Cutty Sark: #MeToo in India

Week before last, when I sat down to write this column (an edited version of which was published in Hindustan Times on Sunday October 7), I had no idea that so many more women would come forward with their stories and #MeToo conversations would light up all over India. While this happened, I was entirely out of the news loop, without phone network or internet, traipsing around Kashmir. I returned on Sunday and since then, I’ve been trying to come up to speed. There’s enough to depress the bejesus out of us all, but the heartening part has been to see this image, which shows how actively #MeToo has been discussed and searched in the Indian internet. Gender justice isn’t a niche topic anymore. (Can I get a hallelujah?)

 Screenshot from  Me Too Rising .

Screenshot from Me Too Rising.

Weirdly though, the column I wrote two weeks ago remains relevant. In fact, with MJ Akbar charging Priya Ramani with defamation, it’s even more relevant in parts than it was when I wrote it.

So here’s the unedited column. May we stay loud and burn bright.

Last week, the Indian Twitterverse was an education. From the comedy collective AIB, we learnt of “cognitive biases”, the formal term for sticking fingers in your ears and yelling “LA LA LA” to drown out the accusations of sexual harassment against a friend or colleague. We discovered that one of the lesser-known ways of dealing with chronic illness is to demand nude photos and send unsolicited, graphic images to women. Most importantly, thanks to women who chose to amplify the voices of victims by sharing their stories, we realised time really is up.  

Between Thursday and Friday, the reputations of several Indian men — journalists, authors, photographers, comedians — underwent a pinata moment when women spoke up and alleged they’d been victims of abuse. There are, of course, those who think making anonymous claims of victimhood are ‘easy’ ways to get five minutes of fame. The pragmatic reality, though, is that a woman has a lot more to lose simply for making a claim because the burden of proof is on her rather than the accused. Anonymity wears off quicker than lipstick when you’re making allegations, particularly those of sexual harassment, and before you know it, you’re vulnerable to additional harassment for having spoken up. Also, if you’ve made up a false allegation, the chances of being exposed is high and if a shred of doubt sticks to your claim, that’s the end of your credibility.

The most challenging part of speaking up is that in in order to tell your story, you have to revisit the past. Trauma is a muscle memory and it can paralyse you. As you relive being a victim, you become vulnerable again and forget that you’re a survivor. You hate yourself for being weak, for ‘letting’ him do what he did, for not being able to stand up for yourself and others. Your abuser is a phantom presence, but the fact of your victimhood? That feels bitter as-cyanide real.

All the allegations we heard last week have a few things in common: The abusers are male, have a network of support, and believe they’re entitled to women submitting to them.

At the heart of this smug complacency is the conviction that talented men should be allowed bad behaviour, which in turn means women must be victimised for the greater good. Brought up to be pleasing and undisruptive, most women are socialised into prioritising everyone else before themselves. Their trauma is of less value than the contributions made by their abusers – he has a family that he provides for; is an artist whose work brings acclaim to the country; he is a journalist who once spoke truth to power. Next to such grand accomplishments, a woman’s suffering is painted as petty. Even voicing it is a selfish act. Take one for the team, ladies. Suffer for art (his art, that is).

For those rowdy ladies unwilling to swallow this spiel, there’s a different muzzle – the burden of proof. Never mind that our public life is full of leaders and spokespersons making unsubstantiated claims. Those people we can take at face value, but not a woman with an allegation against a man. Some time after one of the women who called out a stand-up comedian for harassment on Twitter, Mumbai Police quoted her tweet and said, “We have been waiting to hear from you since last two days [sic]. Please understand that till the time you lodge a complaint, we cannot initiate legal action. Request you to do the same or reply to us on DM to let us know if you need any assistance.” I can’t speak for the woman who this was directed to, but it smacked of intimidation to me. It was as though the police was challenging her to make good her claims. Except, dear Mumbai Police, what’s your record of investigating cases of sexual harassment and bringing harassers to book? Before asking her to repose faith in you, shouldn’t you prove to her that you are worthy of her confidence?

