‘The lack of a regular beat for women’s safety gives the message that it’s not important for the media’
Sandhya Menon on the present and future of the #MeToo movement in India
This is the second of a two-part interview with journalist Sandhya Menon, one of the guiding forces behind India’s #MeToo movement. NewsTracker’s Sanjana Thandaveswaran and Sharin DSouza interviewed Menon at her Bangalore residence. Read part 1.
Do you think movements such as #MeToo can specifically address rape culture and work towards reshaping Indian society’s mindset?
I don’t think so. Not at this stage where we’re still fighting for the right to be believed, you know? The Utsav Chakraborty-Mahima Kukreja case, for example, has become a complete shit show. She called him out in 2018, and a year later he came back and said she doctored screenshots and so on. Here I am thinking, “Your debates are still there in that level of two people in their 20s fighting about wrong screenshots, truncated screenshots.” The level of debate right now is there. Because of that accusation, a bunch of people are, like, all you women have been lying. So, we’re still fighting for the right to be taken seriously.
To step into the space of doing something about rape culture and specifically, just rape, is a humongous task. We can’t even agree as a country on what to do with rapists. Do we give them seven years? Do we lynch them? Do we stone them to death? Do we hang them? I don’t think the movement is ready to address rape at that level yet.
THE MOVEMENT HAS RESTRICTED ITSELF DELIBERATELY… TO WORKPLACE HARASSMENT. WHICH MEANS, IF A WOMAN FEELS SAFE AT WORK, THEN SHE WORKS BETTER. IF SHE WORKS BETTER, THEN SHE CLIMBS HIGHER IN THE HIERARCHY, AND THEREFORE, SHE MAKES MORE MONEY FOR HERSELF. THEREFORE, SHE IS SECURE IN MANY WAYS
And specifically, I think the movement has restricted itself deliberately across the world to workplace harassment. Which means, if a woman feels safe at work, then she works better. If she works better, then she climbs higher in the hierarchy, and therefore, she makes more money for herself. Therefore, she is secure in many ways. And, that is for urban centres. For non-urban centres, a #MeToo movement allows a woman to just earn a living. So, these are things that change the lives of women. But rape is a much more complex problem.
What were some of the challenges you faced as one of the journalists at the forefront of #MeToo India?
The constant threat of a defamation suit. There were about three or four cases where men wrote to me saying, “Listen, I’m going to sue you for defamation” — not because I called them out, but because I posted stories on behalf of someone else. This was one of the challenges that I really struggled with but I had fabulous lawyers in Delhi who were saying, “We’ve got your back, don’t worry about it.” I don’t think the threat is over yet, because one of them was absolutely sure that he was not guilty. The others sort of fell off. This guy kept insisting that he hadn’t done anything wrong, ever. He was very strong in his words, so then you yourself wonder a little… “Did I get the facts wrong?”
The second issue was loss of work for me. While I was doing it [#MeToo activism] in those two months and also afterwards… I found it impossible to be hired on a full-time basis. I am getting a lot of freelance work but on a full-time basis, that’s not happening. Those two months that I was doing it, I was sleeping two or three hours at night. I was awake a lot because I was often on the computer or on the phone and my mind was completely focused on this. This particularly took a toll of my mental health, on my ability to run a household. I’m a single parent, so if I’m not earning then it’s a huge setback for me. My children are 10 and 11 years old. I had to juggle all of that. Huge credit to my kids that they were not too demanding and understood, “Oh there is something going on with her, I will leave her alone.”
It also took a huge toll on how I was interacting with people because my mind was constantly on it. So I was probably unaware if someone else was distressed in my family, it could be my kids or my parents. It could be anybody I was sitting with. I was probably unmindful of their emotional situation. It took a long while for me to heal myself and to remember that the more I stay online, the more agitated I get because I was interacting with trolls and with women who were distressed. It took me about six months to settle down into some level of calmness.
You put in a lot of work during this movement. Can you talk us through the ‘silent work’ that people might not be aware of, and that activists such as yourself might have put in to sustain the #MeToo movement?
Training. For certain organisations, I have been doing pro bono training when they cannot afford it. When I go to a corporate, I am happy to take a fee for it. That’s one thing that I’ve invested in — getting trained myself and training corporates.
The other thing is, keeping the conversation going. That could be a piece for a magazine or newspaper. It could be taking cases on. Around February I said, “I’m not going to post anything online anymore” because now you have a platform. A lot of us have laid the foundation, so you can take it forward yourself. So, I stopped posting online but women would write to me saying, “This is what happened to me.” So, I would guide them through the process. Last month, I had a young girl write to me saying that she was at this newspaper and there was this man who behaved abominably to her. I said, “Okay, here is what you need to do. Here is the complaint you need to write” and wrote down the complaint. There is a lot of that happening.
APART FROM FIRSTPOST, OR CARAVAN, OR HUFFPOST… I DON’T KNOW OF A SINGLE PUBLICATION THAT CHASED STORIES ON THEIR OWN. THEY WERE AFTER THE TWEETS. WE TWEET, AND THAT EVENING THEY SAY, “AH, CAN YOU TELL US DETAILS?” THEN THEY GO AND TALK TO THE CONCERNED COMPANY AND POST THE STORY. I MEAN, WHERE’S YOUR WORK?
Then the usual — directing survivors to therapists and lawyers. Being in touch with women and lawyers who have been working in this space for a much longer time than any of us have and saying, “Hey, how can we work towards changing policy?” And that’s hard work because they have regular jobs and I have a regular life. So, to take time out of that and sit and work through it… and we still do it. We end up getting calls in the middle of the night, at midnight, saying “This is the only time I’ve got. Can we sit down and discuss this? How do we go about it?”
