Women

Backstory: #MeToo Is About an Individual’s Rights but Is Far Larger Than a Single Person

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

At a time when Sabarimala, and the right of menstruating women to temple entry – with its ugly undertow of untouchability – has emerged a challenge to the way we imagine democracy (‘Women Forced to Turn Back from Sabarimala; Centre Issues Advisory’, October 20), two ministers, one serving in the Narendra Modi government and one ex-, are performing a huge service by shining the torch light on the rugged terrain of patriarchy. 

The argument of Union minister of shipping and finance Pon Radhakrishnan, eloquently made to the media, is basically three-fold. One, this #MeToo movement arises out of perverted minds. Two, that it is not fair to revisit old transgressions – as he put it, “If someone makes an allegation that such a thing happened when we were playing together while in class 5, would it be fair?” Three, how would women like it if men were to make similar accusations? (‘#MeToo Movement Started by ‘People with Perverted Minds’, Says BJP Union Minister’, October 18).

Note how the all-too-real perversions of non-consensual kissing or pulling of bra straps escape the attention of this important government functionary. “Perversion”, in his dictionary, is about perverting the status quo. It also does not register on him that this is not about the experiences of childhood, this is about how adult men conduct themselves in the real world. That the reverse – ie, women sexually harassing men – does not happened on a comparable scale should have indicated to him how normalised is the casual display of male sexual privilege. Men cannot make similar accusations about women precisely because of this – and if they do, women too should submit themselves to public scrutiny.

Also read: Backstory: Journalists, the First Draftees of History

It is such thinking that allows the office of a BJP MP to pin a gag order on a former female employee who called out sexual harassment against his senior aide (‘Woman at BJP MP’s Office Filed Harassment Complaint. She is Now Out of a Job’, October 16) or prompts an ageing star to drunkenly lurch into his co-star’s room at night screaming, “I want you you’re mine” (‘After Vinta Nanda, Sandhya Mridul Accuses Actor Alok Nath of Sexual Harassment’, October 10).

As for the ex-minister – M.J. Akbar – he has had a long and exceptionally celebrated career in journalism, but what is it about exceptionalism that allows impunity to proliferate? The astoundingly high number of women who have come forward with their stories of his sexual predation should surely have given him, and his hired team of 97 lawyers, some pause? But no, they are going right ahead because impunity encourages the use of power for every need, from sexual capture to enforcing silence.

The piece, ‘M.J. Akbar’s Defamation Case: From News Room to Court Room, the Game is the Same’ (October 18) got it right when it observes, “He is using the law of criminal defamation exactly as it is meant to be used – as a legalised weapon in the hands of the rich and powerful to silence and intimidate not just critics, but also who they violate, oppress and prey upon.” The amazing part of this story is that the defamation suit has not intimidated women from coming forward with their stories implicating him. On the contrary, it has unleashed a veritable army of accusers.

M.J. Akbar. Credit: Facebook

The thing about this mediatised #MeToo moment we are living through is the mirror it holds up to a raw patriarchy that plays out across class, caste and location. Its strength lies in its very simplicity: the right of everybody to bodily integrity and autonomy. The piece, ‘Thank You Very Much, Mr. Akbar’ (October 16), by seeing the “inherent right to a safe work place” as essentially a middle class, market-created aspiration, diminishes its scope and intent, reducing it almost to an elaborate pretence (“their greatest source of self-esteem is a pretence of moral aversion towards any kind of ethical tawdriness in public life”). Such an approach also fails to recognise the serious impacts, in terms of health and well-being. A counselling psychologist observes that sexual assault can result in “drastic changes in women’s self-image, esteem, immediate social interaction and work”, and alter the person’s perception of their lives, future and capabilities (‘Why Sexual Assault Is Among the Most Traumatic Experiences Women Can Face’, October 18).

