#MeToo: lessons for India 

The #MeToo campaign represents in a perverse sort of way a coming of age for the Indian society. But it should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of its western counterpart

#MeToo: lessons for India 
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Hasan Suroor

The #MeToo movement has been late in coming to India but it’s good to see it arrive finally. And with such a bang too. But it should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of its western counterpart. That also started with a bang but—a year on—is struggling to contain growing tensions and to prevent it from descending into a ‘civil’ war between “old” feminists and younger women who are mainly driving the #MeToo. On its first anniversary this week, it has lessons to offer to India’s nascent campaign.

While its aims have been universally applauded, its strategy has been questioned by some very prominent feminists like British academic Germaine Greer, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood and French actress Catherine Deneuve, among others. They believe the way the movement has often worked has strained its credibility. They have in turn been portrayed by #MeToo activists as being part of the problem and accused of allowing a culture of silence to flourish by not speaking out when they faced sexual harassment in their time. They have been called patronising and advised to shut up.

“One of the most important feminist voices of our time shits on less powerful women to uphold the power of her powerful male friend,” wrote one activist on Twitter after Atwood’s censure.

The main criticism of #MeToo is its tendency to conflate casual sexism with sexual misconduct and making no distinction between a “leery” smile and serious sexual abuse. Questions have also been raised over raking up “historical” claims in the absence of sufficient evidence to back them which risks tarnishing the reputation of the accused without delivering justice to the victim. The way the Brett Kavanaugh case was handled in the US has come in for criticism from many feminists who believe Professor Christine Blasey Ford was effectively hung out to dry by over-enthusiastic campaigners given her hazy recall of crucial events.

“One of the most valuable aspects of the #MeToo movement has been the sharing of experiences. But let’s be honest. I can’t bring charges against my tormentors all these years on and expect justice, either for them or me. If you are blurry on the essential details of ‘who, what, where and when’, as Christine Blasey Ford found to her cost against Brett Kavanaugh, now confirmed as a US Supreme Court judge, your evidence will be ripped apart,” wrote The Sunday Times’ columnist Sarah Baxter.

Despite still widespread misogyny and old-fashioned patriarchal chauvinism, the Indian society, as a whole, has become more sensitive to the issue of violence against women

I’m concerned that similar tensions have started to emerge in India’s #MeToo initiative with some older women facing flak from younger activists on social media. Seema Mustafa has been attacked for calling the movement a bit too elitist and urban-oriented. These could be teething issues but must be addressed to avoid damaging the movement in the long run.

Meanwhile, thumbs up to #MeToo. It testifies to a new confidence among Indian women that they’re now not afraid to name and shame their tormentors without looking over their shoulders. Not only that. They are rightly demanding to be heard and given justice. As several women who have now come out have explained, they didn’t speak up earlier because they were worried others might blame them for “bringing it upon themselves”. “We were held back by a mixture of shame and guilt,” Sandhya Menon, who triggered the campaign, told NDTV. And those who did speak up were dismissed as troublemakers and sought to be silenced with career-threatening warnings. That fear of the boys’ network has diminished if not vanished completely. But the #MeToo’s belated debut in India also shows that despite still widespread misogyny and old-fashioned patriarchal chauvinism, the Indian society as a whole has become more sensitive to the issue of violence against women, especially sexual harassment at work. Even if for no other reason than that there are now more women in work and from all strata of society giving more families a stake in women safety.

In other words, what was once a remote issue for most Indian families (it was something that happened to someone else’s wife or daughter or sister) has become personal. More fathers, husbands and brothers now see it as something that could affect their own womenfolk. And then of course the media has played a big role in creating awareness by highlighting cases of sexual harassment. So, there’s progress of sorts and even though the levels of sexism and misogyny remain shamefully high, the arrival of the #MeToo campaign represents in a perverse sort of way a coming of age for the Indian society.

It has released years of suppressed fury and over the past week we have heard some harrowing accounts of how vulnerable young girls were targeted by powerful bosses, including in the media and politics. And there must be many more women who have still not spoken. Hopefully, some might still come out but we will never know the true scale of the problem. Even in the West, nobody knows how many Harvey Weinstein's are still roaming around free. And they are every woman and every family’s nightmare. Which makes the #MeToo all the more important but minus the aberrations.

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