There is no doubt that the #MeToo movement has become quite potent in India. It has already cost the job of a high profile member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s council of ministers. It has put serious question marks on many celebrated actors, artists and journalists in the country. Now there are fears that the movement will trap leading political leaders. It has really succeeding in directing much needed public attention to the issue of sexual harassment of women in the work places and other spheres of public activities. And that is welcome.
However, the question is how long MeToo will dominate the news. This question is arising because of the way the news is presented, analysed and commented on and the way the movement is heading. If the real problem is sexism in the work place in general, then why has the news coverage been highly episodic, focusing on individual high-profile cases of sexism, rather than thematic and spotlighting broader trends in sexual harassment and assault throughout the society? After all, for every high-profile male sexual abuser in Bollywood, newsrooms, political or ministerial offices, there are countless harassers, misogynists, and sexual predators at work in business empires, in the mid-to-lower levels of government, and in other occupational and institutional settings.
Secondly, it is a corollary of the first question, is the MeToo’s way the best way of fighting the menace? After all, in all the cases that have been highlighted through MeToo campaign, the crimes occurred years ago. The standard answer of the victims is that they were too weak then against the powerful abusing bosses and seniors, particularly when they were beginning their careers and badly in need of a job. I have full sympathy with these victims, but I will reserve my respect for the girl, the junior reporter of the Tehelka magazine, who did not wait even a single day to fight against her predator editor Tarun Tejpal few years ago. I know her ailing father. She needed the job really badly then. But she was prepared to sacrifice that for her honour; she did not wait even a day to go to the police and press, unlike the MeToo accusers who compromised and worked with their oppressors for months and years together. I salute that Tehlka reporter.
Thirdly, is MeToo only about sexual victims and their predators or there are ulterior motives to target the bigger personalities and institutions? In other words, is MeToo aimed more at political rather than social goals?
I will not attempt in this essay specific answers to each of the above questions. Paragraphs below will broadly reflect what lies beyond the MeToo movement, particularly the way it is being run; answers will come along, in the process.
To begin with, the movement surfaced (resurfaced?) in India only after it raised a storm last month in the United States over the appointment of Justice Bret Kavanaugh, who was sworn in as Associate Justice in the US Supreme Court after a really dirty confirmation process in the US Senate. There were contrasting narratives – one from Psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford and one from Justice Kavanaugh. Apparently, both of them were school mates and at a party 36 years ago the former says that she was sexually abused by the latter. Obviously, the preliminary FBI, as mandated by the senate following the eruption of the controversy, could not establish the truth of a 36-year-old accusation that led to a series of “Me Too” episodes, including some in India now. Why did the victim come public after 36 years? Why did not she raise her voice when Justice Kavanaugh became a federal judge many years back or when he was White House Staff Secretary under President George W Bush? However, the Democrats seized upon the opportunity and literally arranged mobs to harass the Republican Senators so as to reject Justice Kavanaugh’s nomination. And the full might of the mainstream “liberal media” such as New York Times was there to back them up, even after they failed in stalling Justice Kavanaugh’s upward journey.
As I had argued in this publication last time, the campaign against Justice Kavanaugh was also aimed at the nature of the overall composition of the US Supreme Court (One Chief Justice and 8 Associate Justices). It was contended that Justice Kavanaugh, if confirmed by the Senate, was to become part of a five-justice conservative bloc that would swiftly roll back decades of “progressive” jurisprudence. His confirmation then would be a major victory for the Republican Party and its leader, Donald Trump, who will soon succeed in entrenching GOP control over the court for at least a generation. Just see the dangers inherent in this logic. Supreme Court and the American constitution are safe as long as people supported or backed by the Democrats/liberals are in charge. The Conservatives have to accept their superiority. So for decades, it was alright as conservatives lost and lost and lost and lost, but still confirmed the legitimacy of the system. But as soon as the conservatives win, it is a time for a war on the judiciary.
In other words, the campaign against Justice Kavanaugh was as much a fight against his alleged sexual crime years ago as against a Republican President. It is not perhaps a coincidence that the storm over Justice Kavanaugh’s nomination found its echo immediately in India, with some established lady journalists narrating their decades-old stories involving the former minister of state external affairs M J Akbar, one of India’s finest and celebrated editors when he was their boss. That time Akbar was a great”liberal” (he joined BJP only after the rise of the Modi-phenomenon). And it may be a coincidence(though I am not very sure) that most of these “victims” of Akbar and their supporters take pride in the fact that they are “liberal” and ardent critics of the Modi-regime in general; for them Akbar is a big turncoat.
