Now that the dust is settling on social media polemic and disassembling of the election results, let’s take a look where certain issues close to the core wellbeing of women — especially sexual violence — stand in the wake of a second term of the BJP-led Narendra Modi government.
When the second wave of the #MeToo movement started post actor Tanushree Dutta’s allegations of sexual harassment against his colleague Nana Patekar in September 2018, it empowered hundreds of women on social media to share their personal stories of violation as part of a fast-moving, disorganised, and highly individualised campaign that sought safety in numbers and to build a sisterhood that enabled survivors to break the silence surrounding sexual violence.
Hashmi says in smaller towns and cities, women are not allowed to own mobile phones, or wear what they want to
This campaign, widely seen as the second wave of India’s #MeToo movement, shifted the harsh glare of the spotlight — perhaps for the first time — from the victims and survivors and focussed it firmly on men. It took the edge off the fear of repercussion, raised lusty debates about inclusion, representation, ethics, legal processes, gender and caste, and forced both men and women to introspect about their role as enablers. It led to a call for review of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, dusting up of non-functional ICCs, and a revisitation of the works of India’s original MeToo champions and activists. But the campaign was common cause and largely without political colour, fear or influence.
Can it continue to remain so in an atmosphere of Hindutva upsurge, rejuvenated male pride and politics that inherently favour patriarchy, considering that women will be the worst hit in any shift of power that seek to enforce an old misogynistic order of culture and tradition at the cost of women’s rights?
Social activist Shabnam Hashmi says women are affected in a multitude of ways from policies and politics of men who use their bodies to go to war.
Patriarchal forces are much stronger now. The kind of diktats coming from Hindu leaders — that Hindu women need to produce a certain number of children (to counter a growing Muslim population) – Hashmi
“Women are a part of the larger society. The kind of hatred and violence we witnessed, the kind of poverty that demonetisation led to, it affected women directly. During demonetisation and GST it wasn’t just the men who lost their jobs,” she said.
According to an analysis by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), of the 11.8 million people in India who lost their jobs in 2018, 8.8 million were women.
“Secondly, patriarchal forces are much stronger now. The kind of diktats coming from Hindu leaders — that Hindu women need to produce a certain number of children (to counter a growing Muslim population) — it’s saying that they own women’s bodies. MeToo is tiny movement compared to attack on women’s right across India. What the triple talaq did was that the Hindu and Muslim patriarchal forces shook hands with each other,” Hashmi, a human rights campaigner who closely chronicled the violence post Gujarat riots in 2002, said. The patriarchy is enforced across religion — be it the RSS or Muslim groups who co-opted women in India.
She said post 2002, Muslim women had begun to venture out and find their own place in society and started fighting for their rights. But how the Triple Talaq protests played out, gives cause for worry. “Lakhs of Muslims women were on the road saying there’s a threat to Sharia law. Clearly there was pressure. What empowerment is Modi giving them? It’s just a reaffirment of the patriarchal forces,” she said.
“Are we fighting for 33% reservation to have Sadhvi Pragya in Parliament?”
Hashmi said in smaller towns and cities, women are not allowed to own mobile phones, or wear what they want to, and there is a major threat to their economical independence — realities that do not register under the radar of city-based activism. And during a political conflict, external violence finds a way into homes.
“Domestic violence is going to increase. If you look at Gujarat in 2002, there were hundreds of rapes. I have personally documented stories of 50 gangrape survivors. Awaz (NGO) did a study of women — when you unleash rapists into society, they go back into their homes and unleash the same violence there. You hear of lynchings. The men who lynch are are going to come back home. War is played on women’s bodies,” she said.
When the first wave of #MeToo broke on online platforms, no one expected men to immediately own up to predatory behaviour, even in cases where multiple women spoke up about a common harasser. It was no surprise that men recoiled, grew recalcitrant, and insecure at the possibility of a social media trial — their alleged actions, lives, and response put on display for the world to take apart — not unlike what women survivors go through when they file complaints of harassment against powerful men. Activists made arguments for due process and women countered with evidence to the contrary. For the next few months, the #MeToo allegations and counter-allegations played out in a niche corner of the Indian cyberspace and national media, the villages and smaller towns and cities largely untouched by the debate that gripped Twitter and Facebook.
