Chennai: The #MeToo India hashtag was the defining moment of the year 2018. The movement may have come home a year after shocking the US with high-profile sexual misconduct allegations in the creative industries, primarily Hollywood. The startling revelations in our country actually begun without a direct connection to #MeToo as the sensational Kerala incident of kidnap and sexual assault featuring a conspiracy hatched by actor Dilip against an actress came to light. The incredible power of the moments we lived through was stressed in what was to follow.
The definitive time #MeToo reached India was when Tanushree Dutta went public against Nana Patekar and her allegations became viral enough to spawn a series of exposes by wronged women. Life has not been the same again since then. The climate surrounding sexuality and the basic man-woman relationship in every sphere of life changed dramatically as the snowballing movement downed one Union minister in MJ Akbar on October 16 and exposed many in the high & mighty brigade as closet sexual predators. Women who have never felt free to express their sexuality in the prevailing repressive atmosphere found their voice. This was the success of #MeToo.
The media and entertainment industries were the first to be hit as secrets tumbled out, so too skeletons from cupboards as big names rolled. Sexual harassment may be gender neutral in the sense that women in power could also be guilty of misconduct. But, as events unfolded, the truth that dominant men were far guiltier in leveraging their power over subordinates became apparent as lists were curated of culprits. Cinema and media were just the start. Sexual predators were everywhere, in the office environment in government departments, banks, as well as in the fine arts and sports.
It would have been too convenient to blame it only on the guru-sishya parampara of India. The supplicant status of acolytes training under their masters and coaches in fine arts, sports, in offices as interns, apprentices and juniors made it easy for the person in the superior position to exploit his standing with word, gesture and physical harassment, sometimes even rape as consent was invariably obtained dubiously in all cases of such unequal relationship, with the line of consent blurred by a long patriarchal tradition. But the predators were from far beyond the guru-sishya relationship.
The courage to identify a man in power may not have come easily to Indian women. Tanushree, with her US background, showed boldness that many were to emulate from a culture where sexual harassment is a given and often trivialised if complaints came up. #MeToo was the ideal external force blowing across India to wake up the women who were tormented. Journalist Sandhya Rao acted as a catalyst, bringing into the public sphere complainants who had chosen anonymity to tell their tale and who were mainstreamed by her encouragement.
Like the Cinema Collective that came up in the Malayalam film industry to highlight the sexual harassment issue, the classical music people also began an exemplary cleansing drive with the Music Academy, the premier sabha of the famous Chennai Margazhi season, showing the way by leaving out any sexual perpetrator who had been named by a victim in credible accusations. Its president N. Murali was to explain - “We have taken a lead. Now other
institutions have to follow. We also hope it will be a deterrent against such acts in future. The Music Academy has a right to feature a musician or not in the festival, so we exercise it. This is not a legal process. These are allegations and we are not judging them guilty.”
“The guru-sishya tradition alone is not to blame,” says TM Krishna, a leading voice from the world of classical Carnatic music who showed solidarity with the #MeToo victims and joined hands with musicians to show the way in cleaning up the system. “Culprits were found everywhere although it is thought the halo around artistes has given them a licence to abuse. What we stressed in a collective voice was that the deafening silence needed to be broken. Also, more importantly, proactive measures are needed to prevent future incidents.”
The male entitlement long permitted by the system was being cleaned up rapidly as rules began being framed for future conduct. The problem may have been broached by the Justice Verma committee that looked into the Nirbhaya case of 2012 to suggest changes in rape laws. Visakha Committees became mandatory in workplaces to protect women from harassment. Newer and tighter definitions are needed and the government, hit by the scandal in which it lost a minister, has promised to work on framing guidelines.
Significantly, it was the fall of dominoes that made it feel more like a cultural revolution. The social media once frowned upon as a space for outspoken women who were instantly trolled in retaliation became a haven for women to pour their hearts out. This was the true moment, much as the shaming of Harvey Weinstein represented the triumph of #MeToo in the land of its origin when a simple tweet transformed into a global phenomenon. As journalists put in their papers, a comedycollective was disbanded, actors lost movies and a minister resigned and the Indian movement had peaked.
What is the true objective of #MeToo? Is justice served only by individual offenders being deposed? The victims may get to savour their triumphal moment as a predator falls. However, that will not guarantee other men will not harass women in the future. The need for structural measures in all organisations to deal with the entire sweep of man-woman relationship has been felt like never before.
The power of the movement will be truly felt if it spreads beyond the urban limits. But, judging from the Google Trend Data visualisation that lit up places where a collective curiosity was driving the country on the sexual harassment issue, it appears rural India led in the matter of wishing to know more. The visualisation saw the Google map lit up all over India as it did in a once-faked image from space as seen from the international space station. Rural India burned even more brightly.
The message is no one is going to take it lightly anymore. Women’s voices will be heard if they are harassed. The movement led to kind of truth and reconciliation hearings in South Africa at which everything was thrashed out. The future would be a fairer place so far as gender equality goes at the workplace. It is too fanciful to think a fund can be created from which victims of harassment may be compensated. The greatest contribution of #MeToo would have been the fresh start it may have provided with a level playing field for all for all time to come. The focus as we move forward into a New Year should be on the institutions that enabled these predators to misbehave and exist untouched for years. The phase in which the individual predators were punished may be over.