Lone voices over the years that swelled to an avalanche of testimonies, built #MeToo into the annihilating force it is today.
Before every big, chaotic wave of #MeToo, there was a solitary “Me”.
Singular. Alone. Brave.
“Me” was not held together by a supportive hashtag at one end and a sweet, pink emoji at the other.
“Me” meant mustering courage that overwhelms and makes you tremble a little. “Me” meant deciding to stand up, and then raising your hand to point a finger at a boss, a mentor, a colleague, a teacher. “Me” meant claiming a moment in the world for yourself, to break your silence, to tell your story.
For Tanushree Dutta to unleash the second wave of #MeToo in India in September 2018, Lisa Rundle had stood up alone in Canada in 2010 to accuse her boss at Penguin, David Davidar, of inappropriate text messages, stalking and forcing his tongue into her mouth.
Three years before Vinta Nanda took to Facebook to talk of how the sanskari Alok Nath had raped her, a young employee of Phantom Films had accused Vikas Bahl, the director of Queen, of masturbating on her.
Years before journalist Priya Ramani accused M.J. Akbar, a former editor and till recently junior foreign minister, of inappropriate behaviour, a young journalist from Tehelka had accused Tarun Tejpal, her editor, of sexual assault, and the organisation of conspiring to “deal” with the matter quietly.
Before journalist Ghazala Wahab wrote a gut-wrenching account of being molested, repeatedly, by Akbar, there was Ruchika Girhotra, all of 14, taking on the might of inspector general of police S.P.S. Rathore in 1990, and paying for it with her life.
Exactly a year before the 2018 tide of #MeToo hit India, forcing Akbar to step down, Phantom Films to unravel, Alok Nath to get his wife to file a defamation case against Nanda, an Indian law student in the US, Raya Sarkar, had compiled a list of sexual harassers, molesters, creeps in academia so that the women who came after would know whom to avoid, how to navigate.
That 2017 spread-sheet, in which women known only to Sarkar had accused 73 men of sexual harassment, was the first wave of #MeToo in India — an act of “civil disobedience” born out of frustration at the systemic failure to protect women. It drew power and legitimacy from the 87 women, including Ashley Judd, Heather Graham, Daryl Hannah, Salma Hayek, Anjolina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, who had called out Harvey Weinstein, the Miramax boss with six best picture Oscars, in the US.
THE SECOND WAVE
In just a year, all these women empowered the second wave of #MeToo in India which has been less a gentle ripple, and more a crackling, wild bonfire of vanities. #MeToo was now a concerted campaign against sexual abuse and the culture of impunity.
From the anonymous, often one-word accusations on Sarkar’s spread-sheet, women were now telling their stories in all its gory, traumatising detail — about how men they trusted and worked with had violated and sexually assaulted them.
If there was any shame, it was piled on the perpetrator.
It singed Bollywood, the art world, journalism, stand-up comedy, BCCI, politics...
Many names that came out were not surprising — Akbar, Alok Nath, Sajid Khan, Suhel Seth — to those who knew or had worked with them. Others were shocking. Rajat Kapoor, Kiran Nagarkar, Chetan Bhagat, Vinod Dua…
But there was no stopping #MeToo. The slogan that American activist Tarana Burke coined in 2006 had become a rallying cry, a baton that women were taking from one, carrying for a bit, and then handing over to another.
Overnight the carefully constructed public personas of several powerful men, their fiercely guarded reputations and liberal veneer cracked and then crashed to the ground, exposing them for the creeps and criminals they were.
The formidable editor and minister was now seen as a deviant who liked to welcome young women in his hotel room wearing a bathrobe, or just his unseemly briefs. A lecture from him on women’s empowerment would now forever be unpalatable.
The actor who embodied all that was pious and precious about the great Indian happy family was now known as an alcoholic and a serial molester.
Suhel Seth, the man perennially on screechy news channels heaping insults, was now the creep who groped women and shoved his hand down their tops.
