MeToo is a game-changer that can realign the scales of power

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Bhavdeep Kang

Some five years ago, Union minister M.J. Akbar dodged a bullet. The Delhi police headquarters had received a complaint from a woman claiming to be his personal assistant and alleging multiple instances of sexual assault. The special police commissioner directed that the woman’s statement be recorded before a magistrate, but the very next morning, the woman withdrew her complaint. That was the end of the matter.
The current barrage of allegations against the former editor, author and politician are another story altogether. The complainants are women of substance and their credibility cannot be impugned, more so because they have nothing to gain from outing him. By all accounts, Mr Akbar has quite a “history sheet” and promises to become the Harvey Weinstein of #MeToo in India — a gifted, successful and influential man, with little empathy or regard for social conventions.
At the time Mr Akbar was appointed to the Union council of ministers, the senior BJP and RSS leadership knew of his reputation vis-a-vis women. The Intelligence Bureau must have filled them in, but even if it hadn’t, they had certainly been informed through other sources. Ironically, the Congress, which is now demanding his resignation, was equally aware of his reputation when it made him party spokesman! Both parties chose to ignore his foibles, without so much as an investigation. And there you have it — the patriarchy’s magnificent disregard for women.
Behind the series of #MeToo takedowns is the ugly truth that men in positions of power tend to abuse it, buoyed by a sense of entitlement and a feeling of invulnerability. They imagine that their attentions are welcome to women and that “no” actually means “yes”. The “she was asking for it” narrative is used to justify their aggression, while simultaneously shaming the victim.
Male colleagues can be equally unwelcoming, if they feel their turf is being threatened. This is particularly true of professions that have traditionally been dominated by men — which is virtually all of them. Sexual harassment becomes a tool to intimidate women and make them feel helpless and out of place in the workspace. The harassment can be physical or verbal, and sometimes arises from sheer insensitivity. A sexually explicit conversation within the hearing of a woman colleague, for example, argues a lack of empathy and respect.
The Bollywood culture can be particularly toxic, because it involves professions in which looks are important and a degree of sexual objectification is inevitable. Men see this as an invitation to regard these women as “available”. It is dehumanising, in that the woman becomes an object rather than a person.
Like all predators, men tend to sense vulnerability and pick their targets accordingly. Self-assured, confident women from wealthy backgrounds and influential families are less likely to suffer harassment. When a woman desperately needs to hang on to her job and income, she is naturally far more vulnerable to aggression from a male boss.
What’s stunning is just how common these instances are. The toxic culture of sexual harassment appears to be ubiquitous, protected by a sort of “boy’s club”. Yet, women rarely tend to speak up, until the level of harassment becomes unsupportable. They become tense, anxious and depressed but prefer to look for alternative employment rather than complain about their boss or colleagues.
The victims wind up making adjustments to their lifestyles in order to deal with unwelcome attention, from quitting jobs to changing the way they dress to the manner in which they interact with colleagues. Some even transpose the guilt on themselves, by questioning whether they are somehow attracting aggressive overtures.
It is this silence which encourages and enables predators. The #MeToo movement is a game-changer, because it aggregates victims, thereby offering safety in numbers. The cyber-sisterhood gives them a voice and listens without judging. For those who have bottled up years of festering resentment, being able to speak is cathartic.
What women need to realise is that keeping quiet, from fear or guilt or helplessness, empowers the perpetrators. Some may simply be afraid of reliving the trauma by recounting it. But it is hard to move on until you do. The bitterness and sense of outrage that the perpetrator “got away with it” is toxic. Otherwise, why have so many women spoken up years after the fact?
Yes, the system is imperfect and the Vishakha guidelines are sloppily implemented. Aggressors typically bring influence, intimidation and money to bear in order to get off the hook. But some notable wickets have fallen. Former Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal is facing trial, because a gutsy young reporter refused to back down in the face of overwhelming odds. So is former Teri director-general R.K. Pachauri, charged with stalking and harassing a junior colleague.
What men need to understand is that no woman wants to be sexually harassed. Even if she is on friendly terms with you, her physical space must be respected. In the workspace, there’s no such thing as come hither “signals”.
That said, women need to respect the power of #MeToo and handle it responsibly. As long as stories are not exaggerated and baseless allegations and publicity-seeking behaviour is avoided, the movement will keep predators on the run.