I’ve been witness to policemen refusing to file a first information report (FIR) for complaints of sexual harassment, dismissing it as petty. On two occasions, I’ve warned men in positions of power that the candidates they’re looking at hiring for senior editorial positions have previous records of harassment, and it’s made no difference. Those men got hired anyway and went on to make women employees who had to report to them, uncomfortable. I’ve often wondered how different the reaction would have been if I had been a man voicing these concerns against the candidate. Of course I can’t prove this, but I’m convinced I would have been taken more seriously. I’m someone who has been very fortunate to not ever face sexual harassment at the workplace, but that doesn’t mean I’ve felt like I’m treated like I’m the equal of a male colleague. As women, we’ve been born into a society that is constantly seeking to dismiss us and trivialise our concerns while we work overtime to establish our worth, our credibility, our character. And then, after all that, either we remain unheard or we’re accused of being too loud and too feminist. “Your feminism shouldn’t trump logic,” someone told me last week. I wanted to respond with, “Why not? Your misogyny does.” Instead, I patiently attempted to explain why believing women victims isn’t the same as accepting false allegations to be true, that you can respectfully verify as well as challenge claims.

There’s a lot to be said for filing complaints and establishing records, but especially in cases of harassment, evidence and eyewitnesses are hard to come by. Also, the Indian legal system doesn’t inspire much confidence if you’re a victim. Take Bhanwari Devi, thanks to whom we have a law against sexual harassment in the workplace and who filed a case in 1995 against the men who gang-raped her. She is still awaiting a final verdict. More recently, in 2016 photographer Mayank Katwal filed a defamation suit against the 36 women who accused him of sexual harassment. While the wheels of the legal bus go round and round, Katyal is organising festivals, including one dedicated to “women in the Himalayas”.  

Our legal system doesn’t have patience for delay in reporting. It doesn’t take cognisance of details like being traumatised and the time one needs to repair themselves. The courts demand that you file a complaint as soon as the incident has happened or once you’ve left that job because then you are, apparently, no longer vulnerable since you and your abuser are not in the same workplace. As if the abuser can’t reach out through their social network to cripple you if you’ve angered them; as though your paths will never cross again. Our legal system demands evidence, like a paper trail and signed statements, but abuse rarely takes place with witnesses in place. How do you prove a demand for sexual favours that was made over the phone or in a room with just the two of you in it? Is harassment only real if it is accompanied by a screenshot? This is leaving aside the detail of how intimidating it is to file an FIR, especially if you know that your organisation is not backing you. Because most organisations don’t. They side with the person who is more senior, and that’s always the abuser. Women who file complaints with internal committees find themselves being harassed all over again, this time by colleagues who don’t support their claims and HR personnel who do their best to make the complainant back off.

Under the circumstances, is it surprising that women rely on whisper networks and lists like the one that Raya Sarkar compiled of sexual harassers in academia?  

Some will argue that these online campaigns are frustratingly hollow – a story trends for a bit only to be replaced by a new point of outrage. It’s true that there is an unnerving informality to all this because nothing’s on record and everything is a story.

Yet in this very same informality is a strength – stories travel, from mouth to mouth, ear to ear; chipping away at old conventions by slyly raising questions in a listener’s mind. If we’re going to change the way people think, it’ll be through the stories we tell and the ones we make sure are heard. Even if it is in whispers and private messages, we’re talking and we’re finding our voices. We’re done being quiet and the onus is on society to listen, rather than pass the buck on to the courts.  

Our legal system reflects the gender bias riddling society. It makes unreasonable demands of victims and it pretends the playing field is level when it’s anything but. These are men who have abused their power. They have been able to do so because they’re powerful. In a courtroom, their power is not diminished. In fact, it is often amplified because of the lawyers they can employ and the muscle and connection that those lawyers can flex. As things stand in our legal system, victims of sexual harassment cannot rely upon courts to get justice or redressal.

So the burden falls on everyone else -- companies, institutions, guilds, cooperatives, societies, collectives. Will you tolerate the abusers just so that status quo is not disrupted? Or will you be an ally? Choose wisely. Because there are a lot of angry women out there and the attempts to intimidate us only makes us want to draw more blood.