Women have decided that they will no longer be silent, they will reclaim spaces and own their voices, and most importantly they will stand with each other in camaraderie.
‘#MeToo’ is trending on social media. Women who have faced abuse, harassment, violence and threats are speaking out, and calling out to others to do the same in solidarity. As the trend grows and voices grow louder, the magnitude of the problem is coming to the fore. Women have decided that they will no longer be silent, they will reclaim spaces and own their voices, and most importantly they will stand with each other in camaraderie. In doing so, not only will they speak out about the pervasiveness of patriarchy and the often brushed-under-the-carpet issue of sexual abuse, but also give a platform to women to highlight the universality of the problem.
The trend started with American actor Alyssa Milano. She wrote: “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. The trend comes in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein case, where the abuse stories continue unabated as women finally speak out against the exploitation they faced from him and the larger issue of sexual harassment in the film industry or any other workplace.
In India too, the issue of women safety at the workplace has been under discussion as the charges against Tarun Tejpal were framed; he has been charged with raping a younger colleague. But as India encourages its woman to speak up, it also has to face the harsh reality of its internalised misogyny. Recently, twin judgements – the acquittal of Mahmood Farooqui on the grounds that the woman’s ‘no’ was ‘feeble’ and may thus have meant ‘yes’ and it would be ‘difficult to decipher…a denial of consent’; and the refusal by the Supreme Court to recognise marital rape even as it recognised sex with minor wife as rape as illegal – do a disservice to women’s rights. Delhi (along with Sao Paulo) continues to be the worst megacity for sexual violence against women and intimate partner violence lingers unreported.
This trend is important as it marks a shift from victim blaming, slut shaming, mansplaining and general patronising to women speaking for themselves. We are part of a culture that shuts up women who have faced abuse as it places a greater premier on ‘honour’ than justice; a culture that constantly belittles a woman’s achievements in the workplace and credits her success to extraneous factors that include character assassination. This is a culture that tries to silence the woman by scaring her about repercussions that her assertions may have on her career, her image or even the career of her perpetrators, and shames her for ‘bringing the harassment or assault on herself’, thereby holding the woman responsible through her dress, her mannerisms or even her being at a particular place at a particular time.
The experiences of women are varied but each shows the myriad and pervasive ways in which patriarchy functions. Women have been whistled to on streets and faced sexist innuendos at work. They have been assaulted as children and as adults. They have faced attacks from strangers on streets, family friends and mentors at work. They have been dismissed, patronised and silenced, catcalled, assaulted, beaten, raped and killed. This has happened in streets, shops, buses and trains, cabs and autos, in bedrooms and boardrooms, in broad daylight and in the dead of night. This has happened to days-old infants and old and infirm women. In short, the ubiquity is astounding.
Society has treated these incidences with varying levels of seriousness and mostly just plain dismissal. Faced with an indifferent society and often unfriendly state, police and judiciary, a majority of cases go unreported. The ones that are reported do not always see justice. In any case, the woman’s life, her choices, her actions come under hostile scrutiny, and if the perpetrator is rich and powerful then she may face serious threats of harm. It may also happen in some instances that internalised misogyny and social conditioning are so strong that unfortunately, women fail to see the occurrence of abuse. They are, in any case, discouraged from questioning or complaining as this abuse becomes routine and normalised.
Apart from some incorrigible trolls, men have reacted to the ‘Me Too’ trend largely positively. They have lent their support and have been less questioning and more accepting. Many have empathised and talked about their own mothers, sisters, wives or daughters. While this is important, it is still a far cry from seeing women in their own right. Vitally, this trend has made women stand with women and created a sense of shared and sensitive sisterhood where such dialogues can take place. These safe and non-judgemental spaces will go a long way in shaping the discourse on gender rights and justice and calling out patriarchy. This will change the way women are perceived, as they emerge as proud owners of their voices and bodies, unapologetic of their choices and unafraid to talk.
Swati Saxena is a social science researcher with a PhD in public health and policy. She is interested in health policy, politics and gender.