And #MeToo, and #MeToo and #MeToo…
(Published on October 21, 2017 in Business Standard)
When Nirbhaya was dying in a Delhi hospital in 2012, India saw huge, anguished citizens’ protests. A rattled United Progressive Alliance administration clamped down on the protests. Many people didn’t see the point of them. I found myself at loggerheads with a friend who dismissed them as faddish, politically engineered, or, at best, betraying the classist-urbanist pique of a usually apathetic citizenry. He thought they had no real traction.
I was shocked and infuriated by his blindness to the potential of the moment—everyone was paying attention, everyone was talking about it. This young woman’s brutalisation was opening a massive, crucial conversation on sexual assault and gender injustice. I couldn’t understand how any intelligent liberal man could not stand with the protests. How could he allow an opportunity for action to get lost in analysis and academic critique? How could someone with close women friends shoot us down? I took it personally. It was incredibly disheartening.
Many people found reasons to trivialise and discredit the protests. But the fact that the conversation had begun was huge. Gender justice—relegated to tiresome ranting from ‘angry feminists’—suddenly had the country’s attention. Patriarchy featured on prime time television and in newspaper headlines. Sexism began to be called out in homes, offices, politics, religion, policy, relationships, industries, and public spaces. It got national headspace. The international press was all over it. The Justice Verma Committee worked hard to strengthen anti-rape laws, expand women’s rights, make efforts to improve women’s safety, sensitise the police force, and increase the punishment for gender violence.
The fact that television channels lamented, some weeks after the event, that things still hadn’t changed, was an excellent indicator of our abysmal apprehension of how endemic sexism is. Educated, developed, progressive societies all over the world are still steeped in gender injustice; India’s journey towards gender equality is on a long, long road, made up mostly of potholes. Nirbhaya drew men into women’s incessant talk about gender injustice and male violence. They were outraged; they stood for equality; they were allies. But these well-meaning men still have no idea how deep the problem runs.
After Nirbhaya, I was talking to another liberal, progressive male friend. I related to him my own experience of being assaulted by someone I knew, who pinned me against the wall, slapped and bit me, screamed ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’ into my face me, tried to lock the room, threw me across the bed, and was stopped only by the arrival of a much bigger man. I told him about my long dark months of rage, disgust, contempt, and depression thereafter, and my conflicting desires to not be intimidated into avoiding this man, as well as to never set eyes on him again. I told my friend that this man’s friends proffered a thousand justifications for his behaviour—he was drunk, he’s not like that, these things happen, he’s sorry—and that the assaulter himself told me that my anger was ‘negative’, and that I should let it go.
My friend was horrified, but when I said that this kind of thing is rampant, he didn’t believe me. I said that the most privileged, sheltered, empowered women get harassed, assaulted, raped, and abused, at home or at work or on the street, by men they know well, as well as by strangers, to say nothing of more vulnerable women. He said that wasn’t possible—not the women we know. You know them, I said. He wanted names. I said they weren’t mine to give.
Today those names are all over Facebook and Twitter, thanks to the #MeToo hashtag this past week, which revived an old call for solidarity for people who have suffered sexual harassment and violence. Pretty much every woman I know put out a #MeToo hashtag—by itself, or accompanied by a story that makes you want to cry with rage and punch something.
I see liberal men shocked at the flood of #MeToo on their timelines, men who rail against these terrible things, but who haven’t had the slightest idea how many of their friends and family have suffered under their noses, nor how much. There’s derision of the hashtag too, of course, but I see some men tentatively beginning to acknowledge their responsibility, and reframing the problem as a male problem rather than as ‘women’s issues’. They are realising that society is so pervasively geared to the rights, empowerment, and justice of men, that sexual oppression and gender injustice are invisible to them. They are beginning to acknowledge that a liberal man, themselves included, can be as sexist as the next man. They are worrying about workplace harassment and domestic violence and the etiquette of sexual attraction and flirtation.
These men are the very tiny tip of a frightening iceberg of work that needs doing.
If you’re one of these men, good on you, but remember that you aren’t doing us a favour.