#MeToo: A turning point but a word of caution

The movement can get undermined if credence is given to unsubstantiated rumours and third-hand accounts of sexual victimisation. When it comes to #MeToo, one can’t be too careful

#MeToo: A turning point but a word of caution
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Shuma Raha

In the last one week, we have seen the conversation on sexual harassment in the workplace being placed front and centre in the national discourse. There has been an avalanche of exposes by women in the media and entertainment industries who have used social media to call out men who abused their power to prey upon them. It’s being hailed as India’s #MeToo moment — that cultural inflection point when woman after woman breaks her silence and outs a powerful man who subjected her to sexual harassment and exploitation because he felt his position entitled him to do so. The roll call of men who have been named and shamed as sexual predators is overwhelming and growing. Well known editors, writers, actors, film directors, stand-up comedians — each day throws up a fresh name, a fresh instance of a powerful man who committed an act of sexual misconduct and behaved in a grossly unacceptable way.

Now institutions are scrambling to initiate action against them. Tanushree Dutta, who had charged fellow actor Nana Patekar with harassing her on the sets of Horn Ok Please 10 years ago and saw her complaint dissed as fake and frivolous, has filed a fresh FIR. It is likely that she will be heard this time round. In the current climate, the cosy boys’ clubs that protect their own are no longer looking quite so invincible.

What unleashed this tidal wave of revelations? Well, it was waiting to happen. For decades, women have been failed by their workplaces. In a toxic mix of complicity and apathy, too many complaints of sexual harassment have gone unaddressed. By and large, women have either endured harassment in silence, or been slighted and hounded if they chose to speak up.

Today, a new generation of women, weaponised by social media and unafraid to speak out, is leading the charge against the culture of male entitlement that permeates workplaces and normalises sexual misconduct on the part of men. What these women are saying loud and clear is that the alleged offenders must be held accountable for their actions.

In many cases this is exactly what is happening. This week some editors accused of harassment have stepped down from their posts pending in-house enquiry into the charges against them. Comedy collective AIB members who face similar charges have been benched, and the production of film director Vikas Bahl, accused of assaulting a female employee, has been disbanded. Though just a week-old, India’s #MeToo is already counting some significant victories.

#MeToo is all about the power dynamic, the power of one — usually the man — over another — usually the woman. There are grey areas in certain cases and not recognising that could give a free pass to wild allegations as well

As a woman, it is exhilarating to watch all this play out. It is gratifying to see well known sexual predators getting their comeuppance. However, while one celebrates the fact that the silence around sexual violence in the workplace has finally been shattered, there is some need for caution. In the frenzy to expose wrongdoers, let us not forget that there is a distinction, however blurry, between harassment or assault and creepy, uncomfortable interactions with men who were trying their luck.

#MeToo is all about the power dynamic, the power of one — usually the man — over another — usually the woman. Hence, whether or not unwelcome sexual banter that you are at liberty to walk away from, or a man (who is not your boss) who chats you up without your explicit consent, should really be bundled with more substantive cases of harassment and/or assault is moot. There are grey areas in certain cases and not recognising that could give a free pass to wild allegations as well. Some have argued that only the woman has the right to decide if a particular experience constitutes harassment. They may be right. However, if we muddle the apparently non-threatening situations with those that are unquestionably so, we run the risk of diluting the #MeToo movement.

Similarly, the movement gets undermined if we give credence to unsubstantiated rumours and third-hand accounts of sexual victimisation by this editor or that performer. When it comes to #MeToo, you can’t be too careful — neither about the accusations nor about investigating them as thoroughly as possible.

(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author)

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