A long silence is over. Women are calling out sexual predators, past and present, in India’s entertainment and media industries. They are doing so by curating spreadsheets of serial abusers, marshalling screenshots and private conversations. Their accounts of abuse reveal a toxic, patriarchal culture so ingrained as to be inevitable, and so endemic that it empowers educated, accomplished men with not empathy, but impunity. Several men in positions of authority, from woke filmmakers to stand-up comics and powerful editors and journalists, now stand accused of abuse of power, of treating women’s bodies as spoils of their success — and not as equal co-workers and friends, whose consent or comfort matters. The voices add up to a crescendo of rage, trauma and anguish that is disturbing, insistent — and wholly welcome.
If, to many men, this appears as an anarchic principle set loose, it is because they have been cushioned so far by privilege. Sexual assault is a universal female experience, but justice is rare. The burden of suffering and surviving sexual trauma has been of the woman alone — by moving on, or living to fight another day, by accepting emotional, verbal and physical abuse as the normal. The wave after wave of accounts naming and shaming men — with all the questions that this raises — are a response to a system that is utterly broken. In India, it began a year ago, soon after a New York Times investigation exposed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, when law student Raya Sarkar published a crowd-sourced list of 50 academics, accusing them of sexual harassment. Taken together, these two exposes represent a paradigm shift in the way a new generation of women conceives of feminist struggle. If anything, the fire that has been lit by these women needs to spread further — to regional media, start-up cultures riddled by the bro code or the unorganised sector where the weakest of women battle the most unequal working conditions. It is also a measure of what is surely to come — as more Indian women are educated and push their way into the workforce, into universities, colleges, factories and offices, they will demand change, safety, equality on their terms.
All struggles for equality are, in essence, an attempt by the disenfranchised to create an alternative language, one that articulates their oppression. For aeons, women have sensed but not articulated a harsh truth — patriarchy turns the men in their lives into their intimate enemy. This is even more true of the institutions that men help shape and control. But this moment could be a tipping point. As Indian women sharpen a language to express their violations, Indian society and institutions must listen, accept their complicity in the pervasive injustice that has gone on so far, and find a way to detoxify their spaces. This is going to be a long, fraught journey. But there is no option but to walk down this uncharted terrain.