#MeToo: Fashion industry too speaks up

Recently, American model Cameron Russell started #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse, where fellow models could post their experiences of sexual harassment anonymously, it was flooded with posts

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter
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Ananya Sharma

In wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the #MeToo campaign and a general sense of awareness and empowerment among both women and men, more and more people are coming forward to share their own stories of sexual assault and/or harassment. The very act of sexual assault is a well-protected secret in most industries, carefully hidden and made to be forgotten by the top management and PR departments. Before this, harassment stories would take birth in break rooms, cubicles and over e-mails, and were shushed and normalised as soon as they took place.

Although sexual harassment encompasses plural genders and everyone's experiences are valid and important, most women seem to have experienced it in some form or the other, at their workplace, on roadsides, and even at home. The entertainment industry has lately been abuzz with an outpour of allegations against some of the most powerful and influential personalities in the business.

Fashion, a stereotypically 'feminine' industry, is no stranger to similar criminals and predators. The current volatile environment has encouraged models, fashion designers and other players of the industry to come forward with their own stories to be shared.

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter
American model Cameron Russell

Recently, Cameron Russell, an American model and a speaker at TED, started an Instagram series with the hashtag #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse, where she posts anonymous confessions and experiences of fellow models in the industry, who have been victims of sexual abuse of any kind. Within days, she has received several confessions against photographers, designers, agents etc. Although most models choose to remain anonymous, the hashtag has provided a voice and a wide platform of several thousands to those who have been shot down, shamed or denied the right to speak up. The main takeaway from the campaign, however, is that no matter what job one chooses to do, it should not include abuse of any kind.

Fashion magazines, advertisements and fashion shows have long objectified female models as accessories for their male counterparts. This inherently implies that the man in the photograph or on the runway enjoys a degree of power and dominance over the woman. Models have been told to 'manage', 'expect' and 'make adjustments' in cases where they have felt violated.

Cases of sexual harassment aren't limited to models. The workers, tailors, dress makers etc have all been victims of the same. In 2016, reports showed that more than 60 per cent of the women in India working in the garment industry have been subject to sexual assault of some kind. The environment at such garment factories is unregulated and majorly informal. The women workers, who make up more than 2/3rd of the workforce have nowhere to express their complaints or grievances. The environment at their workplace doesn't provide them with the empowerment to stand up for themselves and any such 'rebellion' leads to termination. One such factory supervisor in Bengaluru has been blamed for giving the workers unwanted sexual attention, forcing them to watch pornography, and punching, choking and burning the employees.

Photo courtsey: social media
Photo courtsey: social media
A photo from controversial  series of photographs titled The Wrong Turn

In 2014, Indian photographer Raj Shetye published a series of photographs in a spread, very unfortunately named as the Wrong Turn, that showed the model being held down, groped, kissed against her will in a bus. The spread was clearly taking inspiration from the Nirbhaya event from 2012.

The photographer as well as the entire project received major backlash across social media from Women's rights activists and normal people alike. Right from the naming of the spread all the way to the finished products, the entire project was an offensive failure. Shetye tried to redeem himself by clarifying that the images were not inspired by Nirbhaya and were meant to spread awareness about the reality of our society. However, all his attempts backfired, since even Nirbhaya's parents contemplated suing the photographer.

The fashion industry, too, has loopholes within itself which contribute towards sexual violation, directly, or indirectly. People have also blamed fashion for being a promoter of ‘rape culture’ and objectification. Although the debate for and against the fashion industry and what it stands for will continue for a while, both negative and positive experiences of men and women cannot be ignored. Just because people are only speaking up against injustices now doesn't mean that they haven't been going on for long. Like every other industry today, fashion has also been partaking in abuse since decades, and a lot of what the industry puts out can be seen or interpreted as offensive. The current scenario, however, is successfully providing a voice as well as comfort to victims and punishing those who indulge in such activities.

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