By Dr. Oishee Mukherjee
The ‘#MeToo’ campaign continues to hit headlines. More so as the big and the powerful in politics, entertainment and media, have been named and shamed. Though more women are mustering the courage to speak up against sexual harassment, suggesting that some tangible results are forthcoming finally after a decade of the feminist movement, the patriarchal order is still quite prevalent, despite some cracks.
Over the past few years, much talk of women’s empowerment and gender justice hasn’t really made much of an impact, as this new wave suggests. Leaders of all political parties are often found giving speeches at seminars, conferences, State Assemblies, Parliament and particularly before elections on gender equality to demonstrate their concern for the country’s women and improving their lot. For example, only recently at the Platinum jubilee celebrations of a women’s college in Chennai, Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu, observed “We have to liberate India where gender equality becomes the norm and will unleash the full potential of half a billion strong women force”.
Ironical as it may sound, while he was giving his lecture, Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar was caught in the eye of a storm with as many as nine of his former women journalist colleagues, accusing him of sexual misconduct and unethical behaviour, when he was their editor. For days together, there has been a stoic silence by the Modi government against the charges levelled against its minister. Instead of taking a high moral ground and stepping down, Akbar on return from his foreign trip, has questioned the timing of the charges (politically motivated just before elections), rubbished the allegations and threatened to take legal action against all those who have sought to defame him.
While some of the women journalists have said they are determined and would fight him, the question is whether this will puncture the movement and discourage other women from coming out and share their stories of harassment. And while all eyes would be on Akbar’s case given he is ‘politically’ high profile, some accusations against top editors in the media industry has seen an encouraging outcome. Political editor of Hindustan Times Prashant Jha and Editor of Times of India, Hyderabad KR Sreenivas have stepped down. Another former Editor of Times of India, Gautam Adhikari has resigned as a fellow at the Centre for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and said he would stop writing his column for The Times of India.
At the same time, the spotlight remains on Bollywood, wherein the #MeToo wave was actually triggered by actress Tanushree Dutta accusing veteran actor Nana Patekar of sexual harassment. This apparently, has given confidence to others to speak up and the wave has so far engulfed Alok Nath, Vikas Bahl, Rajat Kapoor and Kailash Kher. Women are coming forward to speak up after a gruelling long time, of the physical and mental torture or the abuse they faced at the hands of sexual predators.
However, there is a parallel counter-movement being run by people, who claim that the ‘survivors’ are trivialising issues by highlighting minor incidents that don’t qualify as harassment. A section of the film industry has also threatened to boycott Tanushree Dutta and thus sending a message of serious consequences to those against speaking out.
At the same time, it cannot be denied that behind the series of ‘MeToo’ takedowns is the ugly truth that men in positions of power tend to abuse it buoyed by a sense of entitlement and a feeling of invulnerability. They tend to imagine that the opposite sex welcomes their advances and don’t really understand the concept of zero tolerance against sexual harassment.
This could also be due to the fact that Supreme Court’s directive of making Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) mandatory at workplace has not been taken seriously either by managements or the Government. There would be umpteen cases where the boss may indulge in sexual harassment with his junior colleagues and they would be wary of approaching the ICC in the fear of losing their job or getting a promotion.
The toxic culture of sexual harassment appears to be ubiquitous, projected by a sort of ‘boys club’. The system is no doubt imperfect and the Visakha guidelines are sloppily implemented. Though the courts have given verdicts that the three months’ time limit, mandated by the guidelines, need not be adhered to and old complaints can be filed, police stations are still reluctant to file FIRs. Plus, many women hesitate to file complaints, due to the fact that if they cannot provide evidence, action may be taken against them. They don’t take into account that guidelines clearly state that you cannot be proved wrong; it’s just that they may not agree to your allegations.
One may mention here that social activists have rightly pointed out that one should consider the frame of mind of a woman when she files a complaint. A victim’s mental agony should be sufficient proof of sexual harassment having taken place. Added to this, shame and social pressure should be used as evidence.
Aggressors typically bring influence, intimidation and money to bear in order to get off the hook. Moreover, in workplaces the aggressor is mostly influential and can easily manipulate the office committee and even the 3rd party member who may be from a civil society organisation. Thus, women are by and large afraid to lodge complaints, specially keeping in mind their social status and the oft-heard “what will people say?”
But there is a silver lining at the end of the day. The atmosphere has started changing in at least the urban areas and as the feminist movement gains further strength, a real transformation can be expected at some point in future. The present movement no doubt opens up opportunities to mobilise support systems that may eventually percolate down to small cities, semi-urban areas and encourage women to come forward and register their complaints.
Will the findings of the National family Health Survey at some point change, is a question. In its Survey 4 (2015-16), it was found that 4.4 lakh adolescent girls were victims of sexual violence in the year preceding the survey and that 35 per cent of them neither sought help nor told anybody while just 0.1 per cent reported the violence to police. The study further pointed out that non-marital sexual violence has been a “pervasive concern” affecting far greater number of women and adolescent girls than reported cases suggest. Distressing to say the least, but with awareness growing the situation may change.
Society has been witnessing change. Women are being bestowed with property rights, right to protest against ill-treatment by husbands and lately allowed to enter temples. Many such developments are indicative that all-round gender equality is very much on the radar. But mindsets too need to change, specially of men and actions must overtake words. A sustained campaign is necessary. MeToo is only a beginning. – INFA