Among the many manifestations of womanhood revered in Hindu mythology the one of Shakti, the embodiment of divine powers of purificatory destruction, is uppermost in our national consciousness just now.
For Hindus these are days of supplication to Shakti as Goddess Durga to slay the buffalo-demon Mahisasur and proclaim eternal victory of goodness over evil. More earthy interest will, however, centre around the unfolding of #MeTooIndia movement. Is it Shakti playing out in real life on ground Zero?
The movement draws both its inspiration and format from #MeToo in USA. Alyssa Milano, a Hollywood actress and victim of sexual harassment, tweeted on 15th Oct 2017: “If you have been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet."
By next day, 30,000 had responded with tweets of #MeToo opening the flood gates to a unique form of social protest-cum-solidarity movement in human history. Women from all theatres of human activity poured out sordid tales of sexual manipulations by their superiors, even co-workers, both at work places and home. A volcano had burst and its lava flowed all over singing men at the lowest level of power exercised by a foreman to a Hollywood director, a mogul, a senator and even the President.
The accusations of sexual infractions were multiple - lewd comments, forced kisses, opportunistic gropes, pats, pinches, grabs, propositioning to bed, sexual assault and even rape.
The malaise of demanding sexual favours was both rampant and deep-seated. In a symbolic acknowledgement of their show of courage in disclosing their horrific demeaning experiences, Time magazine under the collective of ‘The Silence Breakers’ named them “Person of the Year-2017” overriding other weightier nominations.
The potency of the movement lies in its unorthodoxy. It is a hashtag movement, entirely apolitical, leaderless, and amorphous giving a measure of anonymity to its participants. That encourages others to freely share their own horrendous moments with co-victims and generate widespread solidarity and a collective voice. Given that social media has grown into such a behemoth, voices on it can no longer be ignored by decision-makers in any field.
#MeTooIndia is therefore bound to affect the manner in which men in positions of authority or even co-workers will henceforth interact with female subordinates, colleagues. The veil of innocuity hitherto overlaid on what were truly sexually inappropriate acts will no longer be available. Will even innocent light-hearted acts be tolerated? How it will pan out no one knows. But its relevance as an instrument of social change can’t be ignored. It will compel tremendous soul-searching among policy makers.
Its Indian edition, #MeTooIndia, is yet a toddler. A long way lies ahead of it. But already a few reputations lie besmirched. Amitabh Bachchan is hit by actress Sayali Bhagat’s allegation that when she bent down to touch his feet to seek blessings, he put his hands on her butt and felt it up, blessings with an unwanted freebie. M J Akbar allegedly took recruitment interviews of aspiring journos in hotel rooms sitting close enough to put an arm around their shoulders. Vikas Behl director of ‘Queen’ is alleged to have taken non-consensual sexual liberties with many real queens. Some other named culprits doing the rounds are Alok Nath and Sajid Khan from Bollywood, Harinder Baweja, KR Sreenivas, Gautam Adhikari and Prashant Jha from print media, Chetan Bhagat and Kiran Nagarkar - both authors. More skeletons keep tumbling out of old closets of many other eminences.
It all started with actress, Tanushree Dutta raking up her decade old complaints. Vivek Agnihotri, whose famous tweet wisdom ‘staring at boobs extends male life by five years.’ still rankles, asked her in 2008 to ‘kapde utar ke naach’. Nana Patekar forced her to do lewd, vulgar, and uncomfortable dance steps with inappropriate touches thrown in at the sets of ‘Horn Ok Pleassss’. From thereon, the hashtag movement took off.
However, social movements don’t just erupt, the causative disquiet lies smoldering, building up steam before a spark releases its fury. In 2005, when Shakti Kapoor talked of sex for screen time requirement in Bollywood industry, or when Mahesh Bhatt admitted to the casting couch as "Bollywood’s best-known secret" nothing stirred. Nor did Tanushree’s complaint in 2008 cause more than a storm in a tea-cup. But a decade later the same complaint resurfaces to find sufficient resonance and solidarity to spearhead a movement.
So what changed to precipitate #MeTooIndia? Maybe larger participation of women in economic activity without matching changes in societal mores and attitudes towards the female gender has something to do with it. We continue to revere womanhood in temples but outside its precincts subordinate a woman’s status to a male-serving creature. That translates into more male predation simply because there are more females around in work places to cast the net. A decade ago women bore insults silently. Not anymore. Their upbringing makes them more assertive today, they claim their free space and stamp their individuality. She knows how to say ‘No’ to unwanted overtures and to make ‘No’s stick. Laws relating to sexual harassment aid her.
Also #MeTooIndia is a budding of simmering angst among the urbanised female over a patriarchal social order that presumes female guilt in any situation of sexual infractions - must have dressed provocatively, why stayed late, she had it coming when she went out alone; female culpability is deemed as obvious as male’s preserve to exploit such situations for sexual gain. A right leaning polity makes matters worse by soft-pedaling gender issues. When sexual offenders adorn ministries, officials disciplined for sexual harassment find more honoured places elsewhere, or the connoisseur of ‘boobs’ Vivek Agnihotri gets an invite to World Hindu Conference the message to public at large is not one of deterrence but of ‘chalta hai’.
And, of course, #MeToo USA showed the way to ventilate repressed anguish and frustration. The Indian redaction is yet in its incipient stages. Rainmakers are not falling off like ninepins as in the USA but one hopes it generates the motive power to demolish deeply ingrained gender prejudices, something our politicians have neither the will nor inclination to do. A unique experiment in social change is underway.
Defining what precisely constitutes sexual harassment is impossible. What is inappropriate behaviour as distinct from a mere banter, or a flirtatious engagement is so dependent on contextual interpretation that many #MeToo allegations will inevitably fall through, some rightly, some wrongly. It doesn’t matter though. What matters is for #MeTooIndia to chorus loudly and long enough to create widespread awareness of a problem only whispered in shadows for fear of acknowledgement.