There is a peculiar missing piece in the Indian #MeToo movement roiling the country currently – the men are not there at all. It’s as if the problem of sexual abuse and harassment is a problem of the women, and other than the individual man named by the individual woman, men and masculinity have been removed from the set. The abuse is a “women’s thing”, something that they are coming to terms with through a cathartic public outpouring with the sisterhood rallying behind the survivors.
There are no prominent men responding with outrage, support or reflection. Hardly any film actors have spoken up in the Tanusree Dutta-Nana Patekar case nor any well-known male comedians in the Mahima Kukreja-Utsav Chakraborty case or senior male journalists in the spate of accusations against former editors Gautam Adhikari, Prashant Jha and others. On social media where trolls, mostly male, emerge at the slightest opportunity, no angels have come out so far.
This deafening silence from the men will ensure that their dominant status in workplaces and their power and privilege will go unexamined. It will ensure that the institutionalisation of sexual violence remains unchallenged. American activist Jackson Katz says that “Calling gender violence ‘women issues’ is in itself part of the problem.” It reinforces social norms that place women in jeopardy. It gives men an excuse not to pay any attention and to tune out of the conversation.
This can be seen in what is currently unfolding in India, where the very passiveness of the men is a political silence that has the effect of shifting the focus from problematic masculine behaviours to the ‘woman as victim’ instead. Why did the woman who has come forward not report it earlier, or if she had why did she not follow it through, what is her motive now, what circumstances brought upon her the harassment, what degree of harassment was it so that it can be classified properly – these have become the overriding concerns. In a form of transference, the ‘victim’ becomes accountable rather than the male perpetrator, causing the men to disappear from the problem of men’s violence against women.
“Why is it that sexual violence against women is a ‘women’s issue’ and not a ‘men’s issue’? After all, it is men who are responsible for the violence. In fact #MeToo in India is a unique opportunity for men here to take a stand on behalf of women and strongly send out the message that sexually abusive behaviours will not be tolerated and initiate measures for gender equality in workplaces and everywhere else,” says feminist icon Kamla Bhasin.
Those like Bhasin, who are at the forefront of the gender equality movement, say the next big shift in feminism has to be the simultaneous constructive involvement of men and boys in redistributing power because men also have a responsibility.
Though there was recognition about the need to engage men at the ICPD in Cairo in 1994 and the Beijing Conference in 1995, feminists were troubled that the women’s space would shrink and that looking upon men as gatekeepers would actually reaffirm notions of patriarchy. Progress was slow since then, till recently gender and masculinities emerged as a valid field of study and converged with ground experiences of engaging men on gender justice, leading to a normative shift in the understanding of men’s roles.
It is now recognised that there is need for men to bring about personal changes which have to be made into structural changes. For this it is necessary for men themselves to challenge the structures, beliefs, practices and institutions that sustain their aggravated privileges.
Representatives of Forum to Engage Men (FEM), a civil society alliance working across India to transform hegemonic masculine identities and behaviours say that it is important for men to take the next step after the heightened awareness of #MeToo in India and the receptivity to change brought about by creation of an environment of discourse around violence against women. They can acknowledge and take responsibility for the pervasive violence, reflect on their own behaviours and break the male code of being silent bystanders to sexual harassment. They can take an active role in promoting concrete actions by organisations, corporates and the government on issues of gender discrimination like the wage gap, lack of women in decision making, the glass ceiling, and related broader social issues and systems that perpetuate the violence, protect powerful men and prevent women from speaking out.
Pro-feminist men’s groups are also pointing out that it is important to quickly build support and understanding among men with respect to #MeToo in order to prevent fodder being given to the ‘men’s rights’ movement that is gaining ground. From being fringe elements till a few years ago the men’s rights activists have become mainstream. In September a seminar was held in the heart of the capital to discuss setting up of a Men’s Commission in view of what it claimed was strengthening of laws and policies for women that unfairly target men and are leading to tilting the balance against them. The programme was attended by more than one member of parliament.
In a frighteningly short span of time the #MeToo movement in India could spin from ‘women as victims’ to ‘men as victims’ that would echo what Trump’s USA is experiencing. The North American MenEngage Network (NAMEN), which works to end violence against women, has in a statement said that Judge Kavanaugh’s defence “is identical to behaviours and strategies of offenders who routinely deny their behaviours while presenting themselves as victims of those they have abused.” Already that is the subtext of many of the responses in India that warily wonder if men are under attack here. It is a thin line that many men in India following the upheaval are yet to determine which side of it they are on.