1 year of 'Me Too': How TN lost the opportunity to stand up to misogyny

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1 year of 'Me Too': How TN lost the opportunity to stand up to misogyny

We are at the one year anniversary of India’s #MeToo movement. When Tanushree Dutta spoke about her experience of being sexually harassed while working in Bollywood, it set off a wave of testimonies from Indian women on social media. If the LoSHA (List of Sexual Harassers in Academia) touched on the issue of sexual harassment in the academia, this time the storm swirled mostly within the realms of journalism, entertainment and the non-profit sector.

A number of women, including some who enjoy a high public profile, began sharing their accounts, throwing open the doors for others to recount their experiences. Even as some female journalists in the English media were doggedly collating and putting out reports from women, there were stories unfurling concomitantly all over the country.

Here in Tamil Nadu, one accuser and her alleged abuser became the locus of the #MeToo story—Chinmayi and Vairamuthu. The fracas upset many Tamil men though they needn’t have fretted quite so much. It took no time at all for a chorus of men (and some women)—Tamil activists, political leaders, journalists and anonymous voices online—to launch a comprehensive attack that MJ Akbar’s lawyers could have learnt from. We didn’t even get to linger on the subject long enough to move away from euphemistically describing sexual assault and harassment as “kaiyai pudichu izhuthaan” (pulled her hand) or to converge towards an understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace.

‘A pastime for the privileged’

One prominent political activist who spearheaded the attack, repeatedly juxtaposed the space #MeToo movement (and in particular Chinmayi) was receiving from Tamil media with the silence surrounding the issue of privatisation in the power sector. The irony thickened as he raged against the “unbalanced” coverage to interviewer after interviewer, while making women the object of his rage.

It didn't matter that Chinmayi was far from Vairamuthi’s only accuser. Nor was there any attempt to widen the media’s gaze, as it was busy cashing in on the allegations involving celebrities. Far from taking a step towards purging misogynistic public discourse, it unleashed a hydra.

Activists whose bread and butter was to critique issues brought on by power differentials suddenly turned blind to the structural disparity that prevents a young woman (then) embarking on a new career from confronting her sexual harasser. Radical anti-state firebrands suggested the aggrieved women take shelter with the legal system.

The stigma around sexual violence in Tamil society is so immense that the family of one of the women affected in the Pollachi sexual assault threatened to commit suicide if they were coerced to pursue the matter legally. Even women who haven’t lived through an ordeal as publicly as Monica Lewinsky did would relate to her words that “the shame sticks to you like tar”. In a culture where the criminality of a gang of young men diminishes the marriageability of the women of an entire town, it should surprise no one that it took years and supportive partners for some women to take on their harassers. Yet the public conversations that emerged were not about the myriad reasons that muzzle women. Instead, these were now repurposed and weaponised to condemn them as liars. The ridiculousness of it all was lost on many, as a man’s work became his defence while a woman’s was her indictment. (Did Vairamuthu’s repertoire of romantic poetry or Susi Ganesan’s En Peru Meenakumari ever weigh against them?)

And a popular narrative was set: the public disclosure of the sexual abuse and the abuser was a new pastime for a privileged section of upper caste-class women, either a sport they were engaged in to settle personal scores and garner attention or a piece of an unfolding political conspiracy.

Political leanings as shield

Women within political movements facing down the tyranny of the state and maneuvering structural barriers thrown up by their caste, class and politics have always been left to make an onerous choice when confronted with challenges thrown up by their gender. They carry the additional burden of navigating through sexism from their male comrades and often bite their tongues to preserve the integrity of their shared struggle.

Writer Meena Kandasamy has spoken about how she eschewed a formal process after an incident at Jawaharlal Nehru University because she “did not want the largely Brahminical machinery to grind down a Bahujan professor.” On the back of #MeToo, the Kashmiri Women’s Collective released a statement accompanying their dossier of accused men which directly addressed this. “It can be seen as an attempt to take away attention from the political movement. That is not our purpose at all. In fact, we are wary that this will be seen from the context of the political affiliation of abusers and molesters...Abusers come from all spheres of life, even the ones apparently fighting for justice and equality”.

But the political leanings of alleged abusers, including Vairamuthu, are singled out as the basis for their political persecution. In so doing, the overwhelmingly male commentariat has carved for itself a class of men, who could never be accused, let alone be guilty of sexual misconduct and whose accusers could only be de facto pawns, if not willing participants in a larger political war.

Their politics by and of itself becomes a shield that is cynically employed. Between themselves, the Hindu right wing which charges at Vairamuthu to defend Brahmin women (be it Andal or Chinmayi) and the rationalist leaders who fete him and cavort with him while railing against the Kanchi seer, they have arranged themselves into a Venn diagram that doesn’t intersect (perhaps with the exception of BJP’s Pon Radhakrisnan). One doesn’t have to wonder much to guess what this conveys to the grossly underrepresented women in their ranks.

Lost opportunity

#MeToo provided a ripe moment to expand the conversation on the discriminations suffered by the heterogeneous category of women and recognise the graded ways in which patriarchy crushes women who do not have any access to institutional power, social privilege or familial structures at their disposal. A moment that was deliberately squandered by cynically using (Chinmayi’s) Brahminical privilege as a rhetorical tool to shut down the conversation. In the one-dimensional search for a perfectly powerless, socio-economically, culturally and politically marginalised victim of sexual abuse, we lost an opportunity to introspect on the prevailing reality of a misogynistic culture.

After all, when have Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi or minority women enjoyed freedoms that were unavailable to Brahmin and other upper caste women? In what parallel world would a Dalit woman be able to publicly name her tormentor and not have her livelihood destroyed especially since in our world, they routinely meet gory ends for simply spurning men’s advances?

Is it conceivable that the young Pollachi women would receive a sensitive response if they were to shed their anonymity, when Chinmayi with her large public profile and influence could not? What her detractors and those of the #MeToo movement in Tamil Nadu eventually achieved was to arrest its progress away from the upper caste, urban milieu by providing a live demonstration of the (manufactured) public backlash which awaits any woman who dares to break the silence that shrouds sexual harassment.

This past year which was spent in professionally and publicly rehabilitating the alleged abusers even as women continue to pay a heavy price should exhort us to reflect. It is easy to pontificate about sexual violence when the women are dead, when they are silent and invisible, when the perpetrators are your political adversaries, when they are God-men or Hindu deities whose altars you want to destroy. But what if the women were to walk through the wall of shame, what if they lay claim to their experiences and their space and what if they expose the ignominy of the new literary and intellectual gods? The answer that stares us in the face should make us shrink with shame and only spurs more questions.

What do we do about the patriarchal leadership of the progressive, anti-caste, anti-Hindutva organisations in Tamil society? Are they even progressive when they peddle in the same misogyny that’s entrenched in our societies but occasionally stray to critique the patriarchy built-into Hinduism and Hindu mythology, when they share a platform with Vairamuthu as he invokes Periyar against his many accusers? How should the rest of us grapple with the profound immorality of those who used their public standing to sling barbs, to question (only) the women, who hedged and hummed to silence and subvert a movement that carried some (however limited) potential for change? How do we create a path of remediation in a deeply androcratic society?

We are living through a crucial socio-political moment as investigative journalism and indomitable women expose the symbiotic relationships that fuel the career and consolidate power for predatory men and their enablers. Torrents of women’s anger are gushing out of floodgates elsewhere but in Tamil Nadu, they were assiduously fastened, secured and boarded up by those who claim to espouse principles of social justice. But the cracks are already there. This dam will burst.

Lois Sofia is an occasional writer. She lives in Canada and tweets at @Red_Pastures.