Priya Ramani has been acquitted, a friend announced on Signal. I had just woken up from a fitful afternoon nap when I read the message. Acquitted of what? A crime? Groggy and disoriented, I typed my confusion on the chat and was about to send it when suddenly the fog lifted. I remembered her crime. She was one of the 16 women who’d spoken against former Union minister MJ Akbar, whom Delhi trial court ordained “a man of stellar reputation no more”. Ramani was battling criminal defamation charges and she won. MJ Akbar lost. It felt good saying that out loud.
I ran to the living room and told my brother and my father. We all cheered for Ramani. It is a big win, my father said and I repeated it with joy. After a while when the euphoria settled it hit me. This win, while big, while incredible, while everything that it should have been, was for a completely unwarranted case that should have never existed but it did. What, then, I wondered should be the takeaway from this victory – that must have put Ramani and her family through several hardships, that must have destroyed her mental peace and health, that must have been a burden on her emotionally and financially.
As Ramani gets ready to heal from all that she was subjected to, I want to know what this win means for us women who are fellow survivors of sexual assault. And what does this moment and MeToo – the place where this all began – mean for men who were named and for those who escaped it? In an interview after the win, Ramani said that she feels vindicated on behalf of all survivors. And she’s right – this is a victory for us all because it tells us that we can fight the big bad wolf. We can win what has formerly felt and maybe still feels unwinnable.
Ghazal Wahab, executive editor of Force magazine, who gave her own account of facing sexual harassment by Akbar, called MeToo not a movement but a consciousness. This consciousness, she says, is about “demanding and expecting safe workplaces, whether at home or outside”. It is a beautiful and important thought, but what does it mean to see MeToo as a consciousness? When we demand these safe spaces, how do we know that men are listening? Will the Ramani win force men to listen? As joyous and vindicated as I feel, I am overcome by despair when I see men around me figuring out ways of circumventing these demands.
When we demand these safe spaces, how do we know that men are listening?
Not so long ago, one of the men who was named during the time, let’s call him J, texted me on Facebook messenger. A journalist, this man was called out by several women, so much so that he lost his job, had to change cities, and restart his life. I was still processing my takeaway from MeToo, and how I would work on giving these men second chances. So when J texted me I responded with kindness. We talked about banal things like jobs, and the progress of the book I was working on then. Suddenly, J jumps windows and pings me on secret chat, a Facebook feature where messages vanish within seconds. I was taken aback. I didn’t know about the existence of such a feature and I did not understand the need for it. When I asked him, he said he’d feel much safer here. Safer in my head sounded like “you won’t be able to take screenshots here.” I told him I am not tolerating this behaviour. And I blocked him.
Here’s how what Wahab said becomes important for me. MeToo as a movement could be a passing moment. As a consciousness, it is something we have to carry forward with us at all times. J thought it's okay to text me and immediately jump to inappropriate conversation because for him the movement had ended months back. He was entitled to his old behaviours. And I take some of the blame here because I failed several women when I didn’t sit and reflect on MeToo, when I didn’t talk about the next part when I treated MeToo as a movement and not a consciousness.
A few weeks before this judgment, a friend informed me about a blog post by another man named in the movement. We’ll call him C. The post read as a bitter diatribe against most women who participated in MeToo, especially the ones who named him. Words like opportunists and mob were thrown in as he went about explaining his “suffering”, which he found to be a unique case of systemic failure. C lost his job, but then found a new one, though not as lucrative as before. C feels no qualms in calling himself another kind of survivor. Maybe C is right. Maybe C became a victim of the situation. Maybe he suffered more than he should have. He was only propositioning sex, and at most he could have been accused of being pushy in the chats he provides screenshots of in the post. We don’t know what happened in the ones he doesn’t show us, of course.
At the end of the post, C proclaims that injustice does not have gender, it only has suffering. Reading this, I was torn between my desire to laugh mercilessly and pull my already thinning hair off my scalp. I am willing to see that C suffered, and I am willing to agree with him that MeToo was unfair to him. I won’t use the term collateral damage because that’s reducing him to a statistical paradigm, however, I cannot help but wonder how the suffering of numerous women – raped, mutilated, harassed, assaulted – who came out during the movement became comparable to a minor dent in his career. How is it that C gets to put himself on the same pedestal as women who are the victims of systemic failures?
Are we to assume that men learned nothing from MeToo?
MJ Akbar believed that he was the victim too – that Ramani ended his political career, she tarnished his stellar reputation. Are we to assume that men learned nothing from MeToo? Am I wrong, then, in saying that we failed the women who used all the strength they could muster to come and tell us their stories? Why didn’t we talk to the women and why didn’t we talk to the men?
Priya Ramani’s victory has given us all hopes, but I cannot shake the feeling that she succeeded in proving herself innocent and the man who assaulted her still is free. So it seems there will be other times when women will be forced to prove their innocence. And as a friend pointed out to me when I began writing this piece, she won the case, yes, but you certainly won’t if you were ever dragged to the court; so tread carefully.
When I look at all the men around me, the ones whose cases I have cited and the ones who remain hidden, I have nothing but hopelessness and despair. Whenever I think about how difficult the period of MeToo was – a friend and I were laughed at by a fellow male writer who used words like “quacking” and resorted to making rape jokes – I am filled with anguish. One of the things that MeToo did was making objectionable language difficult. It made calling out a little easy, but it didn’t address the underlying issues. It isolated men like C and J: filled some with blind rage, like C; or made some of them improvise and come up with new ways of being creepy, like J.
Once the excitement of the moment had died down, we should have paused to reflect. We should have written big editorials, maybe even books, on how we cannot lose the inertia, how we have to keep listening to women and keep talking to our boys and men, and how we might prevent the birth of more MJ Akbars. It is why I return to Ghazala’s words. Not a movement, but a consciousness. Now that Ramani’s victory has given us hope, let us build on that. There are three Dalit girls in Unnao – two of whom have already succumbed to death – awaiting justice, looking at us to change things for them. Let us begin?