Similarly, is it a coincidence that most of those at the forefront in the Bollywood in the MeToo movement against the likes of Aloke Nath and Nana Patekar) these days are also the “liberals” , famous for their tirade against the Modi regime, which, according to them, is killing dissent( May be they also do not like the characters that Aloke Nath and Nana Patekar play on the screen as votaries of Indian tradition, culture, unity and integrity, all contributing to the “phoney nationalism” that Modi is propagating).
But then more often than not, the movement runs also against some of its protagonists. This has happened in MeToo in India too, with some of the liberals and virulent Modi- critics like TV anchor Vinod Dua and artist Jatin Das(there are also others) being accused of sex-related crime by young beginners in their respective professions. The initial reactions of the supporters of these ‘liberal accused” were, of course, predictable that the accusers were “sanghis” and BJP supporters who were showing their “lynching mentality”. However, when more accusers came against them, they got little embarrassed and became restrained.
Thus, the point that one is making is that a movement that has a noble cause of fighting sexual harassment and exploitation is increasingly getting politicised, with political parties fishing in the muddy water. In the process, the cause is getting diluted, it is increasingly becoming partisan and the fight is assuming the character of a mobocracy where the accuser is always right and the accused is always wrong. It rules out the scope of misuses or abuses of the platform to weaken one’s opponent and in the process is causing collateral damages to his reputation, profession and most unfortunately his family and children.
One small example in this regard is the story of the two Rohtak sisters Pooja and Arti Kumar who became national sensations in 2014 by standing up to few boys who ‘molested’ them in a moving bus. They were made national celebrities overnight, with the state government bestowing honour on them, apart from giving hefty monetary rewards. But subsequently it was found out that the two sisters were bullies who had made it a habit to trap boys as molesters and blackmail them to get money. But unfortunately, the hapless boys who were bitten in 2014 were denied jobs in the Army (and elsewhere); they have now no alternative to work in their small land holdings and are unable to raise their families to a decent standard of living.
It is against this background that three fundamental but interrelated principles of jurisprudence may be pointed out. One, even if there is an open and shut case, the accused is given a chance to defend himself or herself in the court because there is a norm that Judge must be convinced that there is not even one percent probability of an innocent being punished.
Two, a person is “innocent until proven guilty”. Of course, in a democracy such as ours, we have framed some special laws (as in the case of SC and ST harassment Act or the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013 pertaining to sexual violence) that makes the accused “guilty until proven innocent”. But in the MeToo cases, these special laws will have to be stretched too much to have no time-bar to lodge complaints if the accused have to be punished. That means that it will be extremely difficult for an accused person to prove his innocence, because he cannot find easily evidence towards his innocence in the cases that are decades old. In other words, once accused he becomes automatically guilty and remains so practically for all his life.
Three, in any “just” society, there is what is called legal egalitarianism, according to which “all are equal before the law”. But if taken to the logical conclusion, the way MeToo movement is being carried out, its proponents make it appear that women are more equal than men. In other words, women are always right and men are always wrong.
Fortunately, these absurd and unjust implications of the MeToo movement are not widely shared, exposing its inherent limitations. All told, this movement and its unjust demands have supporters whose number is minuscule compared to the overall population of the country. This is equally true in other countries, including the United States too. This movement is essentially limited to those who have access to the Internet. Sexual harassment and assault are living realities for many, but it hits certain groups particularly hard: those who are forced into marriages, who are living in wars and occupation, who undergo female genital mutilation, who are low-wage earners working in homes of the affluent and their fields. But the MeToo movement does not talk of them and the victims here do not have access to the conversations on the cyberspace. In other words, there is a great digital divide and as long as this digital gap is not narrowed down the likes of the MeToo movement will not serve the greater societal purpose. It will remain essentially a “class war” of the upward mobile women.
Even in the United States, a 2014 report aptly titled “The Glass Floor,” which shares the findings of a survey of 688 restaurant workers from 39 states, revealed that nearly 80% of the female workers had been harassed by colleagues. Nearly 80% had been harassed by customers, and 67% had been harassed by managers — 52% of them on a weekly basis. Workers found customer harassment especially vexing because they were loath to lose crucial income from tips. But the MeToo has been least bothered about this state of affairs.
Viewed thus, social media may be a great platform for raising awareness, but what happens after? There are enough field-studies undertaken by the researchers that suggest that for any social movement to be successful, there have to be mass protests on the ground, not in the cyber space. As Margaret Atwood, a Canadian poet, literary critic and professor, writes, “the #MeToo movement is the product of a broken legal system, using the internet to cause stars to fall from the skies”, nothing more.
