Backlash against the #MeToo movement in India misses the point

BY SRISHTI MUKHERJEE ’21

The end of 2017 saw the beginning of the #MeToo movement in Hollywood. The following year saw the movement extend to parts of the world where many people considered it little more than a faraway fantasy. In India, home of the world’s largest film industry, the effects of #MeToo have slowly begun to unfold. The last few days have brought a severe case of déjà vu for most Indians, as daily revelations of famous mens’ infamous pasts have come to light.

There, the domino effect of women coming out with their own #MeToo stories was spurred by the actress Tanushree Dutta fearlessly calling out her predator, the veteran actor Nana Patekar, for harassing her on the set of their movie ten years ago.

Much like the reaction to the #MeToo movement in the U.S., not everyone in India has been supportive. Predictably, affronted men have begun to joke that they are now “scared” of asking women out on dates in fear of being falsely accused, themselves accusing women of using the movement as an opportunity to gain cheap publicity.

In my opinion, the systematic belittling of all accounts of sexual harassment that have not amounted to rape has been one of the most startling aftereffects of the #MeToo movement in India. The jokes that have flooded social media platforms with regard to what is considered sexual assault or not (e.g., brushing past a woman by mistake) suggests that, similarly to American men, Indian men have yet to understand that one does not need to physically rape a woman in order to harass her in a manner that leaves her mentally exhausted and uncomfortable in her workplace. Whether or not a man’s bad behavior warrants legal proceedings, women have every right to publicly shame men who have behaved in a shameful manner. The derailment of systematic and internalized sexism is just as important as the advocacy to end violent sex crimes.

Other people are critiquing the #MeToo movement for being inherently classist. They argue that the movement is only highlighting the struggles of women from elite and urban backgrounds, despite the rampant prevalence of sexual harassment amongst the rural populations of Indian society.

Although I understand this perspective, I would argue that women should not be shamed for their privilege when they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted. Harassment is harassment, whether it is performed on the street or within the confines of a fancy office building. Admittedly, it is the rural population of India that is least likely to ask for or be provided justice for the abuse they face. But the shame associated with speaking out about your own accounts of sexual assault is something prevalent among every social strata. To demean voices that are finally entering the public sphere is to reinforce the idea that women should remain silent. It also discourages any trickle-down effects that may take place. When women see other women forming the courage to question the behavior of men who are at the most visible, highest pedestals of society, it becomes that much easier to consider fighting battles against the people who have abused their relatively smaller positions of power in their own lives.

In the country that introduced the word “karma” to the English dictionary, men from its journalism, comedy, politics and entertainment spheres are at long last meeting theirs — although arguably, the pace and force of this karma could be a lot faster and stronger than it is at the moment. The actor Imran Khan recently admitted that he knows of predators within the industry who many female celebrities are still afraid of calling out because of the sheer magnitude of their name and power. We cannot force women to share anything they do not want to share; we can only make it clear that the concept of “not all men” is not nearly as important as the safety of all women.

For too long, women in India have defined their strength by their ability to withstand and overcome the endless hurdles thrown their way by a patriarchal society. At long last, women who are empowered by the #MeToo movement can refuse the existence of these hurdles and change what it means to be strong.

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