The patriarchal edifice trembled a bit more when #MeToo hit the corporate world. Rahul Johri, CEO of BCCI, was called out. And then, Jammu & Kashmir DSP Shashi Thakur levelled allegations of sexual harassment at former additional director general of police, Alok Puri.
CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE BROKEN
Women breaking their silence, in some cases after decades, has been momentous, cathartic, troubling, profound.
Finding their voice and reclaiming some power has led to relief at no longer being complicit in protecting men who violated them. The response in certain cases has been gratifying.
In some professional spaces it has led to holding men to account for their behaviour, and some redistribution of power.
In Sweden, a sexual harassment scandal has claimed the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. In several organisations in India, inquiries by internal complaints committees (ICC) were initiated. In some instances men were asked to step down, film directors were dropped, film projects abandoned.
Vinta Nanda, who is just about coming out of the #MeToo whirlpool to catch her breath, says that since she was not brought up by her parents to stay quiet, speaking out has relieved her of the burden of silence.
Nanda says that what happened to her was at a party where she had had a few drinks, and was helpless. “Yet, after that I went from pillar to post telling my story. In 2004-5, my account was printed on the front page of a leading newspaper, everyone read it, yet there was silence.”
She says that the world at that time was not ready to listen. That there was a conspiracy of silence.
“There’s not a single soul in the industry who doesn’t know the Jekyll & Hyde that is Alok Nath. Everyone has always known what kind of a predator he is. Yet no one said anything. They were all pretending like nothing had happened”.
The reason Nanda decided to write her Facebook post in October, she says, was because “I just knew that I had support from this younger generation — who are fearless, anarchist. They helped me find my voice again.”
Dutta and Nanda in turn empowered others to speak up — about producer Gaurang Doshi, directors Sajid Khan, Rajat Kapoor, Dibakar Banerjee, Subhash Ghai, Vivek Agnihotri, singers Abhijeet Bhattacharya, Kailash Kher, Raghu Dixit, music director/singer Anu Malik, lyricist Vairamuthu, talent manager Anirban Blah, casting director Mukesh Chhabra…
THE GREY AREAS
Then came the messy #MeToo accounts, where seemingly there was consent. Despite the power equation, from outside, and often even to the perpetrator and the victim, these looked like consensual affairs. These accounts probed and challenged the concept of consent further.
Amrita Narayanan, a clinical psychologist and author who has edited an anthology of Indian writing on erotica, The Parrots of Desire, says that sexual harassment has very little to do with sex or sexual desire.
“It’s about wielding power. In mutual sex, there’s desire and affection. But pathological sexually harassers have no concept of the other person, of the women. In their sexual arena, it’s all about owning, exhibiting and exerting power — and because they don’t see the other, because they see the women as objects and themselves as the only subject, harassers talk of consent, consensual relations,” Narayanan said.
Thankfully, the reaction of men who have been accused of sexual harassment has not been homogenous.
Some have understood, empathised, apologised and taken a step back.
“But for men whose fragile masculine identity is built on power and the power of manipulation, #MeToo is scary, it’s very bad news… It’ll lead to a deep sense of chaos. So, push-back is natural,” says Narayanan.
US President Donald Trump, himself accused of 20 instances of sexual misconduct, said of Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, “They destroy people. They want to destroy people. These are really evil people.”
Alok Nath’s wife filed a defamation case against Nanda.
Akbar filed a defamation suit against Priya Ramani, and after Pallavi Gogoi, a journalist now based in the US, accused him of rape, his wife, Mallika Akbar, accused the then 24-year-old of wrecking her family life by having an affair with her husband.
A leading psychoanalyst in India, Mallika Akbar chose to dismiss women who had accused her husband of sexual harassment because, according to her, they never “carried the haunted look of victims of sexual assault” and because they had “happily” wined and dined at her house.
Female enablers, perhaps the deadliest tool of patriarchy, are often recruited to divide and destroy any movement that challenges traditional power structures and privileges.
Like the old, fogey feminists who had questioned and sought to discredit Raya Sarkar’s list, this time around the protectors and enablers were out and about interrogating the women who had spoken up.
