Seemingly-funny-but-frighteningly-venomous trolls, cartoons and tasteless jokes are doing the rounds on social media countering the #metoo movement. The courageous voices by women who have faced physical and mental torture in the hands of sexual predators have brought down bastions of power with many men from the entertainment and publishing industry being called out. The parallel counter movement is run by people who claim that the survivors are trivialising the campaign by highlighting ‘minor’ incidents that wouldn’t qualify as harassment and that men feel so threatened by the campaign that they would be extremely fearful of interacting with any woman in future
“Those who feel threatened might have something to fear. There’s no other reason,” feels J. Sandhya, a lawyer and social activist. Sharing her views, actor Lakshmi Ramakrishnan, who is vocal about the existence of the casting couch in the film industry and herself having had an experience of being asked to ‘compromise’, says, “Generally, people tend to stay away from problems. Very few are gutsy enough to come out against an abuser. You need to reach a certain point of credibility in society to do that. When singer Chinmayi accused lyricist Vairamuthu of harassment, there’s no reason to not trust her. Why would she put her talent and career at stake? Proof, in her case is her calibre.”
Sandhya, also a former member of Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, backs her, “This #metoo movement happened because women realised that silence is not helping them anymore. For long, they stayed mum fearing these repercussions from society. A person like Mukesh might forget an incident that happened 19 years ago, but a survivor wouldn’t. Now they have come out, there won’t be a return to old ways. A conducive atmosphere has been created for the affected ones to come out and share their experiences. More people are becoming aware of their constitutional rights. With the survivors garnering more support, sexual offenders will always be reminded that they would be caught one day.”
The trolls and people who consider themselves endangered are concerned pose a series of queries — why the survivors didn’t speak up all these years, why now, why in anonymity, why for just non-verbal, non-physical acts, what if the charges are false, is it a publicity stunt, so on…
Lakshmi, who anchors a TV show that brings to light abuse cases, has an answer to it. “Why would someone victimise oneself in this age of social media by reliving the horror they experienced, throwing themselves in front of netizens to be ripped apart? Yes, not all cases of #metoo might be genuine. I support Chinmayi, but when Shriya Reddy levelled harassment charges, I didn’t support her, because she said it was a business deal. The moment one objectifies oneself, she loses credibility.”
Lakshmi terms the act of people raising suspicions on late revelations as ‘rubbish’. “I saw tweets referring to why Chinmayi fell on Vairamuthu’s feet seeking blessings at her wedding… Have these people ever thought of a survivor’s mental agony? Shame, social pressure and disbelief would force them to believe that nothing is wrong; they can’t face the trauma. Even Chinmayi called out Vairamuthu after she gained the support and trust from her spouse and family,” says the actor, adding that harassment is there everywhere and movements like #metoo are bringing about a huge change. “That can be seen even in Kollywood. The young crop of filmmakers knows how to respect women and treat them with dignity. It’s a hopeful transition,” she says.
Featuring along with poor jokes and cartoons in bad taste are media houses known for their gender-sensitive acts. An insensitive cartoon that appeared in a Malayalam daily on Thursday showed an old woman carrying a #metoo placard saying that she was abused at kindergarten by her neighbour. A much-shared meme bore the caption ‘I was spanked by a nurse 20 years ago, when I was born’. It seems there are people who need harassment defined properly.
“Anything that makes a person uncomfortable is harassment,” says Abha Muraleedharan, who works with Ek Potlee Ret Ki, an NGO working on cultural identities. “Harassment comes as physical, verbal, non-verbal, gaslighting and by manufacturing consent; it’s tricky. You need not even open your mouth or touch to harass someone; you can do it with your eyes. Acts of misogyny and abuse have been normalised for generations that many don’t understand that what they have been doing all these years was wrong. We need to talk, explain and call out oppressors till it sinks in. There needs to be a gender-sensitive system to address these issues and that system too should be questioned,” she opines.
Why is it that many men find it difficult to spot an uncomfortable gaze or action? “That’s because of lack of practice,” says Prof. Baby Shari, Department of Psychology, University of Calicut. “Men aren’t groomed to not stare at another person, to not upset a woman with their words or mannerisms or to not make her feel unsafe at her place of work or home or even on the road. And it’s not the abuser, but the one affected who decides the intensity of the act. What she feels is not something the other person can gauge; it depends on the ground situation at the moment,” says Prof Baby, who is a member of the Internals Complaint Committee of the university.
The magnitude of the #metoo movement is such that the foundations of patriarchy have suffered a huge blow, as proved by the cry by fear-stricken men and women, and the widely-shared trolls and memes. Expressing that the fear is unfounded, Rajesh R Pillai, who runs Befrienders India, a coordinating agency of NGOs working towards suicide prevention says, “This is a great start to a journey towards a society that would respect women more, focus on gender equality and most importantly, prevent abuses in future. With this movement, I think men should be more vigilant, cautious and respectful towards women. Yes, there might be people who use the movement to blackmail people, but the greater cause is that women get a platform where their voices are being listened to.”
As Aabha puts it, “To all men fretting about ‘if I would be called a harasser’ for talking to a woman, this is how our life has been, watching every word we utter, every hand we shake, every step we take so that we are cautious and don’t get assaulted. Welcome to our world.”