Why you should care
The #MeToo movement can bring about real change for Indian women only if it is sustainable.
When Tanushree Dutta, a Bollywood actor, recently accused senior actor and politician Nana Patekar of sexually harassing her on a film set 10 years ago, it sparked a #MeToo conversation across India. In early October, Mahima Kukreja, 28, a comic and writer, discussed how she was sexually harassed by another comic, Utsav Chakraborty. Soon, other women came forward, and there was an outpouring of pain and anger as Indian women banded together on Twitter to share their stories of sexual abuse and harassment.
As happened in the U.S., India’s #MeToo accusations have been questioned by some. One point detractors make is that this movement is limited to urban, elite, educated women who are savvy and privileged enough to access the internet and social media. While that is largely true, it cannot and should not deflect attention from this powerful collective reckoning. The news about these men being outed as alleged sexual predators was on primetime TV for weeks. For the very first time in India, a country known for stringent patriarchy where due process has failed women for years, men were finally being held accountable.
This “elite, urban and privileged” group of women forced at least two major newspapers to create fresh investigative committees to probe sexual assault charges against their reporters and editors, and one senior editor at another newspaper stepped down. A film production company where one of the partners was accused of sexual harassment was shut down. M.J. Akbar, one of the ministers accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, even filed a lawsuit against Priya Ramani, the journalist who first named him, but he was forced to resign. These changes would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
We take it for granted that boys whistle at girls, and mass media has normalized stalking.
Harini Calamur, founder of media firm Vipra
In India, where misogyny is deeply ingrained in society, a movement like #MeToo is radically transformative. And given that 500 million and counting use the internet in India, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, more women are bound to come forward with their accounts of sexual abuse and harassment, especially thanks to the precedent that’s been set. In fact, female journalists from local and regional press outlets have started sharing their stories. #MeToo also has hit India’s corporate sector, with the former CEO of Taj Hotels, one of the country’s largest hospitality brands, being accused by a former employee of “repeated unwanted sexual advances.” We will hopefully soon see women from other sectors — not just film and media — come forward as well.
One of the biggest challenges for #MeToo in India is sustainability. Since his resignation, Akbar has already been given a platform to publish a piece in the Hindustan Times, one of the largest selling newspapers in the country. Rituparna Chatterjee, a journalist and the person behind the handle @IndiaMeToo, where she curates accounts of sexual harassment in the country, says, “It is so frustrating to see [Akbar] come back. This is so ironic because we have been saying [that] due process does not work.” But what has changed thanks to #MeToo conversations, she says, is that well-educated, introspective men who are women’s allies are beginning to push back as well. They’re thinking about how they can help fix this. “Even if it is 50 men, it is a systematic change in the right direction.”
We have heard so many cases where a corporate human resources team was complicit in saving a man in power, where a woman felt victimized for voicing a complaint. In some cases, women even lost their jobs or were forced to resign as a result. Firms must empower their Internal Complaints Committees — every office in India is legally required to have one — against sexual harassment in organizations and give autonomy to it. Women have to be made a crucial part of these committees. And every single complaint filed since these committees were instituted should be taken seriously and investigated. Companies have to ensure more women are in positions of power. That would make #MeTooIndia more sustainable, emboldening more women to come forward against cases of sexual assault.
Last year, when 24-year old student Raya Sarkar posted a list of sexual harassers on her Facebook page, naming various academics, it created a furor. In fact, Sarkar’s list, aka the LoSHA (List of Sexual Harassers in Academia) is credited for starting the national conversation, even though at the time she faced some backlash. Sarkar had named 75 professors in 31 institutes in the list. We could have moved so far ahead in this battle for equality if, last year, Indian educational institutes would have acted on sexual harassment allegations against academicians.
To understand the reasons behind #MeToo in India, we have to understand the factors responsible for such an outpouring. In some parts of India, so-called “honor killings” — where families kill women if they enter into a relationship with men belonging to different castes or religions — are still a reality. As many as 251 were killed in honor killings in 2015, a horrifying 796 percent increase from the year before. Rape survivors are shamed and forced into silence; sexual harassment is rampant and women have been taught to believe that it is their shame to carry. Harini Calamur, founder of media firm Vipra, says, “India is not just one thing. You also have a very modern India.” So-called modernized women came out with their #MeToo stories and opened conversations with other women, she says. They reached out to their counterparts “who are not modern, not elite, to tell them what consent means, that a touch without permission is fundamentally wrong.”
The next step? Making the #MeToo movement more inclusive and sustainable will require providing a platform for women from traditionally marginalized communities. This begins with outreach. Those who don’t have access to social media should be able to go to local police stations and name men without having to worry about consequences. “Police have to be trained and sensitized, and more women have to be involved in the country’s law and order,” Calamur says. To prevent sexual harassment, she adds, schools, workplaces and labor markets have to be educated about consent.
But men also need to embrace change and educate themselves. “We take it for granted that boys whistle at girls, and mass media has normalized stalking.” Indian men, who have so far largely watched the country’s #MeToo movement from the sidelines, have to make an effort to stir their internalized ideas about gender and women’s rights. The burden of education should not just fall on women, Calamur says. Men need to question toxic misogynistic attitudes and internalized ideas of masculinity.
Correction: The original version of this article misspelled Utsav Chakraborty’s first name.