But post elections, with discussions shifting from women and their safety, a worrying fallout could be the tossing of these conversations and complaints in the cold storage. Activists fear there could be direct or indirect, targeted or trickle-down violence against women, especially those in vulnerable communities, in the next five years. It has been four days and already news of attacks on Muslims by self-styled cow vigilantes — a toxic byproduct of our current times — are pouring in. Apart from the targeted victim, this kind of violence always leaves the women in their lives vulnerable and open to retaliatory attacks, as do attacks by people from upper castes on Dalit households.
If online conversations are any indicators, the vitriol against women who complain of sexual harassment, the rehabilitation of men named as predators, the stirrings of a #MenToo campaign and the easy coming together of men under fire on common grounds of sympathy, will spread like fire if there’s no serious lack of political will to address the issue of sexual harassment of women.
The ruling BJP has largely been silent on the #MeToo movement. One of its senior-most members, journalist MJ Akbar, has been accused by multiple women of crimes ranging from sexual harassment to rape. He has sued journalist Priya Ramani for defamation. A Group of Ministers, headed by Rajnath Singh, tasked to look into cases of sexual harassment at the workplace in the wake of the #metoo movement, was put on hold just before the elections, its fate currently unknown.
The closest the BJP came to addressing SH at the workplace and #MeToo in it’s manifesto was the mention of the constitution of a Women’s Security Division in the Home Ministry, and the promise of swift trial in rape cases. One of its sitting MPs, Nihal Chand Meghwal, who was removed from his position of MoS in the Ministry of Panchayati Raj after a woman accused him of raping her, recently won on a BJP ticket from Ganganagar. Union minister of state for shipping and finance, Pon Radhakrishnan, said the #MeToo movement was started by “people with perverted minds”. BJP’s Tejasvi Surya was accused of abuse by a woman who later deleted her tweets and appealed to be left alone, saying “it was not worth it,” chilling words that will instantly resonate with any woman who has ever spoken up against someone powerful.
One such women, who accused the Chief Justice of India of sexual harassment, has been running from pillar to post seeking justice, and following a series of street protests, her case too has been ignored by national media. Interestingly though, Arun Jaitley, the Union Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, was quick to write a blog rubbishing her allegation and conflating the Indian judicial system with “head of the judicial institution’. Being the party in power, the BJP has shown little political will to address charges of serious crimes against its members, despite its Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign to save and educate the girl child. Consider the Unnao rape case against BJP MLA Kuldip Singh Sengar. In April this year the survivor said in an interview she was terrified that her alleged rapist’s wife shared the stage with UP CM Yogi Adityanath at a BJP rally — a clear message of arrogance and power unchallenged by anyone within the party. And it’s going to get worse.
“With Hindutva, patriarchy is going to take centrestage. It’s going to cause much more harm. Women’s voices are going to be weakened,” said Sonal Kellogg, an independent journalist and CSA survivor. “The reinforced Hindutva ideology will hamper women’s rights and empowerment. It will make women retreat, go back home, get less aggressive in fighting their cases,” Kellogg said.
One main cause, according to Kellogg, is also that women are isolated wherever they are — be it at home or at the workplace — whereas men are much more organised and effective at networking. “A man will find four other men to support him,” she said, citing cases of sexual harassment.
In minority communities things will worsen, Kellogg said. “If there is a caste or religion angle, the complaining woman will be discounted right in the beginning. The next year is going to be difficult and women are going to take the hit,” she said.
Poonam Kaushik of the Pragatisheel Mahila Sangathan said woman will face further attacks on their health and jobs security.
“Reach to higher education will be further shrink as the policies of commercialisation and privatisation will be further implemented. This will be in pursuant to the dictates of WTO. This Hindutva regime will ensure the attacks on the woman’s right to choose through its ‘love jihad, bahu beti izzat abhiyan, etc, will be further implemented on ground through its various groups such as Durga Vahini,” she said.
“This Hindutva regime which wants to impose Manusmirti will try to impose all the patriarchal, anti-women values on the woman of upper caste especially. This regime coming back will ensure further attacks on the woman’s right to a secured workplace.
This regime will only consolidate further the already prevalent feudal patriarchal culture at workplace and therefore women will have to face lots of difficulty to ensure a democratic culture at workplace,” she said.
In five years, the space for expression of opinions in the online space has shrunk alarmingly for women who come under systematic attacks by a majority of cyber trolls affiliated in ideology to the ruling party. While the misogyny isn’t necessary limited to one common political ideology or influence and patriarchy runs deep across Indian society it’s up to the people in power to decide on affirmative action.
The deafening silence of men on women’s rights might be unnerving at the moment. But in the words of the great Audre Lorde, “your silence will not protect you.” We’ll be here, waiting.
Views are the author’s own