In 2017, sexual violence – in the fields, on movie sets, in marital bedrooms, in classrooms, in cult-like deras – was an inescapable part of the news cycle. Women spoke up, and for the most part the world listened. But it was a year of contradictions: Bollywood chose to talk about literal faeces and women’s safety, but ignored its own casting couch culture; the courts declared instant triple talaq invalid in the name of women’s autonomy, but refused to criminalise marital rape or fully acknowledge a woman’s right to choose her own husband. It was cathartic, but also traumatic, with plenty to offer for both hope and dejection.
This was the year Bollywood took an uncharacteristic stab at social change through Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. Despite valid criticisms, it’s undeniable that the mainstream feature helped raise awareness about open defecation in rural India – that women are not only more susceptible to diseases when they defecate outdoors, but also easy targets for sexual violence. Although, while viewers went home a little more aware, millions of Indian women continued their daily struggle as the government struggled to eradicate the practice – 62% of Indian districts were still reporting open defecation in late 2017.
When it came to the Me Too campaign, unlike the US – where women’s anger ripped through the upper levels of power in Hollywood and even reached Washington DC – in India, it never quite made it off our screens in the same way.
At this point, it’s pretty easy to see why the Harvey Weinstein allegations played out the way they did – wealthy, attractive, white movie stars showed the world that sexual harassment and assault happens to everyone, the internet amplified voices that were previously confined to whisper networks, the gate-holders of the international press took it upon themselves to take these stories seriously. Whether I scroll through Twitter or read Time magazine’s piece on the campaign, 2017’s events all fit under a neat arc that can be summed up as: ‘Women had had enough’.
Only the wilfully ignorant would argue that Bollywood is immune to the sexually-exploitative culture that defines (it is far too early to say ‘defined’) Hollywood. And yet, while big Bollywood names equivalent to Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd did not oust their perpetrators, some did speak to the Guardian, which managed to ferret out confirmation of Bollywood’s misogyny problem. In the article, the industry is described as having “a deeply entrenched culture of actors – mostly women, but some men – being pressured to exchange sexual favours for roles and the promise of fame”.
When the Weinstein stories first broke, the New York Times’ Wesley Morris wondered if movie-goers should ask themselves: ‘how many women were exploited during the making of this movie?’ You know, the kind of query we currently reserve for animals (‘No animals were harmed during the making of this film’). If you’ve watched a movie with Kangana Ranaut or Swara Bhaskar in it, you already know that the former’s early career was marked by trauma, and the latter didn’t give the Guardian names or titles but did say she had to get a chaperone to keep herself safe from a male colleague. And that’s just the actresses; what about the hundreds of women and men who comprise the crew?
The same question could be asked of our favourite academic papers and books – and in some ways that was yet another of 2017’s almost-disruptions. When US-based law student Raya Sarkar published an anonymously-sourced list of perpetrators in the South Asian academic community, a significant part of me expected distinguished heads to roll – or institutions to launch their own investigations into the claims. Instead, the List sparked a conversation about the rifts between older feminists and younger ones, and the pervasive caste biases that seep into social justice movements, corporate set-ups and governance alike.
Nobody could have predicted the domino effect that Weinstein sparked off and it’s a tall, unrealistic standard to judge other endeavours by, yet at my cautiously-optimistic best, I hoped that the List would lead institutions to overhaul their processes and introspect on why dozens of young women chose to share their stories with a stranger but not the authorities. Sarkar’s willingness to be a proxy offered women the chance to speak their truth without risking the humiliation and dejection of not being believed.
We still struggle to say ‘I believe you’ to famous actresses, to anonymous students, to women like Hadiya who get into trouble for daring to exercise their autonomy. Hadiya may have won a difficult battle to have her already-legitimate wedding validated by the Supreme Court, but has still somehow lost the fight to be treated as an adult. The court’s decision to ‘allow’ Hadiya to go back to college from her parents’ house, but still not say she is free to to live with her husband, is outrageous – and yet, to point to the constitution and say ‘How can you treat a woman this way’ is to forget the fact that millions of Indian women are treated as not-quite-adult all the time anyway. It doesn’t seem to matter what the law says because if it did, landlords and colleges couldn’t impose women-only curfews, important documents wouldn’t require the validation of fathers and husbands, and maybe, just maybe, we would care more about the declining number of working women than the phantom of ‘love jihad’ (a term so efficient in its offence that just two words manage to demonise Muslim men and infantilise Hindu women simultaneously). Someone (read: some male) must always take responsibility for us, unless of course said male assaults us, in which case the blame is ours.
It would be unfair to say that nothing good happened for Indian women in 2017 – Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh got convicted for rape, which wouldn’t have happened without the survivors’ testimonies and two decades of perseverance; plenty of women produced breathtaking art and literature; plenty of men sat up and took notice of Me Too and asked how they could be better allies, hopefully even more men resolved to treat women better; most astoundingly of all, women everywhere got to participate in a collective catharsis. When millions of women chose to say ‘Me too’, we didn’t just get to live in our truth but for once, had the rare privilege to be believed by the world at large. Suddenly, the people who questioned survivors’ motives went from being the norm to the exception.
But now we are left with difficult questions and the responsibility to answer them: Is it the gross asymmetry in economic power that upholds Bollywood’s silence? Did backlash from within feminist circles effectively kill any chance of investigating the men on Sarkar’s list? What about the women who didn’t get a platform: The ones who will plunge into poverty because of prohibitive maternal healthcare costs, those whose health will suffer because of inefficient family planning practices; those who can do nothing if their husbands rape them? And what will we do about the perpetrators within our circles – the ones we’ve heard about, the ones we know about but cannot report or expel from our lives? In 2017, we named our trauma. What should we do next?
Nehmat Kaur is a culture writer based in New Delhi. She writes a weekly column for The Wire called Name-Place-Animal-Thing and tweets @nehmatks.