The resignation came two days too late. And no (defamation) suit will be large enough to cover that underwear. M.J. Akbar, you leave us (and your job) with an enduring image. Question: Who ran India’s foreign affairs until the other day? Answer: Sushma Swaraj plus Man-in-Underwear. I can visualise the memes already.
I have some 35 odd years of #MeTooType stories bubbling inside me. Memory is a friend. It remained suppressed to save us then, from feeling bad about ourselves, and now it is emerging to save us from that bad feeling. My memories range from the unwelcome paw, boob-stare, gawk and grope, to the post-dinner grab-at-the-door-goodbye-hug that was a tad too long, way too handsy and full bodied (even if ‘by the door’ meant escape was imminent). These memories also mix with others – interactions with successful men where my feminist spot-the-asshole antenna was temporarily blunted in a deeply gendered moment of power imbalance that I wasn’t fleet-footed enough to spot. At least, not in that moment. Though the vague ‘bad feeling’ stayed with me long after.
Patriarchy runs deep, inside all of us. And as one feminist has written, sometimes violence does too. It is a time for such internal reckonings. Many women wonder why they were once drawn to some creep in their life – avowed feminist on the outside and anything but in private. I have been complimented by male colleagues on how I looked on a particular day or the saree I wore, and have smiled ‘thank you’ until it became a once-too-often occurrence and I started aggressively saying ‘hey handsome, looking spiffy today, what a yummy shirt’ in equal measure, equally often. I was called ‘so bold’ for doing that. Who cares. This was my response to discomfort, to feeling affirmed and disrespected by the same act. This is what quotidian patriarchy can do. And takes us time to sift.
The gropers, pawers, boob-starers have been professors at colleges where I studied in both New York and New Delhi, politicians I encountered during years of working on public policy in India, including ministers and members of parliament. Some creeps I know are the ‘good guys’ – liberal intellectuals, who have built careers out of being public good guys, including journalists, NGO leaders and human rights activists, who bleat on in their writings about rights and wrongs, accountability and ethics. Perfectly unaccountable and unethical with women in personal spaces. The career good guys can be particularly toxic, because the assumption of decency allows them to both gain our trust, and easily deny wrongdoing.
A recent gawker is a family friend. But did his gawking at a professional dinner, in a room full of leading civil rights activists. I did not notice at first, but the host, a female friend, pointed him out. It ruined my evening, and together we conspired that when dinner was over, I would leave by another entrance, evading his goodbye hug. She was angry, profusely apologetic and a feminist. Neither of us stood up in that room and called him out. Maybe I will one day. Nearly every woman I know has these stories to tell. But are these legitimate #MeToo tales?
People caution that we must not put everything in the #MeToo basket. Lest it topple. Let spaces of social and personal misogyny be. Let this moment be about the workplace alone and serial predators like Akbar. I suspect we are already beyond that, whether or not someone hashtags MeToo. This moment has no leaders. But it runs with a million racing heartbeats. Women, whose intimate memories are fuelling it. That surge is its strength. Cordoning off the air-waves from this torrent of powerful personal demons, to protect some imagined boundaries of a movement, will deplete the core fuel of the reactor – anger of one half of humanity at the power, privilege and predation of the other half. Let it burst. Let it enter the inter-personal, the sexual and the social. Let it be lawless. We all stand to gain.
All women are working women, in one way or another. And women encounter this devaluing behaviour everywhere. In the context of a formal workplace or an educational institution, the power can be identified and named, for it derives from clear organisational hierarchy – boss and subordinate, teacher and student. Throw patriarchy into the equation, and this power can be a lethal sexual weapon. So yes, the movement has called out patriarchy in a space where the abuse can be caught, even if its form still remains contested (one wink? three lusty smiles? or outright tongue-down-unwilling-throat?). The ‘office’ is one space from where male-entitled abusive behaviour can be weeded out. But it exists in all spaces, formal, informal, workplace or not. For every woman who has spoken out about male predators in the workplace, rest assured these successful, intelligent men are doing the same thing outside it. Besides, workplaces are seamlessly bound with our non-work spaces and social lives; with colleagues who become friends and friends who become colleagues, even our bosses. For rural agricultural labourers, the landlord is not just your employer, he is the upper caste social boss too.
It is also disingenuous to suggest that #MeToo is irrelevant to women facing sexual abuse in the rural hinterland. It began with the hinterland, with Bhanwari Devi’s fight for justice in 1992. Yes, legislative gains of the anti-sexual harassment movement have been largely urban and Internal Complaints Committees are non-existent in the unorganised and rural sector. But surely #MeToo is not about formal structures of redress. On a sliding scale, from everyday sexism and a predatory culture to clear criminal sexual assault, if women want to seek criminal redress, they must have the option. But to try and straightjacket every story into its legal rendering would be intellectually and morally feeble. And to frame our engagement only in these terms is to miss the meaning of the moment. This movement is about a social, personal and political calling out of patriarchy, and it has the potential to help all women – rural and urban. What each story shares at its core is simply the millennia-old entitled male. Each sorry tale dents this entitlement.
Naysayers ask why #MeToo is only about men of some eminence who have achieved so much. True, many abusers who have been called out are ‘successful’. In a highly competitive world where public recognition is fetishised as the epitome of human achievement, ‘success’ has a potent way of silencing. A patriarchal social order that has invested so much in creating these halos is loathe to call these bluffs. For that would be like calling its own ultimate bluff – as if it looked in the mirror and reflected back was just a man in underwear. The alibi of social eminence has been injured by #MeToo. And one hopes the damage will eventually be felt in each tiny kingdom of power, by all our upright eminences in towns, villages and inside our homes. In the meantime, our ex-minister is still a member of parliament. Can that secure kingdom be the next citadel we breach?
Farah Naqvi is an activist and writer who lives and works in Delhi.