‘This guy is gonna be in trouble after 10-15 years…@ #METOO…’ the caption to the photo read. Three others on the family whatsapp group had expressed how hilarious the forward was with an assortment of laughing emojis. I was stunned.
If someone played the associative word game with me, my instinctive response to the #MeToo movement, would be ‘discomfort’. As it should be. The entire process of addressing sexual harassment is a discomfiting one. The flavour of #MeToo as it has resurfaced mid-2018, is far more discomforting than its previous shapes and forms. Women are now stepping forward to name their harassers, from Alok Nath, to Suhel Seth, and even Vinod Dua have been caught in the crossfire. #MeToo 2018 is uncomfortable because it doesn’t just restart a general conversation on how violative sexual harassment is; it is uncomfortable because it involves direct communication with the violator. When filmmaker Natashja Rathore addressed her #MeToo moment to Suhel Seth, she explained in her text to him, ‘…the way you made me feel may not have been your intent…. it’s so deeply ingrained in your behaviour that it has become your identity.” Here, the woman took it upon herself to understand where her harasser was coming from. In the very next sentence, she explains that intent is irrelevant to harassment. But her understanding of Seth’s psyche helps point out just how normalised predatory behaviour is. This is uncomfortable because women have taken up the task of explaining the weight of their experiences to the men who encroached upon their private, and often sexual, space. And that is unfortunately where as Indians, we meet our Waterloo.
As a culture, we are driven more by emotion than by objectivity. Which is why the #MeToo movement has quickly devolved into a question of whodunnit for most of the individuals interested in it. (The balance majority stays true to Indian tradition and brushes it under the carpet). The point is to pick a side and then vehemently cower down the other. All the room #MeToo created to address institutionalized harassment is obscured by the obsessive need to either criticize, jeer at, or patronize the hashtag. Driven by emotion and rightful indignation, there is no space left to hear the experiences of other women. And there’s definitely no space left to educate those who genuinely might not be able to recognise the anomalies, since harassment is so normalised in everyday life.
For instance, next to no one on that WhatsApp group found anything remotely problematic about the picture or the caption. The appropriate response to the picture is obviously that harassment is so forcefully institutionalised that the little boy might simply have no idea that butt-grabbing a little girl is both violative of her privacy, and dismissive of her consent. Additionally of course, it’s not winning him any points at being friends either. The objective is to talk to the little boy about harassment, about affirmative consent and about why (unless the little girl expressly wanted him to) butt-grabbing is strictly off-limits. The deeper problem is with the caption that followed. Firstly of course, is the indication of how little faith the creator of the caption must have had in the force of #MeToo. The wording is patriarchal, patronizing and entirely self-convinced that it would take a decade for #MeToo to gain ground. Secondly, the caption ridicules the entire point and purpose of the #MeToo movement. One might not agree with the force and direction of the movement but it’s unthinkable to mock the very purpose of the movement. I say this because, the #MeToo movement survives on the shared stories of harassment which women have made public at an obviously grave personal cost. To mock the movement is to mock these women and their stories.
When one comes down to it, the #MeToo movement in India is far from ideal. So many people who should be involved refuse to enter the conversation: families, politicians, other women. Institutionalised harassment can’t be weeded out unless there’s a concentrated effort to do so. And just as awkward and uncomfortable as it is to address harassment, discomfort is what we need right now.
Priyanshi Vakharia is a Research Associate (Legal Reform) at One Future Collective.
Featured image: Rachit Tank
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