Let’s get real about #MeToo India

How journalists can make the movement matter more

Is it really #TimesUp or #TimesAreToughForALittleWhile for those accused in #MeTooIndia? Photo: Marc Nozell (CC By 2.0)

The #MeToo movement has taken India by ‘storm’, or so has said headline after headline as a series of powerful men found themselves reeling under allegations of sexual harassment. Union Minister and former Asian Age editor M J Akbar resigned from his government position. Ubiquitous talking head and PR consultant Suhel Seth was fired from multiple contracts. Filmmaker Vikas Bahl was dropped as the producer of an upcoming film. Dozens of other men, across industries and sectors, were also named and shamed — but then what? Is it really #TimesUp or #TimesAreToughForALittleWhile for them?

Akbar is dragging the first of his accusers through the rigours of a defamation battle in court and is back to writing columns in national dailies. Suhel Seth has been unusually silent on social media, but there are rumours that he is now engaged to be married and he probably still has a Porsche or two to tide him over tough times. Vikas Bahl’s accuser has decided to not pursue a case against him.

The question now is, how many ‘success stories’ will #MeToo really see in India? And what do we define as success?

#MeToo in the Indian context

There is no doubt that #MeToo is powerful, cathartic, therapeutic, terrifying. It is reallocating the blame and shame that women have unfairly borne to where it really belongs. It is certainly not just a “hashtag revolution”. Many of those named are facing consequences, and multiple workplace inquiries have been set in motion. Men are squirming and grieving the demise of workplace “banter”. The minister for women and child development has made noises about a legal panel to address #MeToo cases, the National Commission for Women has announced a “dedicated email for work harassment complaints”, a group of ministers has been formed to address sexual harassment at work.

However, India is a very different beast from its counterparts in the West such as the USA, where #MeToo has made a substantial impact, both in terms of attitudes towards sexual harassment and workplace consequences for it. According to Harvard Business Review, #MeToo in the West has led to a norms cascade: “a series of long-term trends that produce a sudden shift in social mores”.

In India, though, we are a long way away from a “norms cascade”. Our particular brand of virulent, frighteningly stubborn patriarchy is just one tentacle of the monster that we must fight. India, as has been frequently noted, is many countries, straddling many centuries. The West is far more homogenous than we are in terms of power differentials, gender equality, religious and caste divides, regional differences, workplace and industry norms. We also score exceptionally high in “power distance”, defined as “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally”. This power distance exists between women and men, and also women and women.

The ‘other’ 90 per cent

Which brings us back to the question of the impact of #MeToo for working women in India. The answer: it depends on who the woman is and the industry she operates in. Educated, upper class and upper caste women have the greatest chances of benefiting from #MeToo. The odds go up for them if they work in corporate settings that have (or potentially have) redressal mechanisms and policies regarding harassment. The odds become worse in unstructured, nepotistic settings such as politics or family-run enterprises. Indeed, the growing corporatisation of Bollywood is one of the reasons why so many women are finally able to air the film industry’s ‘open secrets’. As for the unorganised sector — which employs more than 90 per cent of India’s working women? Forget about it. For every woman who speaks out, there are a thousand others who accept and even endorse the status quo. Many who would like to speak up do not have an email address to shoot off a mail to the NCW. They may not even know what a hashtag is.

Then there are the well-documented attitudinal and procedural issues with law enforcement and the judiciary: acts of sexual violence are severely underreported, victims are forced to carry the burden of proof, investigations often proceed at a snail’s pace, a large number of court cases stay in a state of suspended animation for years and the conviction rate for crimes against women stands at a measly 19 per cent. Without a considerable institutional overhaul of the legal system, women will continue to not only be denied justice, but be wary of seeking it. Even within the framework of #MeToo, many women are reluctant to approach the police or fight a case in court.

So, what next? In my opinion #MeToo needs to be made more inclusive. It needs to be cognisant of the fact that 90 per cent of the woman workforce in India is situated in the disorganised sector.

#HerToo: Breaking the ‘cycle of isolation’

The shared truths of #MeToo are what make it powerful — in the words of neurobiology researcher Amy Banks, it “broke the cycle of painful isolation” that many women felt and allowed them “to find their voices and to reclaim their dignity”. Yet, Banks also notes that “for some, the movement has been more isolating”. In the Indian context, this applies to the women who don’t have an education, a computer, or even the awareness that they don’t have to live in fear. It applies to the women who work in our homes, the shop assistants who hand us trousers to try on, the nameless survivors and victims who populate the inside columns of newspapers.

The #MeToo movement is India is being galvanised largely by journalists, many of whom have spoken up — finally — for themselves. But it cannot end there. It is now time to use our comparative power to amplify the voices of others. To use our arsenal of hashtags to talk about #HerToo. Even as we continue to tweet about the men who have harmed us, can we not also add the stories of ‘other’ (or othered) women to our social media revolution? Can we not make their voices heard to the audiences/authorities that we have access to and they do not?

We don’t even have to try that hard. In the months that I’ve spent tracking news stories about sexual assault for the Media Action Against Rape newsletter, it has become clear to me that the media is really not doing such a bad job in covering incidents of violence against women: there are dozens of stories every day from virtually every part of India. There are stories of brutality, of justice denied, of systematic oppression. But even as these stories are being documented, they are generally dying a quick death. They are reported, but often unheard, untweeted. There is usually no push for follow-ups on social media. There is no sense of urgency of the kind we are seeing now. Outrage peaks for certain cases, but unlike #MeToo there is no mass indignation over the appalling trends in our country.

We — urban, upper class, educated women — have summoned indignation, urgency and focused activism for #MeToo, so why not for #HerToo? Why don’t we name and shame the cops who refuse to file rape cases? Or follow up cases of sexual assault at the workplace in the disorganised sector, like that of an army major accused of raping a domestic worker? Or call out sexist court judgments, where women are berated for waiting too long to file a complaint? Can we not band together to make this approach a conscious part of the movement? We may even make a real dent in our institutions and systems. Otherwise, all we’ll have perhaps are a handful of stories about (much-deserved) comeuppance — and perhaps a few better behaved men in our offices who make nervous jokes about not wanting to risk closed room meetings with women colleagues.

A version of this article first appeared on News18.

This is one in a series of articles that NewsTracker published from 25 November to 10 December as part of the #16Days activism, aligned with the UN’s International Day for Ending Violence Against Women. This piece appeared on Day 10.