Who are our MeToo victims who have occupied the headlines? Almost all of them come from the middle or upper middle class, high caste and elite backgrounds. And they want to create a mindset that makes women “play the victim”; in the process, they become oversensitive to anything and everything that could possibly be twisted as being offensive and patriarchy. In fact, MeToo is becoming a witch-hunt and part of a broader feminist campaign that grants favouritism and privilege to women, while discriminating against and repressing men. In such an ideological framework, men are considered to be having “natural impulses” of being oppressive towards women, and therefore it becomes “a legitimate demand” to invent standards that men must not only know but develop also some kind of self-hatred.
However, in the long run, this type of feminism does more harm than good. Actually, the way MeToo is advancing, a day will come when the employers will be afraid to hire girls and prefer all-men work force. Therefore, what is required instead is feminism that is also humanism. Again, the experience of the United States is instructive in this regard.
From the late 1960s into the 1980s there was a vibrant women’s movement in the US. Culturally influential and politically powerful organisations campaigned for issues such as reproductive rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and other reforms. They drew their strength from various professions, unions, government bureaucracies and other institutions. The movement brought about major changes in the lives of many women. It opened to women the professions and blue-collar jobs which had previously been reserved for men. It transformed the portrayal of women by the media. It introduced the demand for women’s equality into politics, organised religion, sports, and innumerable other arenas and institutions, and as a result the gender balance of participation and leadership began to change.
However, now, a mass women’s movement in the US is virtually non-existent. Though there are many organisations working for women’s equality in the public arena and in private institutions, these are no longer organisations with large participatory memberships. On the contrary, these are now mostly bureaucratic structures run by paid staff.
Feminist theory, once provocative and freewheeling, has lost concern with the conditions of women’s lives and has become pretentious and tired. From a “movement”, the women’s issues now constitute, as noted social scientist Barbara Epstein beautifully argues, an “idea”. And, this is the situation despite the fact that gender equality has not yet been achieved fully in the US – Women in the US earn, on average, considerably less than men. Violence against them is still quite widespread.
Why is such a decline of the Women’s movement in the US? There are many reasons, if one goes through famous publications like Ruth Rosen’s survey of the women’s movement, “The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America” and Christopher Lasch’s collection of essays, “Women and the Common Life Culture, and the Rise of the Suburbs”. But the dominant reason is the changing profile of the leaders of the Women’s Movement and the environment or backgrounds they come from.
In essence, the point is that contemporary feminism has over the time tended to absorb the perspective of the middle class from which it is largely drawn. There are still some radicals within the feminist movement in the US believing in an egalitarian society (in fact, some of them, in their fight against man-dominated world, go to the perverse extent of living and behaving like men), but they are in a distinct minority.
On the other hand, a majority of the feminists have been affected by a broader trend. In a period of sharpening economic and social divisions, characterised by corporate demand for greater and greater profits and the canonising of greed, a whole generation has been seized by the desire to rise to the top. Feminists, in other words, are becoming careerists. Their senses of “community engagement” have weakened in the process. In fact, what has happened in the United States is not limited to that country alone. Women in many countries have broken what is called the “Glass Ceiling”. As Eleanor Roosevelt says, “No one can make you inferior without your permission”. And this explains why there have been many global heads of state and many CEOs Fortune 500 companies.
Incidentally, today the most vocal women organisations are those affiliated to political parties and certain ideologies. Czech feminist Jana Hardilikova’s comment that “feminism smells like an ideology” is really apt for India, too. As a result, more than empowering women, our feminists are essentially engaged in empowering their careers and causes. And, as most of them declare themselves to be either liberals or left-wingers, their feminism, in the process, has devolved into a toxic political correctness and become an ideology rooted in partisanship. As a result, anybody who disagrees with their agenda or seen to be deviating from it is discredited as anti-woman.
All this is not to suggest that MeToo has to be suppressed or opposed. Nobody can deny that sexism in society is a serious problem in India. Despite its drawbacks and limitations, MeToo has made many urban working women “more comfortable speaking out and challenging” abusers than in the past. And that is not a mean achievement. It is also undeniable that the housecleaning of sexual bullies is long overdue.
But all this should not detract us from the need to have faith in a legal system if there is already one or create a legal system if there is none that allows even the “guilty” to defend himself. We must protect the innocent from unfair accusations while protecting the less innocent from stale or unfair charges. In other words, we must display restraint in character- assassinations, even though in the process such restraint risks shielding some harassers. This restraint is vital in preserving the credibility of an important movement that has more bad apples to expose and many more despicable habits to reform.
By Prakash Nanda (email@example.com)