When the #MeToo movement hit India a year ago, there was such an outpouring of rage; all that misplaced shame, feeling of vicimisation and helplessness that women had bottled up for years came out on social media, and masks were ripped off the faces of men who harassed and sexually abused women, while masquerading as ‘nice’ guys in society.
To go back to when it all started—two years ago, the New York Times and New Yorker investigation into the sexual misdeeds of powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein unleashed the #MeToo movement. Since social media gave women a platform, a whole lot of stories were shared in a movement that came to be known as #MeToo, inspired by activist Tarana Burke’s use of the phrase in 2006.
When the story broke, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” And millions of women across the world did!
A year later, Tanushree Dutta spoke out against the harassment by actor Nana Patekar, on the sets of Horn OK Pleasss, which was witnessed by everyone on the shoot, without anyone coming to her defence. Subsequently, she quit films and settled abroad. When she did come out with it years later, she was mocked as a failed actress trying to get publicity. But she inspired women in India, from every field, to share their experiences on social media, and the full extent of the problem was exposed. (Showbusiness gets a bad rep, but sexual predators are much worse outside.)
No Bollywood biggie was named and shamed, because women know, from past instances, how quickly men gang up and make sure any woman who complains never works in the industry again. In India where patriarchy is well entrenched, the default position is to denigrate the woman as an attention-seeker and sympathise with the man whose reputation has been sullied.
As far as showbusiness is concerned, most people believe that demands for sexual favours from women (and men, as well) are par for the course, and the distastefully jokey term ‘casting couch’ coined to disguise the humiliation women suffer. Ben Zimmer writes in a piece in theatlantic.com, “The casting-couch tradition originated in theatrical productions on Broadway well before the Hollywood film industry became the new locus of the entertainment world. In his book The Boys From Syracuse: The Shuberts’ Theatrical Empire, Foster Hirsch details how Lee Shubert, the eldest of three brothers who helped establish Broadway’s theater district in the first two decades of the 20th century, kept “an elegantly furnished boudoir, reserved for leading ladies and promising ingenues, and a shabby, spartanly furnished room with a single couch where he met chorus girls and soubrettes.”
Even if, as many believe, a woman tries to advance her career by sleeping with a producer, director, or star, and that it is often a quid pro quo situation, it still does not raise questions about the moral or ethical conduct of these men who take advantage of their position to exploit women. As long there is an imbalance of power, a woman’s supposed willingness to sleep with a man for career gains, cannot, or should not, be considered consensual.
There were some well-known men who were named, more so in the South Indian industry, but none suffered any long-term damage, either to reputation of career. Nana Patekar may have lost one film, but neither he, nor Alok Nath, Vikas Behl, Sajid Khan, Subhash Kapoor or Rajkumar Hirani are out of work. Aamir Khan, who had dropped out of Kapoor’s film Moghul after the #MeToo accusations hit, walked right back in, because the allegations were not proved.
It is very difficult to prove in court that a man touched woman inappropriately, or made sexual advances, unless there are witnesses, who are willing to risk their own skins to testify against a powerful man. Journalist Priya Ramani, who accused editor-politician MJ Akbar, is facing a defamation case filed by him. Men named in #MeToo exposes, have got married, got high-powered jobs, and in one case, admiring obituaries when he passed away.
There are fears that the force with which the #MeToo campaign took off will soon be depleted because the men accused are walking away scot free, and women are still left to face the consequences. Which is why, women have chosen to remain silent all this while, because, well, what’s the use?
A recent film, Section 375, is just the beginning of the backlash, by portraying a devious woman accusing a man of rape when an affair breaks up. Which is not to say that such ‘women scorned’ instances do not happen, but they are a fraction compared to the trauma women have to endure. Most men, and even women who have no firsthand experience of sexual harassment, cannot imagine the mental and emotional repercussions even of something like stalking, which has been portrayed by films as a harmless form of flirtation; but ask the women who are terrorised by relentless unwanted—and unwelcome– advances by men. Only in India could lewd comments and groping be called “eve teasing.”
However, if there has been any kind of positive impact of the #MeToo movement, it is that women are coming out in support of other women. Earlier, a woman who dared speak out, was shunned by others, her statement considered suspect. But when so many women speak out against sexual harassment, others realise they are not alone, they have the means to talk about it, they are believed and, most importantly, they did not ask for it.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated October 9, 2019)