Students celebrating International Women's Day. Kolkata, 2017. Photo: Saikat Paul/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.
This year, I've been a part of the Me Too revival in India, having joined countless other women in naming and shaming our abusers.
Like many Indian feminists, I've found the past few months exhilarating. Our gutsy movement might finally rewrite entrenched patriarchal norms, at least in workplaces. A government minister resigned, a Bollywood production house shut down, senior newspaper editors stepped down, a millionaire casting director was sacked, academics were let go from universities – and the list of major impacts continues with fresh allegations still unfolding.
Attempts in 2017 to ignite a Me Too movement in India were nowhere near as effective. These began in October 2017, shortly after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in the US, and scores of women drew attention to the scale of sexual abuse with #MeToo posts on social media. That month, an Indian law student at the University of California Davis, released a list on Facebook with names of senior academics accused of sexual harassment.
The LoSHA list
Raya Sarkar’s LoSHA (List of Sexual Harassers in Academia, as it came to be known on Twitter) left many feminists uncomfortable, including myself.
It was a crowd-sourced list – an open Google spreadsheet, which could be edited by anyone with the link. It named perpetrators in one column and survivors in another, but in almost all cases it lacked details of specific allegations. In principle, its open-access structure also meant that anyone could add a survivor’s name to the list, even without their consent.
Not only did the alleged perpetrators not face any legal actions or university sanctions, some of the renowned academics named on the list even garnered sympathy: it was seen to violate their rights to due process. The Me Too movement in India failed to gain traction and eventually dissipated.
What’s different this year? Many feminists have contended that Me Too allegations by Indian women weren’t taken seriously by the press or the public in 2017 because Dalit women, like Sarkar, led the campaigns. In contrast, women steering the 2018 movement are from influential castes.
Dalits are historically oppressed castes. A Dalit woman who names her abuser is more likely to face social ostracisation, disbelief and stigma. But Sarkar’s 2017 LoSHA was vital. It laid the groundwork for this year’s advances. For many of us who outed perpetrators of abuse and harassment in 2018, it showed us precisely the landmines to steer clear of.
“It showed us precisely the landmines to steer clear of”
This year’s movement began in September, when a Bollywood actor alleged that a senior male colleague had sexually harassed her in 2008. Soon after, allegations of abuse surfaced among well-known stand-up comedians.
The first few women who named perpetrators on social media were inundated with private messages from other women detailing their own experiences of harassment and assault. Some remained anonymous; others wanted their stories to be public. The women receiving these waves of allegations became ‘gatekeepers’ for the Me Too revival.
This is a crucial cog that was missing in 2017’s LoSHA campaign. This loose collective of gatekeepers spend time talking to survivors and learning more details of the time, place and nature of abuse before outing perpetrators. They ensure that survivors are not re-traumatised, but that their stories have enough details that other people can corroborate them.
Producer Vinta Nanda at a press conference discussing Me Too. Mumbai, 2018. Photo: Hindustan Times/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
This time, the only Google spreadsheet is a list of lawyers and mental health professionals who have volunteered time and services to support survivors.
Another crucial difference in the ‘second wave’ of this movement is the larger number of women who have mustered-up the courage to name their abusers and harassers. Thanks to Sarkar’s work last year, the burden of stigma had already started to shift onto perpetrators. The first disruption was necessary for the second to make strides forward. LoSHA loosened the lid of the bottle.
“This time, the only Google spreadsheet is a list of lawyers and mental health professionals who volunteered to support survivors”
In October 2018, Mobashar Jawed Akbar, a former leading newspaper editor, resigned from his post as a junior foreign minister after 27 women accused him of sexual harassment. More than half of these women were not anonymous. (Akbar denied all allegations and filed an ongoing defamation case against the first woman to accuse him).
More women are outing perpetrators online, but the Me Too movement in India is also pursuing court cases and knocking on the doors of Internal Complaints Committees at their workplaces. More than 20 women have also pledged to testify in court against Akbar, for example.
The 2017 LoSHA list was criticised for not following “due process” regarding alleged perpetrators. But this “due process” emphasis is also insufficient, too narrowly defining what justice looks like for survivors, and incorrectly assuming it means the same thing for all women. This year, many survivors have come forward about their experiences explicitly stating that they do not want to pursue legal cases. Some only want an apology, or their jobs back.
The POSH Act
In 2013, India’s parliament passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, also known as the POSH Act. But its implementation has been negligible. The Me Too movement’s current wave has pushed from its start for this to change – via Twitter and public statements, letters and petitions to government authorities.
In response, on 24 October the government convened a group of ministers, headed by home minister Rajnath Singh, to examine legal and institutional frameworks for dealing with workplace sexual harassment. The National Commission for Women also reached out to several women on Twitter and accepted their petitions, promising to take action.
This may be nothing more than lip-service. But recent supreme court verdicts decriminalising homosexuality and allowing menstruating women into shrines suggest those in power are finally taking gender equality seriously. Though there are still many pressing questions.
Many of the men who have been accused of harassment or assault in both waves of the Me Too movement in India are powerful, yet supposedly progressive, figures the media industry. What made these ‘liberal’ men ignore the basic principle of consent in their own workplaces?
“What made ‘liberal’ men ignore the basic principle of consent in their own workplaces?”
For decades, the veteran broadcast journalist and editor Vinod Dua has criticised religious inequality, caste-based discrimination and undemocratic processes in India. He too has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment. He has denied all charges.
Criticising government politics or social norms was easier for these men than looking critically at their own behavior, practices and thoughts. These men were not taught how not to be abusive, while women were told to be always on guard. These men could transgress accepted social boundaries, while women had to tolerate abuse today for the promise of a better tomorrow.
Women’s spaces, whether community spaces or friendship networks, have always had their whisper networks. Me Too campaigns have dared to share these online, using social media to alter the social order. Of course, centuries of entrenched patriarchy cannot be upturned in a month. But this country finally looks ready for a feminist overhaul.