Why #MeToo Needs to Percolate Down to Middle-Class India

Social Commentary

Why #MeToo Needs to Percolate Down to Middle-Class India

Illustration: Akshita Monga

It’s a season of upheaval. The past few days have seen a parade of skeletons tumbling out of closets, as India’s #MeToo movement, kick-started by actress Tanushree Dutta and stand-up comic and Twitter influencer Mahima Kukreja, has led to the naming of powerful men in influential positions as harassers and abusers. It’s a long, exhausting list of alleged offenders, and the sheer volume of stories that are coming out point to how pervasive the misogyny that enables harassment in workplaces, film sets, and private spaces is.

Utsav Chakraborty, Nana Patekar, Alok Nath, Sajid Khan, Vikas Bahl, MJ Akbar – this is just an incomplete list of of men who have been accused of lewd and inappropriate behaviour. The stories behind each of these cases is different, but one background detail remains uniform: They are all highly successful individuals, operating at the upper echelons of their respective fields. Fields, that are accessible by the top 0.001 per cent of India.

It took a coalition of established Hollywood actresses like Salma Hayek, Rose McGowan, and Asia Argento to speak out against Weinstein for the media to sit up and take notice of his repeated offences. Similarly, in the Indian iteration, it’s taken the bravery of women with reputations to lose, like Priya Ramani, Ghazala Wahab, Ira Trivedi, and Nishtha Jain to draw eyes to a problem that has existed forever.

In journalism, films, and entertainment, the three industries where most of the #MeToo stories are coming from, a purge is under way. Men in these industries are in a state of panic, fretting over their past behaviour, and hopefully re-evaluating their own conduct. Now that women are finally speaking up, the possibility of real change feels almost tangible.

Increasing numbers of women are speaking up, and with each new voice, the net widens.

Now for the bad news. No matter how earth-shaking each of these revelations might seem, the reality is that they are merely a drop in an ocean of misogyny. Up to this point, the Indian #MeToo movement has remained confined to a privileged, well-off section of society, the type of people with at least some of the means to call out their abusers on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. It’s an observation that journalist Tavleen Singh also made in a column for The Indian Express, titled “Why I Am Not Me Too”.

In the column, Singh points out that there are a number of cases of horrific abuse faced by women across the country that receive far less attention than the #MeToo stories coming from liberal, urban circles, before denouncing the whole movement as a “shabby copy” of the American version. According to Singh, a real #MeToo movement would mean the media giving the same attention to horrific instances of abuse from rural India as they did to the Twitter movement, and anything else is a sham.

Well, Singh is entitled to her tone-deaf opinions, but I do not agree. By only focusing on oppressed village women who fall prey to atrocities every day – like the schoolgirls in Bihar who were physically assaulted for confronting their harassers, or the girl in Rajasthan who was gang-raped for marrying against her family’s wishes – Singh is missing the point. Of course these women do not possess the same means as the educated journalists and authors leading the Indian #MeToo movement at present, but an equally important aspect is that growing up in an environment which sets different standards for women and men combined with thousands of years of patriarchy ensures that most women chose to remain silent about the violations they faced.

Singh’s grouse, that #MeToo is a movement contained to a privileged section of society, is not the fault of the women coming forward. Scroll.in carried a report last week about how sexual harassment, abuse of power, and misogyny were even more prevalent in the Hindi-language media, but women journalists in the industry were keeping silent for fear of reprisals. An open letter by journalists at Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper run by rural women, emphasises the consequences. Speaking about their everyday struggles – “of battling sleaze and abuse”, the journalists write, “We feel relief that there is a platform and a movement that promises to expose the abuse that keeps us tied down, under the control of a powerful structure. But there is a dark place in our minds where this relief refuses to reach – those of us who continue to fight, or those who have been defeated. The memory of a friend and colleague, a single woman trying to make it in the world of small-town journalism, and who was pushed into despair and a lonely death, only earlier this year, with no resonating cries off or online.”

Clearly, India’s #MeToo movement currently is limited in its scope. However, it’s still a start. It’s the first crack in the walls of the glass house that abusers have been comfortably living in for years. It’s no “shabby copy” of a foreign trend, it’s a roaring declaration of intent. Increasing numbers of women are speaking up, and with each new voice, the net widens.

When the movement was restricted to the comedy and stand-up circuit, one hoped that Bollywood would speak up. Now that the #MeToo wave has hit Bollywood with Alok Nath, Vikas Bahl, Sajid Khan, and Subhash Ghai exposed, it has caught the attention of middle-class and lower-middle class India. It’s pushed our mothers and aunts to think about harassment and abuse.   

The momentum the movement has gathered in such a short time gives hope that it might become more far-reaching in its scope, and soon provide a platform for the Everywoman to call out her predator. Let’s hope it percolates to women most vulnerable to violence – domestic workers, women in our villages, women from low-income groups.

And let’s not forget that #MeToo was started as a grassroots movement by African-American activist Tarana Burke to reach out to underprivileged women. To quote Burke #MeToo is about “using the power of empathy to stomp out shame.”

For those whose depredations have remained under the radar, it might not be #TimesUp, but the clock is definitely ticking.