By Kahini Iyer Nov. 25, 2019
Over a year after India’s #MeToo movement, we’re finally confronting the complexities of consent. It’s the misconceptions surrounding it — that if a woman consents once, she is always “available” — that seem to dissuade women from publicly acknowledging that they might have consented to some part of an exchange.
In 2018, Gautam Gambhir’s greatest fear was captaining the Delhi Daredevils to yet another embarrassing bottom-of-the-table performance. Today, it’s jalebis. A lot can happen in a year, and the eventful close of the 2010s, replete with climate disasters, economic freefall, and a Himesh Reshammiya comeback, has spared no one. Yet despite all these changes — maybe because of them — one thing has remained the same: Our collective ability to forget.
Nothing has proven this phenomenon like the fallout from India’s #MeToo revelations, whose first anniversary has just passed. The movement saw scores of men, mostly in the fields of entertainment and media, named as serial abusers who took advantage of their positions of power. In the throes of this catharsis, it seemed as if we were coming to terms with a new understanding of consent — one that doesn’t rely solely on legal definitions but takes into account how victims are made to feel.
Still, even this months-long process of prying open the floodgates of silence was quickly forgotten a year later. Many dismissed the movement as an American import being “misused” by Indian women who had different, albeit impractical, interpretations of consent. Just the previous year, a rape charge against a former news anchor and filmmaker was overturned when the court ruled that a “feeble no” could imply a “yes.” Naturally, most of the alleged harassers were never charged and continue working in the same high-up positions that they were accused of exploiting. A few have crept back into public life after a brief sabbatical. And others, like comedian Utsav Chakraborty, have returned to social media organising their own redemption tour.
After several women accused Chakraborty of harassment on Twitter last year, All India Bakchod, the now-defunct comedy group where Chakraborty used to work, put out a statement acknowledging that they knew about his misconduct and covered it up. Chakraborty himself tweeted out an apologetic confession (which has since been deleted, and is documented here.) A year after he posted this detailed admission of guilt, it seems he, like those who now support him, has forgotten all about it. Instead, the comedian has returned to Twitter to prove his innocence, sharing an audio recording where he was threatened with defamation and insisting that many women blindly believed the harassment allegations to appease a social media in-group.
Young, urban Indian women have to deal with a patriarchal world that challenges any woman who acknowledges her sexual desires.
In making his case, Chakraborty pointed out one accuser who had misremembered a conversation with him and made false claims as a result. Another woman had been part of an Instagram sexting exchange that showed only his messages, not the responses from her at the other end. The one-sided conversation paints Chakraborty as a persistent sex pest who wouldn’t stop demanding nudes. The woman in question confessed that she deleted her messages because she was too ashamed to share them with her ex-boyfriend. The comedian claimed that he and the woman were sexting consensually, even though that barely changed the fact that he wouldn’t stop demanding nudes.
It’s not the first time that forgetfulness as an accusation against women calling out their harassers has wormed its way into the #MeToo movement. Victims are routinely grilled for not remembering minute details of traumatic incidents even as men like Chakraborty can conveniently forget their own statements.
What’s most dangerous though, is how a few details are now being used to delegitimise an entire movement. Chakraborty’s counter-claims have played into the hands of detractors eager to throw the baby out with the bathwater, demonising the #MeToo movement as a weapon wielded by angry, westernised women who’d go to any lengths for social media clout.
Obviously, those waiting for an excuse to pounce on India’s #MeToo have already missed the point. But even a broken clock is right twice a day, and if the chaos around Chakraborty should teach us anything, it’s that our version of #MeToo is not the same as its American counterpart. After all, how many American women would be as reluctant to show they were sexting as the woman who deleted her side of the conversation with Chakraborty?
A man’s violation of consent is considered less problematic than a woman daring to give consent in India.
In India, the #MeToo conversation has largely been dominated by young, urban women who are pretty comfortable with sex and their sexuality. They engage in casual sex, talk about sex, and unlike the popular stereotype of the coy Indian woman, give their consent freely. Yet, they still lead double lives – they still have to deal with a patriarchal world that has multiple challenges for any woman who acknowledges her sexual desires. Besides the everyday judgements and stigma that such “loose” women face, there are the misconceptions surrounding consent: That if a woman consents once she is always “available” or as Chakraborty said, if one woman consents they are all available.
From pop culture to policy, a man’s violation of consent is considered less problematic than a woman daring to give consent in India. For all the discussions that #MeToo has precipitated, one is glaringly absent: Consent, like drinking and wearing mini-skirts, is still a secret shame, something that takes place behind closed doors. Should we be surprised when young women, caught in this dichotomy of being sexually liberated in a country that refuses to recognise them, insulate themselves from the consequences by deception in public? What this case does is bring up more questions: Has our understanding of the complexities of consent really evolved if women are still made to feel uncomfortable about telling the world about it? And, more importantly, how effective can a movement that speaks truth to power be in such a culture, which necessitates this closed-door policy?
As this past year has shown, it’s easy enough to dismiss these questions and forget about all the ethically awkward bits of #MeToo that can’t be crammed into our neat narratives of consent, victims, and perpetrators. But then, whether we’re talking democracy or Chinese food, everything is messier in India. It’s not enough to hang our understanding of consent on the simple routes of “he said, she said” — not when so many Indian women are comfortable giving consent, but so few are able to admit that they have.
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.