The collective testimony of women in the #MeToo movement flags, over and over again, the stark asymmetry of power between men and women. This is a record of immense civic value, created by women speaking out at personal, professional and emotional costs. It is now the turn of institutions to respond to this opportunity, to learn from, and transform this enormous emotional labour into systemic change. It is in that spirit that former Supreme Court justice Sujata Manohar, who was a part of the three-judge bench that in 1997 laid down the Vishakha guidelines to address sexual harassment in the workplace, has suggested that the law be rethought to deal with incidents in the past.
Why do women not speak up? The short answer: They are not believed. Even to the apparently neutral systems of redressal, their word is of lesser value. From the agitation against the dismissal of rape survivor Mathura’s account in the 1970s to the district and sessions court judgement that devalued Bhanwari Devi’s account of gangrape, the history of Indian women’s movement is a pushback against the systems of privilege or ideas of honour that belittle a woman’s word. The #MeToo testimonies teach us that the question — “Why speak up now when so many years have passed?” — is complicit in the silencing of women. The impunity of the sexual predator stems from his privilege — of being a man, of belonging to the “upper” castes, of being white. But the #MeToo accounts illustrate — as in the testimonies against Harvey Weinstein or M J Akbar — that the passage of time is an ally and not an argument against justice. The child who faced sexual abuse might find the strength to confront his abuser as an adult. It is from a position of strength — or a possibility of it — that women can imagine resistance.
It’s this voice that systems — legal, political and social — must empower. This is not going to be easy, and will need a collective thinking about grades of sexual harassment; or about the burden of proof. Earlier this year, the Women and Child Ministry said it might seek a change in the CrPC to allow victims of child sexual abuse to file cases even years after the crime. This is the kind of thinking that might bridge the gulf between the experience of sexual assault and the grudging acknowledgement of it. It will need judges to be sensitised; and police stations cleared of the thicket of misogyny. This also demands a response from political parties, including an evaluation of their internal mechanisms against sexual harassment.