Essentially, #MeToo, in spite of its English appellation and social media driven progress, can apply just as much in a situation where a feudal land owner lays claim to a dalit woman working in his fields, as it does to the egregious acts of an editor.  As a recent piece in the Bundelkhand rural newspaper brought out by women, Khabar Lahariya (‘#MeToo: A rape in Chitrakoot shows that caste, gender continue to play into sexual crimes in rural India’, October 16) pointed out, “while cities are burning with the #MeToo movement, in the hinterlands of our nation, a whole culture of silencing and patriarchy becomes immediately active when one brave woman speaks up…” It must also not be forgotten that in a real sense the Indian #MeToo string began in the “hinterland, with Bhanwari Devi’s fight for justice in 1992”, as the writer of the piece, ‘#MeToo Memories and Our Citadels of Power’ (October 19), importantly reminds us.

So how did The Wire fare by the metrics of #MeToo? Excellently, if one were to go by the sheer number of stories on the subject. It was understood early in this story the importance that this was also about the future of journalism: “Changing the culture of the newsroom in a larger, gender inclusive way is the key to putting an end to the sexism and predatory culture seen in so many media organisations” (Editorial, October 8).

It kept brisk pace with revelations almost as they occurred (‘#MeToo Tags AIB Founders Tanmay Bhat, Gursimran Khamba and Actor Rajat Kapoor’; ‘#MeToo: Gautam Adhikari, Former TOI and DNA Editor, Quits US Think-Tank’, October 9). It coverage allowed space for the ambivalent (‘Why I Refuse to Substitute Moralistic Outrage for Demands for Justice’, October 16) and the poetic (‘Is the Poetry of Love Possible in the Age of #MeToo?’, October 16). It also put out serious conversations on video (‘Watch | #MeToo Is an Inflection Point in the Indian Feminist Movement’, October 16) and spread its net wide geographically (‘Smear Campaign Against Kashmiri Women Saying #MeToo An Attempt to Force Them Into Silence’ , October 14; ‘At Prominent Ahmedabad Institute, a MeToo Accusation Against Artist, Filmmaker’, October 17).

Where it faltered was when it came to its own. There can be no doubt that Vinod Dua has contributed immensely to The Wire, bringing in a new audience and new form of communication – the video conversation. Since it began on February 14, 2017, Jan Gan Man ki Baat quickly assumed cult status – a show that people either loved to distraction right down to its green bottle prop, or trolled mercilessly for its stout defence of constitutional values and biting critique of the government in power. I didn’t write about it because I didn’t have the necessary language skills to engage sufficiently, but the mail in my inbox indicated that there was a great deal of viewer investment in this show.

All this should have demanded even greater due diligence from The Wire when the focus of a #MeToo allegation happened to be Dua himself. There was just that infinitesimal bit of delay in coming out with the story of filmmaker Nishtha Jain’s accusation, which broke on the night of October 14 and appeared on the website on October 15 (‘Filmmaker Accuses Vinod Dua of Sexually Harassing, Stalking Her in 1989 Incident’), which allowed critics to call out The Wire for dragging its feet (Nishtha Jain herself tweeted and posted to this effect, although I cannot understand why she felt the need to also drag Dua’s daughter into her messaging). 

Given what was at stake, it was a sensible move on the part of this portal to set up an external committee to probe the complaint. But it certainly did not help The Wire’s case to have Dua use the Jan Gan Man ki Baat platform to exonerate himself and throw some “kichad” on the #MeToo movement. In words that came close to recalling M.J. Akbar’s legal suit – arguing that Priya Ramani’s observations were a “figment of her imagination” – Dua was dismissive when he stated that “30 years ago, some woman felt that I did something that troubled her”, viewing it as some “kichad”, or muck, that had been flung at him. This, after he had made the larger point that while the media keeps nattering on about sexual harassment, other weighty national questions that the Narendra Modi government needs to answer, are being ignored – a kind of reverse swing of the Akbar argument that the accusations against him were a pre-election bid to down him.

