How Powerful Men Intimidate Women When their Hallowed Reputation is Under Threat


How Powerful Men Intimidate Women When their Hallowed Reputation is Under Threat

Illustration: Akshita Monga

When the #MeToo movement gathered steam, men who had belatedly been called to the altar of justice by women’s testimonies on social media, used the hand that called them there – the law – to suffocate voices against them. Whether you stand by it or not, the law isn’t always the lubricant, as it can also function as the coarse instrument that intimidates and harasses the very people seeking refuge under it. We saw it coming from a mile.

MJ Akbar, former Minister of State for External Affairs and editor, and TV actor Alok Nath both filed defamation lawsuits against women who claim to be victims of their predatory actions. The verdict of Akbar’s case against journalist Priya Ramani is expected today. In what is a sign of guilt, rather than a strong defence, men in power have therefore chosen to intimidate, rather than offer earnest accounts or humble, face-saving apologies. All of it to save the magisterial myth at the centre of all patriarchal societies – the male reputation.

Once again, the accounts of suffering from several women are dwarfed by the need to preserve the stature of men.

Not too long ago veteran director Raju Hirani offered the most elaborate PR band-aid conceived in history, to glue his actor buddy Sanjay Dutt’s reputation back together. More than evidence of friendship between the two, the film, the sheer scale and motivation behind it suggest of an idea, bigger than Dutt himself – the reputation of men. Male reputation is an artifice of sorts, its command so emphatic it rules by metaphor and history rather than actuality. Since most positions of power in any walks of life are held by men, it is natural they consider a finger pointed at one, as a question asked of the collective. That MJ Akbar, who is neither a mass entity nor a political unicorn by any stretch of the imagination wants people to believe allegations against him are politically motivated, is nothing but bemusing. Alok Nath on the other hand, has a solid Babuji reputation to protect, because let us be honest, there is nothing more to his legacy than that. In 2019, a Mumbai court said the rape case against Nath filed by Vinita Nanda was “registered on the basis of patently defamatory, false, malicious, derogatory and imaginary report” only because the complaint could not remember the date and month of the alleged crime that took place 19 years ago.

The likes of Akbar and Nath have enough muscle to force the majority of their accusers into submission.

To understand male reputation as different from a woman’s one only needs to look at the way the life of a Sunny Leone is approached as compared to a Sanjay Dutt. Leone’s career choices are a bone of contention, publicly dissected, fair game for TV reporters to use as instruments of shaming and insult, while Dutt’s life choices and conviction as a criminal are whispered around until they become agents in cultivating a mythology of victimhood and gullibility.

As a matter of recourse Leone can only be earnest about the path she has taken, so she isn’t laughed at. But someone like Dutt, a man of so much power and public sway, has to absurdly offer himself up as a docile bovine, led by the nose into misdeeds he had no active part to play in, and come out stronger for it.

To their credit, a number of men who have apologised after allegations surfaced against them can be lauded for at least having the decency to do so. Because on the other hand, powerful men have chosen to pick up the axe, cut all corners and further isolate themselves from a conversation we must have. Rather than give into a constructive movement that can only help ensure safer workplaces for both men and women of the future, men of power have chosen to obliterate this opportunity entirely. All so the ruins of their reputation don’t become the foundation of something better – because how can men live on without the myth of their morality? How can men not show one hand, but deal the other, convince the world only male nobility, its purest pastures are the place where the seeds of a better life will grow?

The likes of Akbar and Nath have enough muscle to force the majority of their accusers into submission. It is likely they will drown serious questions in the noise of legal lingo, and eventually cost the woman who outed them much more than they anticipated, and feared in the first place. That, unfortunately, is reality, the ironically regressive cycle of history repeating itself.

Defamation is just another form of offence, a growling denial of culpability. At any level, it is the furthering of what is already central to the debate around gender issues – institutional oppression and harassment. In a just world both Akbar and Nath would undergo natural trials, and if honest, come out clean on the other side; the world better for it. But what does this act of aggressive sidestepping, further harassment suggest? That men will go to any length to protect the myths they have lived by and as. The myth after all, is the greater of the two lies.