Is it really #TimesUp in India? Not yet, more needs to change

The #MeToo movement got momentum as women came out against prominent writers, media personalities and journalists in a flurry of tweets. Technology became an enabler and empowered women

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Nitasha Devasar

All of us read about the Bihar school girls who got beaten up for objecting to ‘routine sexual harassment’ by a bunch of boys passing by their school. What was new was that the girls were emboldened to object and had gotten together to do so. What wasn’t was the outcome, but more on that later.

Important though this moment is in our own the #TimesUp movement it was almost obscured by the floodgates of #MeToo opened by yesteryears starlet Tanushree Dutta. A few days after her renewal of sexual harassment charges against co-actor Nana Patekar, it seemed as if things would go the usual way: a lot of noise and heat by both parties, belligerent posturing by the accused fuelled by eyeball value of 24x7 TV, a defamation case against the accuser and a lot of side talk of ‘nutty and slutty’ behaviour against her.

Not this time! #MeToo was making its presence felt in India and like elsewhere it started with Bollywood. Other actresses supported the charges of complicity and sexually predatory behaviour by not just the actor but the film-maker and others on the set. The movement got momentum as other women came out against prominent writers, media personalities and journalists in a flurry of tweets. Technology became an enabler and empowered women. As evidence spewed forth, it also became an equaliser as the balance of power tilted and it did so quickly.

Most arrogant denials and aggressive comebacks have gone as also the foggy memories and fake bewilderment, that would have been the ‘normal’ reaction not so long ago. No one questioned the morals, behaviour or sanity of the women complaining. Not one ‘boys will be boys’ remark or alcohol and time-induced amnesia.

Is our world really changing and so quickly? Let’s look at where it all started. Bill Cosby has been indicted and jailed in the US. To think those cute kids and their cuter daddy, the family, we watched on many Sundays of my childhood were covering a hideous truth of sexual predation makes me feel both anger and sorrow at the loss of innocence, both for the young actors and my younger self. Weinstein’s future still hangs on balance, but many senators and wannabe politicians have stepped back from the political race. Brett Kavanaugh, however, just got elected to the US supreme court by an overwhelming majority and Trump continues to strut.

Closer home SK Pachauri of TERI has been indicted recently. In India, the law has worked towards protecting women in the workplace ever since the Vishaka guidelines of the late 1990s. The more recent POSH alongside moves towards enhanced maternity leave and an enabling work-environment for new mothers and diversity in company boards mandated by the Companies’ Act. These are all moves made to make the workplace more women-friendly and safe.

As we all know the law alone, even when people decide to take recourse to it, cannot make a difference. How it is implemented, in letter and in spirit, is equally important. In most cases that become public, POSH committees were unable or unwilling to do their jobs. Many felt that speaking out was hurting them more. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests companies are wary of hiring women of childbearing age and men have started protesting that they fear being with women alone, in normal work situations like travel, closed-door meetings or mentoring and buddy roles. All this to the detriment of the careers of ambitious young women.

So, has the pendulum swung too far? Is social media playing jury and judge, condemning men in the ‘grey zone’ when no court of law has done so? “What about us?” say many young men in the women-led organisation I work in. “We have to be careful what we say, how we respond to women colleagues and keep our distance! Even innocent remarks, jokes or gestures can cause us serious trouble!” “Now you know how we feel,” respond their female colleagues, “every minute and in all situations!”

That men in the workplace are beginning to be careful of words and gestures is a good thing. They are conscious for the first time of the presence of women colleagues (even in a minority), in professional settings, to immediately paraphrase or apologise for the sexist joke or off-key remark, that still slip in as old habits and socialised behaviours die hard. That they are a little worried and a little self-conscious is a good start.

Real change needs change in behaviours and culture. It is said that social behaviour takes a decade to change

How do we bring real change and make it stick? Getting more women in senior roles is being suggested as a solution. Giving them pay parity will also help the balancing of power. Diversity and inclusion are slowly becoming real workplace agendas as are more robust ways of speaking out, that don’t put the entire onus on the recipients of abuse. Both in and out of the workplace empowering more women is being discussed.

Is this enough? Clearly not. Let’s go back to the young school girls in Bihar who called out unacceptable male behaviour. The boys came back with their parents and with weapons and proceeded to beat them to pulp: all thirty girls were hospitalised, a couple very seriously injured. Their sense of entitlement and entrenched patriarchal mindsets could not take a bunch of school girls telling them off. Women are part of this setup and maybe at some level even more worried that men about giving up the power structures they have lived with for centuries. There were both mothers and fathers in the group that beat up the girls. Similarly, there are more women than men protesting the Supreme Court’s decision to open the doors of the Sabarimala temple in Kerala to all women.

Real change needs change in behaviours and culture. It is said that social behaviour takes a decade to change. #MeToo is just a year old worldwide and even younger in India. The real question is, can this world afford to wait a decade for this change? Or more precisely will women wait a decade for this change?

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