#MeToo in India: After decades of silence, an unafraid generation of young women are opening the floodgate of revelations

Gita Aravamudan
Jackson Katz's The Macho Paradox makes the case that violence against women is a men’s issue. Katz takes the reader deep inside male culture to examine why so many men physically and sexually abuse women and children, including those closest to them.

It was an innocuous bit of paper on which were scribbled the words, "Sweet promises are soon forgotten". It had been slipped into my handbag which I had left next to my typewriter when I went to check the teleprinter.

The words sent a chill up my spine. The words were in block letters, but I had learnt to recognise the handwriting. I had got a couple of such notes before. All the others were equally innocuous and cryptic, but I knew they came from a stalker from within the office, who had actually shared a table with me when I worked at the desk before moving into reporting. An older man who would eye me surreptitiously when he thought I was not looking. I knew it was him because he had stolen a pass to a beauty contest from the chief reporter's desk when he knew I was assigned to cover it and sat next to me trying to make physical contact. I shrank into my chair and moved away at the first instance.

This was my first paid job as a reporter. In 1968, at age 21, I had squeezed my way into an all-male newspaper office in Bangalore, fighting severe gender bias. Although I was apprehensive at first about being the only woman in the four-storied building, I soon found all my colleagues were friendly once their initial worry about having a girl in the office disappeared. And except for the guy who was sneakily stalking me, I had no problem with anyone. His last missive about the sweet promises came on my last day when I was leaving to get married and move to another town. Maybe it was meant as a joke because I had not given the mandatory sweets to everyone in the office. But it certainly made me very uncomfortable. It was not in-your-face sexual harassment but creepy none the less. And I couldn't mention the notes to anyone at home because I would have been asked to leave my job. My fiancé, the only one to whom I showed the notes, also advised me to just ignore them as there was nothing we could do.

And today as I read the hundreds of #MeToo outpourings, I understand why such creepiness should never have been left unchecked. But then, in those early days, I like many other women of my generation, was just so happy to have found a chink in that glass door and crept in. All I wanted was to stay. I never dreamt of challenging the power hierarchy in the all-male world I had entered.

And so, the sexist remarks and actions at some of the press conferences I attended just slid by me. They made me angry, but I remained inarticulate. When I moved to Trivandrum, I became an even rarer species as there were no women journalists in the field. I became a freelancer because I could not get a job. There too, when I was talking with a group of other journalists or investigating a story, one or the other would never fail to make that tiringly clichéd comment of how easy it was for me to get my stories because I was a young woman.

By the 1980s, a few women had got desk jobs at a couple of newspapers, but even then in Kerala, being a journalist was not a socially acceptable job for women. Which was strange as Kerala had comparatively more working women than most other states. Even the women students at the mass communications course in the university where I sometimes took classes, told me they would rather go into teaching because journalism was not "safe". Of course, they were unaware then that predators lurked in universities too!

Because I was myself never physically harassed, I had not really paid attention to the overt and covert sexism of some of my colleagues. When someone brushed against me in an uncomfortable manner or came too close I just let it go as an accident. My perception changed after a good friend of mine who worked at the desk in a leading Malayalam newspaper confided in me about the scary sexual harassment she was facing.

She was a bright woman in her thirties who had separated from her husband and returned home to Trivandrum with her children. She told me about a senior journalist in her office, a married man, who had started abusing her when she rejected his advances. He was threatening to put an end to her journalistic career. She needed her job which gave her independence, but he was turning aggressive. She got intimidating phone calls from him in the dead of the night. He promised to tarnish her image among colleagues. When the harassment became too much, she did what most women of my generation did€¦ gave up the fight and quit the job.

My friend's experience showed me what low regard some men in the profession had for their women colleagues. We had never heard of words like "victim shaming" and "consent". We were brought up to believe that you were responsible for what happened to you. If you dressed modestly, stayed away from the roving eyes and focused on your work, you were safe. So it came as a total shock to me that my friend, who followed all those rules, was harassed for no fault of hers and that she actually had to cause harm to herself by resigning again for no fault of hers.