On October 20, The Wire‘s founder editor Siddharth Varadarjan just tweeted a story that said that a panel comprising former Supreme Court judge Judge Aftab Alam, Justice Anjana Prakash, Prof Neera Chandhoke, Prof Patricia and former ambassador Sujatha Singh will examine Nishtha Jain’s allegation against Dua and that Dua’s programme will remain suspended till the end of committee’s work. 

The Wire made the right move. Now it’s over to the external committee… Meanwhile, Vinod Dua would do well to read a woman commentator in these columns who advises all those who find themselves in a situation such as he does: “You have to start by publicly admitting guilt wherever it is due, by admitting that it is no surprise that you don’t remember (if you don’t) because privilege tends to erase acts of power too quickly. If you have indeed been wrongfully accused, please defend yourself in credible ways (and not just say that you don’t remember). But also be ready to say that a public apology is only the beginning of the unlearning of toxic masculinity …” (‘Why I Refuse to Substitute Moralistic Outrage for Demands for Justice’).

Mail on #MeToo

That #MeToo represented a milestone in gender activism was evident in this letter received on October 12, from Ashima and Vani from the Saheli collective in Delhi, signed by over 130 feminist individuals and organisations across the country, expressing “unequivocal support to all women, especially those in the media and film industries who are speaking out fearlessly against the violence and misogyny they have experienced at their workplaces”. In addition, they signed up for offering “support for conversations, assistance, ideas, action” to those who felt they need it.

They noted that “over the decades, these battles have taken many forms within workplaces, on the streets, in the courts, etc., as well as #LoSHA (List of Sexual Harassers in Academia) almost a year ago” and that it was disturbing but not surprising “many among these women who tried to raise these issues within the organisation, were neither believed nor supported, and some even brazenly dismissed.”

“It is imperative”, they write, “that sexism and misogyny at the workplace be brought to an end. While there is an urgent need to put the redressal mechanisms in place at every workplace, it is equally important that survivors and complainants are actively supported in their quest for justice.”

They also believed that there is an opportunity inherent today for both survivors and activists “to get together and forge new alliances. To create safe spaces for the sharing of such experiences, the reviewing of older strategies and the evolution of newer ones. To take our shared struggles forward so that women may speak out and be believed. “

It is in that spirit that they have put together a list of coordinates of some activists/groups who are willing and waiting to meet/speak/email/Facebook/DM to start these new conversations, singly, collectively to address what is clearly not a personal problem, but a political one.

