Of #MeToo, Sexual Overtures And The Road Ahead

#MeToo Sexual Overtures

At the outset, I would like to clarify that I am not a journalist, nor am I from any arm of the media or the entertainment industry. I do not have a MeToo story, thankfully. It is, however, worth mentioning that I have worked for many years in the IT sector  – a predominantly male-dominated industry with a company that has always looked out for its women and uplifted their talent to the fore whenever it has been merited. That said, my travels for work and networking events have not been without their share of patronizing, condescending and often lecherous looks from men across the industry and even across continents. Something that as women we have learnt to take in our stride and power through. Because it has been ingrained in us that “these things happen” and ignoring them is our best option in the interest of our careers ahead. This is the kind of mental conditioning that moulds young girls into becoming easy prey.

This last week had been the week of #MeToo India. A tumultuous week that had me buried deep into the graphic, tremendously gut-wrenching and acrimonious accounts of sexually harassed women in their places of work. It had evoked a festering fury that had risen to the surface and been doused by a great sense of relief with every culprit that was being named and shamed publicly. The same fire that had lit up the soul of every woman following and involved in the MeToo revolution.

I call it a revolution because that is what it has metamorphosed into. Women are finally being heard. The days of reckoning for those unabashed harassers and oppressors of women have finally arrived.

It has only been a couple of days since the MeToo movement exploded like a seething volcano in India, brimming at its core with the courageous accounts of women across the media and journalistic bailiwicks. From Bollywood’s Tanushree Dutta accusing Nana Patekar, the wheels had been set in motion and out came the avalanche of accusations spanning Bollywood, newsrooms, literature festivals and comedy clubs. Just when Utsav Chakraborty’s skeletons were being thrown out of his closet and many of us were beginning to wonder if “due process” and justice would really put in an appearance or would this just be another breaking news upsurgence with an expiry date, the unthinkable happened.

Emboldened by the revelations from Mahima Kukreja, the young writer who accused comedian Utsav Chakraborty and others like journalist Sandhya Menon who unleashed sexual misconduct charges on a number of editors she had worked with, a nation-wide movement unfurled on social media with women relaying their experiences at the behest of their male bosses and co-workers. Propelling the movement forward by urging women from all spheres to come out and share their stories and working tirelessly to reach out to legal aids that can provide pro bono assistance to those who want it, a few female journalists  have proved to be the inimitable, assiduous backbones of this movement – Rituparna Chatterjee, Anoo Bhuyan, Sandhya Menon to name a few. They tore through decades of patriarchy and opened the floodgates to a barrage of silent sufferers who, emboldened by each other, have bared their souls and let their stories flow. It is important to mention the names of these modern-day superwomen who have taken the oppression of women and catapulted it into a revolution that has given the suppressed and silent a voice.

Women have come out in droves to air their misery at the hands of these egregious men who have been hiding behind the shield of their seemingly idyllic lives and inflated egos.

While social media is ablaze with both women and most men standing in staunch solidarity with the victims, some senior journalists and distinguished personalities seem to be vociferously critiquing the movement. Ms Tavleen Singh’s tweets have been a particular source of disappointment and outrage. What is most irksome about her blatant refusal to accept this movement and its success is the outlandish and lacklustre defence being used to attack the movement by the use of the rural women ‘whataboutery’ and standing in mind-boggling solidarity with Suhel Seth (who has been silent on the issue himself ) on account of him being a ‘good friend’. Ms Singh so effortlessly shifts the blame to the victims in her tweets by questioning the innocence of the harassed instead of the harasser. One has to wonder if Ms Singh’s views would remain unwavered if one of the victims of Mr Seth’s transgressions was a ‘good friend’ or loved one.

So when an anonymous 18-year old girl from Uttarakhand penned her MeToo account and shared it with a special address to Tavleen Singh, disagreeing with her barrage of tweets and assuring that many rural women like her were, in fact, getting easy access to the #MeToo bandwagon, Ms Singh’s defense was further stripped of its credibility.

Hers was an account that took exceptional courage and I hope many more women from rural India find the courage to share their stories.

The definition of what constitutes sexual harassment and its nuances are being widely debated with many crying foul over some anonymous accounts pouring in of inappropriate behaviour at the workplace. The lines might be blurred, but I am of the firm belief that it is also in the little, seemingly harmless overtures that the seeds of harassment are nurtured. Words like ‘Sweetheart’, ‘Darling’, ‘Honey’ are very commonly being used to address women in the workplace. A flick of a hand that stays that extra second longer, the wink of an eye, the lewd, sexist joke, the leaning in too close and even the misogyny that oozes from their lips when a female is in the room – the normalisation and ignorance of all of these overtures is detrimental to the collective harassment narrative. I am in ardent disagreement with journalists and others who have argued that these overtures should be brushed aside and not be counted. These MUST be called out with a clear and apparent disposition of disapproval. Rape is, of course, the heinous crime that needs no debate on a course of action but these smaller overtures must not be dismissed as drawing outside the lines of sexual harassment. These gestures when ignored pave the way for amplified versions of inappropriate behaviour.

A flick of a hand that stays that extra second longer, the wink of an eye, the lewd, sexist joke, the leaning in too close and even the misogyny that oozes from their lips when a female is in the room – the normalization and ignorance of all of these overtures is detrimental to the collective harassment narrative.

Feminism has once again found itself in the line of fire. With the term itself being constantly abused across the MeToo campaign and its true meaning lost on many who believe that feminists are those who want to bring men down to their knees instead of the equality that is being sought, promises to be the divisive force that will propel this movement forward, carrying along in its wake, both awakened men and women and burying the sexual assaulters still living lives hinged tightly by patriarchal, misogynist norms.

The litany of charges and accusations continued to unravel with Bollywood bigwigs like Subhash Ghai, Sajid Khan and Vikas Bahl being called out in deeply disturbing write ups. But it has been Junior Minister for Foreign Affairs MJ Akbar’s kitty with a whopping fifteen women who have come out to accuse Akbar of sexual misconduct in various incidents. Following the resignations coming in from many of the accused, Akbar’s resignation seemed imminent. The fact that Akbar has refused to resign and has refuted the claims of the accusers in a statement mired in vehement backlash speaks to the sad state of our times wherein women who are seemingly this close to justice after years of suffering will have to continue to jump through hoops to attain the real fruit of their labour. In Akbar’s case, the government, by not demanding his immediate dismissal, has a lot to answer for too. According to the latest news cycles, Akbar has slapped one of his main accusers, journalist Priya Ramani with a legal defamation notice which Ramani intends to fight tooth and nail.

Needless to say, women across the country, myself included stand unequivocally by her.

In light of the gruelling charges by women whose mental and physical abuse runs far deeper than the shame of the oppressors, the arrest and not just stepping down of men like MJ Akbar, Vinod Dua, Suhel Seth and others should be ordered. However, the systemic guidelines that warrant due process will, of course, run its course. Atonement in the form of a wrecked career and image will have to be the first step.

Shaira Mohan is a marketing and sales professional with a passion for the written word. An avid traveller, yogi, reader and animal-lover, she currently resides in Kuwait with her husband and toddler son. The views expressed are the author’s own.