Around the same time, at a seminar on "Women and the Media," a senior journalist from a Malayalam daily when asked why his paper did not employ even a single woman rather flippantly replied, "Because in the newsroom we men like to make locker room jokes." This was always the excuse used for keeping women out of spaces men had reserved from themselves. Ironic that they thought women's bodies were only useful for making locker room jokes, for ogling at in cinema theatres and pawing on the streets. But in everyday life, women were seldom considered good enough to be treated respectfully as equals and colleagues.

By the 1990s, women began to enter newsrooms in larger numbers. The opportunities were many and bright young women who had graduated from the many journalism colleges which had sprung up entered the profession sincerely believing they would be treated respectfully as equals. Unlike us seniors from the dinosaur age, these young women were self-confident. They didn't want to remain invisible. They wanted to be right up there with their male colleagues. They were not afraid.

And with this large influx of mostly young women, sexual harassment, which we had only spoken about in hushed terms became more rampant. Soon, we had a law for sexual harassment, the Vishaka Guidelines, mandatory ICCs and so on. But whom did these interventions help? From the #MeToo outpourings we realise how useless all these proved to be for the women in their moments of crisis.

If the relatively empowered English media women journalists themselves could not access help, imagine the situation of the women in regional media, of freelancers, of young and powerless interns (who are the choicest prey). If powerful women actresses were not heard imagine what the lesser known women on the fringes of the cinema industry must face.

It took a couple of courageous young women to set off a trend which opened the present floodgate of revelations that promises to develop into a regular tsunami.

The ball was set rolling in 2017 by 24-year-old Raya Sarkar, a law student who published a list of sexual predators in academia. There were many big names on the list. She verified the testimonies of the accusers but kept their names hidden to protect them from the wrath of the powerful men they were accusing. She made the names of the accused public and thereby got a lot of flak from those who still believed in the by-now obviously broken "due process". But bravely she continued publishing more lists and more big heads were exposed.

A number of young women in the cinema industry had been complaining about sex abuse in film industries across the country. But these were generally dismissed as casting couch issues, in other words, implying the sexual acts were consensual. The fact that the women and even children were coerced into trading sexual favours for jobs was airbrushed. It was Telugu actress Sree Reddy who brought the issue into focus by dramatically stripping in public.

Then, last year, there was "Suchileaks", by a young Tamil singer and actor who accused a lot of big names in Tamil cinema, but she was subsequently diagnosed as having a mental issue and is presently under treatment in the United States.

This round of #MeToo in cinema started with the dramatic accusations of 34-year-old Tanushree Dutta. She was 24 years old when the incident with Nana Patekar happened. She complained then but to no avail. Now in the new empowering environment, she has found the courage to go forward with her case. This was followed by a slew of "outings" by women associated with films from across the country.

Meanwhile, Sandhya Menon, a Bangalore based journalist, set off the women in media #MeToo movement and known and unknown predators came tumbling out of the closet. Senior women journalists who had kept their harassment stories hidden were emboldened to share the details of their harassment on social media.

The biggest head which is yet to roll is that of the great ex-editor-now-Union Minister who was so obviously drunk with his own power that he conducted interviews of young women in his hotel room while he lay sprawled on the bed€¦ groped them in his office and hounded them when they tried to escape. Is his time up?

Yes, we should have called them out long ago before they became so entitled€¦ the creeps, the ladies men, the womanisers, the boys-who-were-boys, the sleazeballs, the "harmless" lechs, the gropers, the oglers, the "penn kondans", the "porkis", the stalkers, the roadside romeos, the eve teasers...

Also See: CINTAA offers to reinvestigate sexual harassment claims against Nana Patekar, if Tanushree Dutta desires

Saif Ali Khan, Chitrangda Singh extend support to MeToo survivors: Inspiring to see women name perpetrators

Nana Patekar gets support from women of Vidarbha Farm Widows Association after Tanushree Dutta's allegations

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