Saheli Women’s Resource Centre, New Delhi  (011-24616485 – Saturdays only; saheliwomen@gmail.com); LABIA – A Queer Feminist LBT Collective, Mumbai (stree.sangam@gmail.com); NAZARIYA: Queer Feminist Resource Group, New Delhi (nazariya.qfrg@gmail.com); All India Progressive Women’s Association AIPWA (aipwa@yahoo.co.in); Anuradha Kapoor, SWAYAM, Kolkata (swayam@cal.vsnl.net.in); Shubhangi, ASSOCIATION FOR ADVOCACY AND LEGAL INITIATIVES (AALI) (aali@aalilegal.org; Facebook – @aalilegal; Phone – +91 8005499927 (available on WhatsApp); +91-9161454706); HAQ: Centre For Child Rights, New Delhi (Bharti Ali –bharti@haqcrc.org; Enakshi Ganguly – enakshi@haqcrc.org; YWCA, Vinodhini Moses, National General Secretary, YWCA of India (10, Sansad Marg, New Delhi ; Tel# 11-23340294, 23345235; Email: ngs@ywcaindia.org; headoffice@ywcaindia.org);S EWA, Nalini Nayak, Trivandrum (0471.2476734); NEW TRADE UNION INITIATIVE, Gautam Mody, General Secretary (secretariat@ntui.org.in; B-137 FF Dayanand Colony, Lajpat Nagar IV, New Delhi; Tel: +91 11 26486931, 26214538); Anchita Ghatak, Kolkata (anchita.ghatak@gmail.com); Ena Panda, Assistant Professor, Department of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of Delhi (enarish.jnu@gmail.com; G7, Dwaraka Trendz, Vinayak Nagar Colony, Hyderabad, Telengana, 500032; Tel: 9971933714); Kavita Panjabi, Kolkata (kavitapanjabi@gmail.com); Madhur Bhartiya (madhurbharatiya@gmail.com;  9871234212); Manjima Bhattacharya, Mumbai (nandini014@gmail.com); Nandini Rao, New Delhi (nandini014@gmail.com); Nirupama Sarathy, Chennai (nirupama.sarathy@gmail.com); Rakhi Sehgal, Delhi (rakhi.sehgal@gmail.com); Seema Baquer, Delhi (9899746545); Vijay Rukmini Rao (vijayrukminirao@gmail.com; 9440860271).Endorsements from A Mangai, theatre activist and writer; Aarthi Pai, Lawyer, Bangalore; Abha Bhaiya, Feminist Activist, Dharamshala; Anita Ghai, Prof, School Of Human Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi; Adv Mini Mathew; Amita Pitre, Consultant, Public Health & Gender Justice; Amrita Nandy; Ankita Pandey, Assistant Professor, Indraprastha College for Women. University Of Delhi; Anupama Potluri, Assistant Professor, Univ. of Hyderabad; Arundhati Dhuru, NATIONAL ALLIANCE OF PEOPLES’ MOVEMENTS (NAPM); BAILANCHO SAAD, Sabina Martins, Goa; Bidyut Mohanty, Head, Women Studies, Institute Of Social Sciences, New Delhi; Bindhulakshmi Pattadath, Associate Professor, Advanced Centre For Women’s Studies, Tata Institute; Bindu Menon, Delhi University;  Bittu Karthik, WSS – WOMEN AGAINST SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND STATE REPRESSION; Dhiviya D; Divya Kapoor, Panjab University, Chandigarh; Dr Charulatha  Banerjee; Dr. Chitra Sinha, Centre For Gender Research, Uppsala University, Sweden; Dr. Indira Hirway, Director And Professor of Economics, Center for Development Alternatives, Ahmedabad; Dr. Jyotsna Chatterji, Director & Secretary, JOINT WOMEN’S PROGRAMME; Dyuti, Socio-Legal Researcher, Activist; Farah Naqvi, writer and activist, New Delhi;  FORUM AGAINST OPPRESSION OF WOMEN, Bombay.

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Another mail from James Takar of Arunachal Pradesh drew attention to a case filed by a woman called Samchumg Pema of charges of rape again the current chief minister of the state and his friend in an incident that took place in 2008. According to her, she had tried to file an FIR then but no police station dared to register a case against him because his father was the chief minister of the state then. She was also allegedly threatened at that point. She subsequently tried to get a case registered with the National Commission for Women this year, but this institution too declined to look into it.

Incidentally, the chief minister himself has dismissed the accusation as politically motivated.

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Some readers faulted The Wire over failing to promptly put out a story on the accusation of sexual misconduct brought against Vinod Dua. Wrote B.K. Raghuram on October 15:  “I have been following the Wire for a long time and more recently its coverage on the #MeToo movement. I am writing to say that I am disappointed that your home page still does not have a statement on your stance on Vinod Dua. As an organisation that strives for openness in institutions, I would have expected an honest statement to be prominently placed on your home page so as to prevent any insinuations of cover-up.” In fact, The Wire story on Vinod Dua appeared on October 15, ‘Filmmaker Accuses Vinod Dua of Sexually Harassing, Stalking Her in 1989 Incident’.

The Network of Women in Media, India, also wrote in urging The Wire to “desist from allowing the accused its platform to belittle her (Nishtha Jain’s) allegations”.

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in

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