
One absolute truth is that no matter what the adversity, if we want change for the better, women have to speak up. The cursory changes we have seen over the last five years have taken place because women spoke up for themselves. Engaging in flexible solidarity, posturing for the men and conducting stage shows on their behalf will take us nowhere. The burden of truth is unfairly placed on our shoulders, but that is the way to lead. The recent #MeToo wave in Kerala and the arrest of director Liju Krishna, accused of rape, point to the fact that there will be personal and professional repercussions, but this alone will not be the catalyst for change. As Mother Teresa says, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples”.
Achieving gender parity in cinema is going to be a long, arduous battle and for that reason, a watchdog and gender advocacy collective like the WCC is imperative in the media and entertainment world. Overtime at the WCC we have exchanged notes, collaborated with and received support from colleagues in other film industries and gender activists in India. A step forward would be to make this solidarity and support system more global.
Women’s movements in the past, whether for suffrage or labour rights, have always had international dimensions. In 1917, when Russia enacted suffrage legislation for women, gender activists in other parts of the world held it up as a mirror for their own governments. This is true of the #MeToo movement as well. Fostering global ties for talent exchange, content-making and best practice-sharing in building equitable workspaces will strengthen and hasten the pace and quality of change.
Meanwhile, governments and courts have to step in, as there is a lack of solidarity amongst trade bodies and the industry has a deeply patriarchal power structure. Having an equitable and safe workplace is our constitutional right. In this age, the informal and unorganised nature of the industry can be no reason for the inadequate representation of women in the creative sector.
Non-profit bodies, media and research organisations should also play their part in bringing about change – there is limited understanding of how the entertainment sector works and the status of women in cinema and media. Being one of the most under-studied and, therefore, underreported workplaces makes it difficult to draw concrete, long-term and data-driven solutions for the sector and plan advocacy for the same.
Picture this: 15,000 women garment workers marching through New York City in 1908, protesting against adverse working conditions, including low wages, extended work hours and sexual harassment. That was the radical reason that eventually led to March 8 being observed as International Women’s Day. As we celebrate “phenomenal women” today, let’s cheer for resistance, breaking the fear and for speaking up.
This column first appeared in the print edition on March 9, 2022 under the title ‘Women’s Day’. The writer is a National Award-winning film actress, dancer and public policy researcher