“Why did you go to the hotel? What kind of girl enters a room when a man in an underwear opens the door? I would have slapped and left. Why speak up now, after so many years?”
These questions didn’t just betray complete lack of empathy for the lived experience of most women in India, but also put the onus on the women.
Instead of questioning the boss who called employees to a hotel room, who molested young employees in his cabin, on the sets of a film shoot, these enablers wanted to know “what kind of women” were the victims of sexual abuse.
“Notice how the men have stepped out of the discourse, turning it into a women versus women fight,” says Nanda.
Speaking of the enablers, she says, “These women feel no power of their own. They have only felt it through men, they can’t feel it within themselves, thus the need to stand by powerful men who, according to them, are being vilified and pilloried.”
Susan Faludi wrote in her 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, “The backlash is a preemptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finish line.”
American comedian Louis C.K., who has admitted to masturbating in front of several women, has started performing again. Brett Kavanaugh is a US Supreme Court judge. In India too, clean chits are being issued, many of the men accused by multiple women of sexual harassment are quietly returning to resume charge.
MEN & MALENESS
The famous American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, often credited with laying the foundation for the 1960s sexual revolution, said that since “maleness” is not absolutely defined, “it has to be re-earned every day, and one essential element in its definition is beating women in every game that both sexes play.”
Men beat women. At everything.
It’s ingrained. It’s believed. Its how the world must remain.
Because pivoted on this belief is the distribution of wealth, resources, power.
Mead also said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.
Many ask, what does justice for victims of #MeToo look like.
Is it simply that a “somebody” becomes a “nobody”?
#MeToo is about truth and reconciliation.
Since there is no law which takes into account how pervasive, common, wide-spread sexual harassment is, no legislation that seeks to change and challenge something that is so normalised, justice in #MeToo cases, for now, depends on the response.
If there’s acknowledgement of the inflicted pain, hurt, trauma, if there’s remorse, if there’s an apology, then there’s closure and the women who have spoken up can try to move on.
But if there’s belligerence, denial, lies, aggression, attempt to intimidate and shame, then it’s not over.
Journalist-author Tushita Patel says that the reason she decided to write her account of sexual assault is because she “could not stand by and watch Akbar lie”.
The #MeToo accounts, often from successful, seemingly powerful women with a strong sense of self, have chronicled a history of men’s sexual violence and women’s powerlessness. And though there’s been a “sisterhood” bond never seen before, it’s not been easy.
It’s been intense, overwhelming. Not just for the women who have spoken up, and those around them, but also for those reading these accounts — especially the men and women who believed, and supported.
In social media posts about #MeToo revelations now, the etiquette is to issue a “trigger warning” in the beginning, because reading another’s account can be emotionally stirring, distressing. It can also trigger a reaction, making sexual abuse survivors relive their own trauma.
THE #METOO WARRIORS
India’s 2018 #MeToo owes a huge debt to all those who came before — from Bhanwari Devi to the men and women who took to the streets to demand justice for Nirbhaya in 2012, from the women who accused R.K. Pachauri of sexual assault and Mahmood Farooqui of rape, to Rupan Deol Bajaj and Raya Sarkar.
But #MeToo 2018 also drew its power and heft from the men and women who believed and supported it at a great emotional cost to themselves. Some may themselves have gone through sexual abuse and haven’t spoken about it, while others could not bear the injustice and decided to take up the cudgels on behalf of those who had.
Some #MeToo Enablers, Warriors sent personal messages of support, while others openly expressed their outrage and anger. They demanded action, held men in power to account. They argued, fought battles on Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, at seminars, on TV for those who had spoken up, and for those who haven’t yet.
As we celebrate the small victories while worrying about the gradual rehabilitation of serial harassers, and another wave of #MeToo ebbs, in the lull before the third wave, which I believe will be bigger, stronger, let’s raise a toast to the #MeToo Warriors — it's to them that #MeToo 2018 belongs.