By Kahini Iyer Oct. 23, 2018
Journalist Tavleen Singh has reduced #MeToo to a bunch of well-heeled urban women complaining over a bit of workplace harassment. But it is actually Singh and her ilk’s privilege that has helped them rise above the rampant sexism, which held back so many of their peers. That continues to be an obstacle for younger women.
n the past three weeks, India’s #MeToo movement has sparked a new-found sisterhood among women in the country. Buoyed by the unwavering solidarity and the promise that the voices of survivors will not be stifled, women have come together to challenge powerful predators such as MJ Akbar, Vikas Bahl, Alok Nath, and Anu Malik. Those who have not stepped into the ring, have cheered from the sidelines.
Except this backing hasn’t been unanimous.
Veteran journalists Tavleen Singh, Manjeet Kripalani, and Seema Mustafa are outliers. Publicly criticising the movement, they have labelled it “elitist,” even blaming victims for putting themselves in situations that have led to their harassment. Interestingly, these women have been infinitely kinder to the men – worrying about their fate and wringing their hands over how many brilliant legacies have been tarnished by #MeToo.
Lopsided as these responses might be, they aren’t surprising or new. We are, after all, byproducts of a culture that has allowed men to abuse their power with impunity. But what is disconcerting, is to see this kind of opposition from women journalists – at the prime of their reputation, power, and privilege – who have fought tooth-and-nail to establish their careers in male-dominated newsrooms. It’s a peculiarity that even Barkha Dutt felt compelled to point out in her video letter to the trio: Dutt reminds them that the right to work is not “elitist”, but a fundamental tenet of feminism, condemning the victim-blaming perpetuated by them. Her unequivocal stance remains that the success of All India Bakchod, Suhel Seth, and MJ AKbar, doesn’t absolve them of their alleged crimes.
Yet her rational plea was met with an open letter by Tavleen Singh that only doubled down on the victim-blaming. Like her casual dismissal of #MeToo, Singh’s interpretations of victimhood remained unchanged. “My generation of women fought for our place in the workplace – as your mother did a little before us – not by being victims but by being fighters. Rights are not usually given to victims but those who fight for them,” she claimed. She goes on to ask why a woman who accused Suhel Seth of sexual assault did not immediately give him a “kick in the right place”, and why Akbar’s accusers did not collectively complain to the owner of Asian Age. This, despite several women admitting that they couldn’t risk their jobs and careers, that they froze, or that they reported their stories in vain.
But here’s probably why Singh mistook the “delayed” speaking out of survivors as their weakness. Like Kripalani, Mustafa, and indeed, Dutt herself, Singh hails from the kind of wealth and power that a majority of women can only dream of. Her family lives in the upscale Lutyens’ Delhi, and her residence overlooks Mumbai’s Marine Drive – two of the most expensive and exclusive neighbourhoods in the country. After over 40 years as a journalist, Singh now commands enormous respect, writing editorials for a variety of publications. If she were to kick Suhel Seth in the balls, her bubble of privilege would guarantee that she would, in all likelihood, not be out of a job, in danger of losing the gilded roof over her head, or be an outcast in journalism. It’s why her response makes sense to her, but not to the hundreds of women, negotiating everyday power hierarchies.
And yet, without any sense of irony, Singh reduces #MeToo to a bunch of well-heeled urban women complaining over a “bit of workplace harassment” or taking revenge for some bad dates. She even trivialises their trauma by comparing them to the “truly vulnerable” rural women in India, who face far greater obstacles and even fewer avenues for redressal. It’s this zero-sum mentality that precisely illustrates the misplaced views of many women, who carelessly reject the idea of their seemingly empowered counterparts, demanding further empowerment. Women who are conditioned to respond to inequality only when the weaker sections are at the receiving end.
Like Kriplani, Mustafa, and indeed, Dutt herself, Singh hails from the kind of wealth and power that a majority of women can only dream of.
Probably Singh and her ilk do not realise that it’s their privilege that has helped them rise above the rampant sexism that held back so many of their peers and which continues to be an obstacle for younger women. It has allowed them to – at least on some level – play on their own terms. In fact, their set of struggles may have never included the struggles that women without money and family legacy have had to face. It’s no wonder then that they are unable to comprehend how strength and injustice can coexist for liberal women at workplaces. After all, isn’t it an oxymoron to be a liberated woman and still cry for equality?
But what a lot of older women don’t get is that unlike the women of their generation, equality for today’s women, is no longer a black and white narrative, between empowerment and weakness, victimhood and culpability. Even as Singh insists that today’s women should fight for their rights, she rejects their modes of doing so. As for her claim that rights are not usually given to victims, #MeToo has already begun to change the traditional culture of silence. It has already challenged the regressive idea that rights are to be doled out, first to the privileged, rather than being inviolable for all. And, above all, it refuses to accept that women should have to deal with harassment, rather than expecting better from powerful men. Perhaps it’s time we expected better from powerful women, too.