On October 5, the New York Times published a report on the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misbehaviour. The paper quoted the actresses who said that they had been harassed or assaulted by Weinstein, who is one of the most powerful individuals in the film industry, and has produced Oscar-winning movies like The King’s Speech. After the report, more women came out with their stories of abuse from Weinstein (by the end of October, the list of accusers had over 80 women), and a couple of days later, he was sacked from his own company by the board of directors. Over the month, more women, many of them famous, began to tell their stories openly, and the focus turned to other powerful men. These included director James Toback (accused by over 238 women), actors Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, Steven Seagal and Ben Affleck, standup comedian Louis CK, political analyst Mark Halperin and former US president George H.W. Bush. Similar accusations have threatened the Senate campaign of a one-time favourite Republican candidate and ex-judge Roy Moore and the sitting Democratic Senator Al Franken.
Many of these men have apologised for their behaviour, including President Bush, and it is now clear that the women’s courage had uncovered an epidemic. It seems something has changed in America, even though this is not the first time that a wealthy and influential man has been exposed. Only in 2014, one of America’s most famous comedians, Bill Cosby, was accused of “drugging and assaulting” by scores of women. Most of the cases here were outside the statute of limitations (depending on the state, the crime cannot be prosecuted if it is reported between three and 30 years after it took place). However, one case against Cosby is in court and it is likely to be decided next year. While Cosby’s case was widely publicised, it did not produce the sort of response that the Weinstein case did, and now every day we have a report or two of a famous man who has been exposed.
A campaign on Twitter began to take what was essentially an international American moment. So what has been the reaction in India? It began with a list of academicians, professors and teachers, who were accused of harassment. The accusers were anonymous but were apparently known to the individual who made the list public, a student in America named Raya Sarkar. One of the individuals on the list, the director of the Madras Music Academy has resigned, it was reported on November 16, after his name was published, though it was unclear if he had quit because of the allegation. While the list has been attacked for being anonymous, for obvious reasons, it is not surprising that it is anonymous, given the history of sexual violence in India.
Government data says that 99 per cent victims of sexual violence in India do not report the crime to the police. Even in the United States, only about a third or so of victims report because this is a crime that is a personal attack and the victim does not feel comfortable recounting the details. In India, we have several other factors that are at work. One is a social and cultural landscape where women are often blamed for sexual violence committed on them. Ours is a society that unfairly loads ideas of “honour” on girls/women. Further, no powerful man is likely to be punished for his wrong deeds.
In Bollywood, the power is disproportionately lodged in the hands of a few men, be they actors, producers or directors. A woman who makes an allegation against these men is humiliated and ignored. The men can get away with almost everything. In politics, things are worse. Justice is impossible against a powerful politician who is a predator. And political parties show absolutely no qualms in violating the privacy of individuals.
Given all of this, it would be wonderful if this becomes the moment when things change. If they feel encouraged by the climate, Indian victims and survivors of such harassment and violence can choose to go public and bring about the same sort of focus on the crimes as the victims in the United States have managed to do. It is cruel to put the burden of this on them, and the only real solution for ending harassment or minimising it is to ensure that the law acts swiftly and punishes offenders.
Other places have already failed their women. In response to the Weinstein story, China’s state media has said that harassment of women was less common in China because “Chinese men are taught to be protective of their women. Behaving inappropriately toward women, including harassing them sexually, contradicts the very Chinese traditional value and custom.” This, of course, is rubbish.