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The Times Of #MeToo

The Times Of #MeToo

A year ago, on October 15, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet.” The tweet was sent out on an impulse and she soon went to sleep. Unknown to her, a revolution was taking shaping in twitterspace. She woke up the next day to find that more than 30,000 people had used #MeToo to highlight their own experiences of sexual assault.

The phrase was the invention of activist Tarana Burke, whose intention was to build solidarity among victims of sexual assault. “Me too” had already been in use for around 10 years in Burke’s support circles when Milano resurrected it for the modern times.

In some years, when future history enthusiasts and women’s rights advocates turn back the pages of time they will know how one tweet (one hashtag) inspired a movement and did more for women than any government, any leader or any organization ever could in the 21st century.

A week since the original post, the hashtag had been used more than 1.5 million times, with at least a 1,000 tweets from 85 countries. It had several offshoots, like the hyperlocal French “#BalanceTonPorc,” which translates to “expose your pig,” and spawned several subsequent movements like “#TimesUp” and “#WhyIDidntReport.”

The increasing number of posts and their reach helped cement #MeToo as a social media movement, and unlike any run-of-the-mill Twitter mania, #MeToo has neither died out nor has it faded. It’s important we know the genesis of the movement to understand how it has unfolded in recent times.

The full impact of the #MeToo movement is washing over India only towards the first anniversary of the viral campaign. If Hollywood’s #MeToo campaign was built in the wake of allegations of sexual assaults and harassment against Harvey Weinstein, the Indian version of the viral movement picked up after actress Tanushree Dutta accused actor Nana Patekar of misbehaving with her on the sets of a movie.

She did an important and courageous thing by calling out Patekar. Since the time she plucked the courage to talk about her experience, the list of those named and shamed in #MeToo has grown to include several big names in the world of films, media, politics and publishing, including Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar, filmmaker Sajid Khan, actor Alok Nath, journalist Prashant Jha, editor KR Sreenivas, among others.

The carefully constructed charade of gentlemanly behaviour is quickly coming apart at the seams. The lid is off, and about time too.

#MeToo’s growing relevance even after a year points toward society’s malaise, which is unravelling with time, with every allegation. Every #MeToo tagged social media post is like peeling another layer to reveal a grotesque monster.

When Time magazine named the Silence Breakers – the first women whose voices launched a revolution – as its 2017 Person of the Year, it remarked in the cover feature that “we are in the middle of the beginning of this upheaval.” Unfortunately, India has taken a year longer than the millions of women world over to reach this juncture.

At the time of writing this piece, “MeTooRising” – a dedicated Google website that maps and records search trends related to #MeToo – showed that most number of #MeToo searches were being keyed in from India. The data visualization tool displayed the spike in case results by showing the country as shining the brightest in the world. Arguably, not the best way to shine!

That people are looking up #MeToo and more of #MeToo stories are coming out in the open should ideally be a good thing, isn’t it? Yes, it is. It gives all of us hope for a better future – a future where women are not afraid to report assault and harassment. But, this is one year too late. The one-year lag is something that should bother all of us.

Had Tanushree Dutta not reiterated her complaints against Nana Patekar or Priya Ramani not called MJ Akbar out, many of us would have never known these stories. Had the Indian Silence Breakers not raised their voices, many “respectable” men would have still continued in their ways undeterred.

With #MeToo, men who once thought they were invincible and could get away or pay their way out of a sticky situation are suddenly coming to the realization that all escape routes may be blocked this time. No more are their actions playing out behind closed doors. This right here is the moment of reckoning. This is a clarion call to men to mend their ways.

#MeToo is not an anti-men campaign. At no point in this past one year has the campaign derailed from its purpose of unifying survivors to hate on men. It’s not the male community the movement targets, but those who have taken undue advantage of their power, position or gender to attack women.

Though it needs to be said, dialogue around gender both before and after the #MeToo social media outpourings have largely concentrated on women, while men, the dominant group, have been sidelined. Men who violate other men are just as much part of the problem, according to sexual assault activist Jackson Katz. He explains that calling domestic violence and sexual abuse as “women’s issues” has exempted men from taking a stand and given them “an excuse not to pay attention.”

This is most evident in the current #MeToo wave sweeping the country. The allegations have been met with overwhelming silence by men. If at all there’s any kind of significant response, it has emerged in the form of hateful trolls and mean jokes. That is not to say there are not men around who champion women’s causes. However, there are also men like the executive board of Association of Malayalam Movie Artists, who thought it would be wise to reinstate an actor accused of hiring help to sexually assault an actress while she was still a member of the organization. In the past few days, AMMA secretary and actor Siddique slammed Bollywood actors Akshay Kumar and Aamir Khan for quitting films based on allegations against the directors they were working with.

This trend of dismal and tone deaf actions make one wonder what more should happen so as to elicit the right response. #MeToo has helped highlight how deep misogyny is instilled in our society and how far-reaching are its impact and how the organizational chart is affected when a woman speaks up.

The idea behind the movement is to build a support circle from the grassroots level and create an environment where women are not scared to speak against the powers that be. The role of authorities and power-wielders should be to encourage more survivors to bravely share their stories. But by bypassing the issue and one-upping the accused, they are not just playing down the gravity of the matter but also exposing the survivors to a lifetime of ridicule and mockery. At the core of every #MeToo story is a backstory that lets us in on why the victims chose to keep quiet – the fear of consequences on them, their families, their jobs and their social life.

When Dutta walked out of that movie set 10 years ago, Patekar had goons hassle her and severely damage her car. He had no consequences to suffer… that is, until now. Akbar gave up his cushy position and resigned on Oct. 17.

The #MeToo movement is a fight against centuries of ingrained bad behaviour. When authorities clamp down on such campaigns, they are sending out a message that sexual misdemeanour is normal behaviour. Also, grilling survivors for not having reported the incident when it happened is not an acceptable course of action. More often than not, the survivors keep their stories to themselves because the existing system is not built to deal with these issues.

What kind of measures can secure women in India and worldwide? A quick-fix solution will not work. Unseating men accused of sexual misdemeanour from seats of power may seem like a solution, but it’s not an end in itself. What we are experiencing now is a blowback – the cumulative result of decades of quick fixes and suppression.

As a conscientious society and a country that looks after the welfare of its women, we must give support to the survivors, help them believe the world is not going to turn against them, tell them they will not meet predatory oppression every step of the way. The contours of what constitutes sexual harassment is murky. But that’s no reason for misogyny, patriarchy and victim shaming to distort the newfound voices. If whisper networks have moved to social networks, we must know it is because we as a society never gave survivors a platform to address their grievances.

In India, the #MeToo movement is in its nascent, raw and feral stage, which means there’s plenty of room to impart education, start a dialogue and keep it going. As a social media movement, #MeToo may come off as elitist in nature. With implementation of zero tolerance at workplaces, legal and policy protection, access groups, we can turn that narrative around; we can transform it from a hashtag to rallying cry.

The world is listening to us right now. We must not let the galvanizing action of the women behind #MeToo in India go in vain. For a world that’s fighting against the tide to hold on to the last shred of unity, #MeToo is a unifying movement.

(Published on 22nd October 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 43)