The #MeToo movement is almost a month old, but many of you are missing in action. In fact, some of you even seem angry, dismissive, increasingly scoffing at “frivolous” complaints. But please let’s get this clear: #MeToo is not a movement of adversarial, man-hating ‘feminazis’. In fact, gender justice has never been only about women, but about modernity, an expansion of democracy, an opportunity to build new relationships of trust and dignity.
It should come as no surprise that the men who’ve been exposed as sexual assaulters mostly belong to a senior vintage. In the 1970s and ’80s when women began to enter professions, they faced a patriarchal phalanx. Male bosses imposed their power with impunity. They stared, groped, harassed without any checks and balances of social media, buoyed by their superior numbers and united in the elevated status of the boys’ club. Mockery and stereotyping of women was the ticket to membership of this club. Awareness campaigns, outspoken women, legal interventions have forced some changes, but even today in 21st-century India why are men hesitant to be champions of gender justice? Why is it that women must do all the heavy lifting on a movement that could be as liberating for men as for women? After all, patriarchal images of masculinity as the swaggering, muscle-bound,woman-humiliating, Tarzan-type ‘dabang’ are destroying men’s own individualities.
Men need to understand that violation is routine in many women’s daily lives. Women travellers in Delhi’s DTC buses in the ’80s will recall how taking public transport was an exercise in combat warfare. The erect penis would be jammed against female bodies, male fingers would cop a feel of bottoms, breasts would be squeezed, molestation came from all angles, all the time. The woman traveller needed to have sharp elbows, a loud stentorian voice, the ability to push, slap, kick. That battlefield is perhaps no longer as deadly, but surely men and women must be united in a human being’s basic right to stay unmolested in a public place.
Today, no senior corporate figure has joined his voice to the MeToo campaign. Few senior editors have vociferously denounced their former colleagues. Few senior male actors in Bollywood have spoken out against harassers in their midst. Politicians, always lagging behind civil society, accustomed to pushing “women’s issues” into sarkari zanana dabbas like the NCW, are generally marked by anti-women utterances. Mulayam Singh Yadav once famously remarked that rapes are mistakes boys make; Haryana CM ML Khattar has stated that rising crimes against women are the result of women’s clothes. No wonder crimes against women rose by a sharp 83% from 2007 to 2016. Women are increasingly dropping out of the workforce (India ranks a shockingly low 121 in a list of 131 countries in female labour force participation or FLFP, according to ILO). Women themselves are increasingly taking regressive postures such as those who insisted during the Padmaavat protests that faced with “dishonour”, women must commit ritual suicide rather than attempt to survive or fight their attackers.
The #MeToo moment is crucial because at this moment India’s turning the clock back on women. Those arguing that it’s an elite ripple fail to understand that in a hyper-connected, media-360 world, WhatsApp forwards and viral videos are fast collapsing the distance between metros and hinterland. English-speaking women may be leading the charge today, but already a great churn is building across India.
By seeking to interfere with the free growth of the womanhood of India, we are interfering with the growth of free and independent-spirited men, wrote Mahatma Gandhi. This means men must be as inspired as women to identify the core injustices that affect gender issues. Gandhi saw the struggle for swaraj as not only a political struggle, but a personal inner war between an individual’s best and worst selves. Why should men not want to be their best selves as much as women?
In a caste-ridden society, Gandhi didn’t condemn upper castes but delegitimised the idea of caste discrimination by appealing to the higher values of the pursuit of truth. Similarly #MeToo doesn’t condemn all men, instead it invites men to join the process of social transformation. In fact, to quote but paraphrase the great Kaifi Azmi, this time women might say to men: Uth meri jaan, mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe (Get up, darling. You have to walk alongside me).Indian men, do you want to be militant, muscle-flexing traditionalists, shrieking out a shallow defence of preposterous inequalities and insisting on your right to humiliate and commodify women? Or do you want to be liberal Gandhian cool cats, proud of your best selves, idealistic citizens working for a society based on freedom, dignity and equal space for all? The choice is yours because #MeToo is about YouToo.