One criticism about the movement has been that many women ‘took advantage’ of it, and all stories were not true. Has this harmed the movement?
I would not say “many women have taken advantage”. From the cases that I have seen, there have been about three [that were false]. Amid 400 to 500 cases, there were three. In my view, taking advantage of something like this is difficult, especially now. You could have done it on social media a year ago where you could have posted anonymous screenshots. Now, that’s hard to do because no one is going to take an anonymous screenshot as seriously, unlike last year, because last year there was a need for that. So, if you can’t do that — post anonymously about a man — and have to put your name and face out there, it means that your life is going to be affected and your career is going to be affected. This works both ways. If you are going to make a malicious complaint, then it is going to ruin things for you. But if you are going to make a solid complaint, then you might still not be safe because you could have repercussions of all kinds.
FROM THE CASES THAT I HAVE SEEN, THERE HAVE BEEN ABOUT THREE [THAT WERE FALSE]. AMID 400 TO 500 CASES, THERE WERE THREE.
So, to rephrase that, I think there were some women who took advantage of it. Last year, I told everyone, “There is no way a woman would lie.” I was so convinced. But I am not as convinced now. There are some women who will be opportunistic for whatever reason — sometimes it’s an emotional reason, sometimes it’s purely a cold clinical reason.
Did it harm the movement? I don’t think so because irrespective of what comes our way, irrespective of random anonymous Twitter handles writing to us saying “Oh, you guys are all liars”, the work continues to happen. I think the people who say that a false complaint affects the movement badly or discredits it, don’t care about the movement in the first place. They are just looking for one little thing to drag it down and say, “You guys are lying, this movement doesn’t work.”
I think the people who use a false complaint to say the movement is useless have no interest in truth or justice. This is entertainment to them. “Uhm, I haven’t done anything like this” or “I have, and I don’t care” or “The women I know have not faced anything like this, so I don’t care.” They don’t care about truth, they don’t care about justice, they don’t care about safety, none of that.
In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Maybe I would’ve slept a little more. Nothing else, I wouldn’t have done anything else differently.
How do we keep the story of #MeToo going? Where do you see its future?
I don’t think the story needs to be so loud on social media anymore — at least, not the way it was last year. I think it needs more emphasis on verifiable facts, verifiable stories. This is where women with their own stories come in, where you go and file a complaint. This is where the media comes in.
But there’s a huge problem with mainstream media. I have put across five or six survivors to different publications, and these are difficult stories. These are stories with harassers in very high places. Stories of women with reams and reams of pages with complaints.
THE CONVERSATION NEED NOT BE LOUD AND RAUCOUS ON SOCIAL MEDIA. THE CONVERSATION NEEDS TO MAKE THINGS HAPPEN ON THE GROUND AND NOT JUST ON THE WEB
Consistently I keep stating this, apart from Firstpost, or Caravan, or HuffPost, which did the Rajkumar Hirani story, I don’t know of a single publication that chased stories on their own. They were after the tweets. We tweet, and that evening they say, “Ah, can you tell us details?” Then they go and talk to the concerned company and post the story. I mean, where’s your work? Why are we doing your work? So, that’s a huge disappointment.
The only way to keep the conversation going is for the media to keep those stories going. And if you’re going to get distracted by Jaya Bachchan saying nonsense, if you’re going to get distracted by Narendra Modi’s walk in the Bear Grylls show, so if you’re going to get distracted by all of that, there’s not going to be any time for anything else.
You’ve got to have a woman or a man on this beat regularly! I can’t emphasise that enough. The only message that I get from not seeing that happen is that it’s not important for the media. You know, it’s just that one blip, let’s get some part of the noise. If it were important, you would put somebody on that beat regularly.
The other way to keep the conversation going is to have discussions, have spaces where you can talk about this stuff. Bangalore’s full of these tiny little spaces where there are panel discussions. Or forget panel discussions, I hate panel discussions, really I do. Hmm, like a bunch of people just sit together and talk, like an ALF (Alternative Law Forum). Or, where you can organise circles, like we did in the initial part of the movement , where women get together and talk about stuff. At this point, we need to start having conversations with men as well. It can’t be just women talking about their survival stories, though that has its space and should continue if it brings healing. But it’s time we brought leaders, corporate leaders, into these conversations saying, “Hey, listen, what are you guys doing? How can we help you do this better? How can you have these conversations in a less boring, more open manner?” So, talk to corporate leaders.
Have conversations with domestic help. If a domestic worker gets sexually harassed at her place of work, which is a home, where does she go? Literally nobody knows. There is the idea of an LCC (Local Complaints Committee), but nobody knows where it is, who to contact, nothing. They’re unprotected women, right? So let’s have those conversations, figure that out. We know the importance of domestic help. We lose it if they don’t come. Our lives are built around these women’s hard work. So, how do we give back to them?
The conversation need not be loud and raucous on social media. The conversation needs to make things happen on the ground and not just on the web. I see women tweeting that women aren’t safe and things like that, but stop with it! We know women are not safe, we know the streets are not safe, I know we are policed, all of that! But let’s get on the ground and do something about it. And that’s something we’re just not doing, people like you and me, who have a lot of privilege. We’re just talking to people like you and me constantly. We’re not going to a level that’s wide and strong. That conversation needs to keep going, not necessarily in the public eye. In the public eye, it’s okay, if it happens it happens. It’s okay. That’s the media’s job. But you and me as people who have some level of education, some level of access, some level of commitment and desire to change things, we need to start working in this space. That’s the only way to keep the conversation going, any other conversation is a waste of time and virtue signalling, basically.