By Kahini Iyer Oct. 30, 2018
Louis CK and Aziz Ansari returned to the public eye after a self-prescribed sabbatical. A society that welcomes harassers back after a short time-out ensures that they are shielded from meaningful consequences. Will that happen with the predators India’s #MeToo has exposed?
ver the past month of #MeToo, women have rejoiced to see some repercussions, however minimal, being meted out to harassers. Renowned editor and former junior minister MJ Akbar resigned from his post following numerous allegations against him, although he is yet to be expelled from the BJP. Author Suhel Seth, whose harassment was actually caught on video, had his consultancy contract with Tata and Sons terminated yesterday. And today, a prominent filmmaker, accused of assaulting a colleague, was reportedly booted off the post-production of his film. Dozens of important men have been ousted from the positions of power that enabled their abuse.
While there have not been any criminal convictions yet, and those, like actors Alok Nath and Nana Patekar, who face FIRs have countered with denials and defamation suits, this nevertheless feels like a promising turn of events. Has #MeToo created a climate where the trauma of victims of harassment are finally being taken seriously? Have we come to a breaking point, with the fuel of a hundred heart-wrenching stories of abuse that have, for now, managed to capture public consciousness? When the furore dies down, will the predators come out to play with impunity once more?
Looking to the US, whose #MeToo movement kicked off about a year before the Indian wave with the exposé of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, might provide us a glimpse into the future of our own cabal of predators. Weinstein himself has recently returned from his self-imposed exile in Arizona to fight a sexual misconduct case that, according the Guardian, is unlikely to result in conviction – despite the allegations levelled against him by more than 80 women.
And Weinstein is not the only man who has decided that shame and public absence is sufficient punishment for his crimes. A recent tweet by the Oxford Dictionary caught on to the term “shame-leave”, used by the New Yorker’s food correspondent Helen Rosner, to describe an Eater report about a Californian chef-cum-restaurateur who returned to work after being accused of sexual harassment. The chef brought with him a plan that included therapy for himself, an all-women advisory board, and a monthly dunk tank, presumably for his employees to express their frustration and anger at him in lieu of legal recourse.
Here in India, the ludicrously inadequate concept of shame-leave is already starting to sound familiar. Co-founder of talent agency Kwan Entertainment, Anirban Blah, was accused by four women of casting couch policies and harassment, after which he was removed from his position. However, a WhatsApp message circulated around the organisation apparently said that he would secretly continue his work. Yet, Blah’s shame allegedly drove him to contemplate suicide. He is now undergoing therapy in Bangalore – just as Weinstein did in Arizona, before presumably returning to belittle and degrade his accusers in a courtroom spectacle.
Then there is the grandaddy of shame-leave, Tehelka founder Tarun Tejpal. After being accused by an employee of repeated sexual molestation back in 2013, Tejpal, in an email to his Tehelka second-in-command Shoma Chaudhary, dramatically proclaimed: “I must do the penance that lacerates me.” Was Tejpal suggesting that he’d face criminal proceedings, or give up his organisation? Of course not. True to the tenets of shame-leave, his so-called penance involved recusing himself from his editorial office for six months (though he was later arrested and is currently out on bail).
There are droves of men whose crimes have not been corroborated by CCTV footage, as Tejpal’s were. There is comedian Louis CK, who decided his shame-leave had gone on long enough when he sprung his performance on an unsuspecting New York Aziz Ansari similarly dropped off the map, only to return with a set that pointedly targeted “wokeness”.
Unfortunately for the men accused, the medieval punishment of public shame-leave is no longer going to cut it.
Unfortunately for the men accused, the medieval punishment of public shame-leave is no longer going to cut it. No amount of therapy and self-improvement will undo the damage done to their victims, many of whom are left desperately in need of the very same therapy. Even as the cases against Akbar, Nath, and Patekar, continue to illustrate why conviction rates for sex crimes are abysmal – because a society that welcomes harassers back after a sabbatical ensures that they are shielded from meaningful consequences.
If #MeToo is to have an impact beyond its first outpouring of righteous fury, then shame-leave can never be acceptable atonement. By passing the responsibility for punishment to the accused, we are not only refusing to take it on ourselves. We are also failing to do the one thing that the voices of #MeToo have been clamouring for: To acknowledge they are every bit as important as the powerful men they accuse.