A clutch of gutsy women break their silence over sexual abuse and harassment by their male bosses and trigger a #MeToo movement in India that has far-reaching implications for workplaces and gender-sensitivity across the country
~By Dilip Bobb
Can a hashtag trigger a revolution? Such is the power of social media that it has done precisely that. #MeToo has become a symbol of defiance and fightback, a shorthand for We Will Not Take This Any More. The internet has given freedom to billions but none more so than women across the world trapped in workplaces, movie sets and hotel rooms where drunken, rapacious men have taken advantage of the culture of patriarchy and fear of losing jobs to prey on defenseless women. It took one actress in America to expose powerful movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and launch the #MeToo revolution, and now India’s time has come. For macho predatory males cocooned in the Old Boys’ Club and man-oriented social standards, it is time to be afraid, very afraid.
This is a paradigm-shifting moment in India’s social evolution, and, like in America it took one woman, an actress, to smash open the floodgates. In 2017, Time magazine’s Person of the Year were headlined The Silence Breakers, the group of brave, courageous women led by actor Ashley Judd who had dared to speak out and expose Weinstein, then the most powerful man in Hollywood. Here, it was a nearly forgotten actress called Tanushree Dutta who decided to finally name and shame powerful Bollywood veterans like Nana Patekar, and other directors, becoming the catalyst for other women from fields as diverse as media, entertainment, literature and even politics, to share their stories. The most prominent and gut-wrenching is to do with celebrity editor-turned-politician and current minister of state for external affairs, MJ Akbar, being outed by seven women who worked under him in various newsrooms, accusing him of being a serial sexual predator. His affairs, it would appear, were all internal but it all adds up to a perfect storm, one where women from all walks of life and professions have become part of a movement that has no formal leader, no formal name, no organisation, just a hashtag that comes with the power to give them a voice.
There have been men who have been charged with sexual harassment at the workplace before—environment guru RK Pachauri and editor/author Tarun Tejpal, but those were isolated cases which only served to highlight the fact that the legal process for trying offences under the Vishakha Guidelines, are a long and winding road. Where the current #MeToo movement differs is that it has brought together a variety of women professionals from different cities and occupations, connected through Twitter, and given them the power to take on their tormentors in a unified fashion. Journalist Priya Ramani was the first to name her former boss Akbar, and six other women followed, leading to calls for his resignation from the cabinet. Four other senior editors have stepped down or resigned, two creative organisations—All India Bakchod and Phantom Films—have shut down and other organisations and individuals are scrambling for damage control. Here’s the message #MeToo is sending out to those men who thought the workplace was a place of male privilege, a harem, as Akbar’s accusers have described his editorial style. The #MeToo movement is real. It matters, and, in the context of male-dominated Indian society, was long overdue.
It has also reminded us that the #MeToo movement in a country like India, where thousands of people, including women and political parties, have taken to the streets to protest a Supreme Court ruling allowing women of all ages into the Sabiramala temple, will be a hard fought battle. It is one that has no ending or closure, just the collective satisfaction that it has started and so far, has taken down some serial offenders. India’s social and cultural landscape comes with a built-in bias against women, dominated by men determined to preserve their power and pelf. For women to take on the establishment requires a huge outlay of courage and sacrifice. Like Bhanwari Devi, a Saathin working in the Women’s Development Project of the Rajasthan government. She took an active part in the campaign against child marriages and, after trying to stop the marriage of a one-year-old girl, she was raped by five villagers in front of her husband for her resistance to an evil practice. The district court acquitted all five accused. The matter came before the Supreme Court via a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by a group of NGOs by the name of “Vishakha” to make workplaces safer for women. The Supreme Court laid down binding guidelines to be followed by every private and public sector employer to ensure the dignity and safety of women in the place of employment—every organisation with 10 employees or more should have an Internal Complaints Committee, called a Vishakha Committee, for women to file complaints of sexual harassment they faced at workplaces. In 2013, the Vishakha Guidelines was replaced by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
Yet, for all the legal cover, most workplaces have maintained status quo, many have ignored the directives and some even have set up the Committees headed by men, mainly because there are so few women in senior positions. That is changing, maddeningly slowly, but it is a good time to look at what the guidelines say. They define violations as sexually determined physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct. Examples included sexually suggestive remarks about women, demands for sexual favours, and sexually offensive visuals in the workplace. The definition also covered situations where a woman could be disadvantaged in her workplace as a result of threats relating to employment decisions that could negatively affect her working life. This placed responsibility on employers to ensure that women did not face a hostile environment, and prohibited intimidation or victimisation of those cooperating with an inquiry, including the affected complainant as well as witnesses. This was honoured more in the breach than in observance, leaving women employees as exposed to predators than they were earlier. The rate of accountability, since Vishakha was introduced in 1997, is almost zero, with one or two high-profile exceptions.
Most people, including women, will recall that standard cartoon which showed a boss chasing his secretary around the desk. It was seen as harmful fun then, today, in the wake of the flood of allegations, resignations and shocked silence on the part of some accused—led by social butterfly and self-confessed bon vivant, Suhel Seth, the tables have literally turned. This is a defining moment for Indian society and the Indian workplace, and the true test will be to see if it can usher in radical change in gender sensitivity and equality, and, above all, ridding the office, hotel rooms and casting couch of lecherous, powerful men, used to preying on vulnerable young women, knowing they have the power of hiring and firing, or as some of the harrowing stories that have emerged in the last few days, transfers, night shifts, or forced resignations.
There is, of course, the danger that the #MeToo movement can be misused, that women, for whatever reason, can use it to target men. That is the problem with a hashtag; it can also be anonymous and allow vindictive women to hide behind a Twitter handle. The fact that the main weapon is social media leaves the question of evidence and proof with a question mark. Those who have taken the honourable way out and quit their jobs or organisations suggest they are guilty as charged, but many others could become innocent victims of a personal grudge or vendetta. The lines in the hashtag battlefield are blurred and the old adage of guilt being established beyond reasonable doubt comes into play, or foreplay, as the case may have been. Now, the government has said it will set up a four-member panel of retired judges to conduct public hearings of sexual assault and harassment, opening another can of worms. Yet, for all that, India’s #MeToo movement has the trappings of a revolution, one that has the power to topple kings and change the balance of power in the workplace. For centuries, we have been saluting symbols of power and national pride—flags, anthems, burial places and fighters for freedom. Today, we can salute an unlikely hero—or heroine, a ubiquitous hashtag.