There is euphoria among women’s groups that were avidly following the Priya Ramani vs MJ Akbar case. Since the fight against sexual harassment is always tough, the fact that a judge hearing the defamation case filed by MJ Akbar against Priya Ramani said, that “the right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right to dignity” and that women have the “right to air grievances on any platform” is nothing short of a miracle. It may be a small one, the harasser has not been prosecuted or convicted, but still a ray of light in the gloom of the injustices so many women face on a daily basis.
The #MeToo movement in India was triggered by actress Tanushree Dutta who accused Nana Patekar of harassing her on the set of a film she was doing with him in 2008. She became a target of ridicule for men—and some women—who asked why she was speaking out after so long and called it a publicity stunt. However, it opened the floodgates, so to say, and social media provided the platform. For the first time, many women spoke of the harassment they had been subjected to, naming and shaming many ‘eminent’ men. Priya Ramani wrote of her harrowing experience with MJ Akbar, for which she was taken to court for defaming him.
In the US, the UK, and parts of Europe, the #MeToo movement had some impact—the powerful producer Harvey Weinstein has been convicted for rape, actor Kevin Spacey was dropped from many projects. Old interviews, in which celebrities had made sexist (and racist) comments, were dug out and aired, and many of them were ejected from projects, lost endorsements and were punished financially, if not legally.
In India, hardly any of the men named suffered any long-term consequences. Filmmakers are back at work, other celebs move around in high-society events; one of them even married a glamorous, much-younger woman. The women who spoke out found their careers ruined.
It was heartening to see that Priya Ramani had the support of the sisterhood of strong women—her lawyer Rebecca John, as well as the other female journalists who testified on her behalf, all of whom had faced similar harassment from Akbar. Years earlier, in a more toxic male environment, women like Rupan Deol Bajaj and Bhanwari Devi had fought long and lonely battles against powerful men.
Even today, most women step back from other women who 'make a fuss', and prefer to put up with harassment at work, for fear of losing their jobs. The instances that are highlighted in the media involve women in showbiz, advertising or media industries, who have a voice and a means of getting heard. But women in low-level jobs, farm, factory and manual labourers, domestic workers, women in academia cannot even say “No means no”. For them, it is not just groping, propositioning and lewd comments, but the risk of sexual coercion or rape.
Every day the news carries depressing cases of girls and young women raped and murdered, and the law, even when fast-tracked—takes so long that very few cases are reported, and convictions are still very low. That’s why our cinema has, for years, advocated vigilante justice for crimes against women. In spite of some progressive laws that were promulgated to protect women, they are mostly ineffective in a society where victim-shaming is rampant. Even after the #MeToo movement, singer Chinmayi Sriprada, who accused 'respected' lyricist Vairamuthu of harassment, found herself shunned-- what she called the 'bro code' instantly activated against her.
Others not so lucky
If there is encouraging news about women being lauded for their courage, the reprisals against vocal women in conservative or repressive societies is brutal. Priya Ramani is lucky that the court ruled in her favour; in many countries, women were sued for libel and were punished; according to a piece by Meighan Stone and Rachel Vigelstein in foreignpolicy.com, “Governments have driven the backlash, with sinister consequences. In Egypt, at least two women have been arrested for social media posts about sexual harassment. Part of a widespread crackdown on dissent, the government casts the #MeToo movement as a form of sedition: May El Shamy, the first Egyptian to file a police report against her supervisor, has been the target of a smear campaign falsely linking her to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. After criticising the government for not protecting women from harassment, the activist Amal Fathy was sentenced to two years in prison in September 2018, with authorities claiming that she was undermining the country’s image. In June, a Lebanese tourist who posted a video complaining about sexual harassment in Egypt was arrested at the Cairo airport for spreading false rumours. Although these women have since been released and had their sentences commuted, others are not so lucky.
“In China, feminist organizers face constant surveillance and arrest for their advocacy, and the government deletes any #MeToo posts from the Chinese social media platform Weibo within minutes. Students at Peking University who first galvanized the #MeToo movement have faced consequences after demanding the school release information about a decades-old case where a student had committed suicide after being assaulted by a professor. Yue Xin, one of the students, and a 2019 Foreign Policy Global Thinker, was threatened with expulsion, inspiring widespread outrage. But in August, police raided an apartment where Yue and fellow student activists were staying. She has not been heard from since.”
Shift in perception
Still, the campaign against sexual harassment is revolutionary, because of the shift in perception—men are wary of misbehaving with women co-workers or subordinates, because there is no certainty any more about their silence. Most workplaces now also have internal committees and a support system in place for women who wish to register a complaint.
Tiffany Robertson, writing on the global impact of #MeToo in jdspura.com, comments, “The #MeToo movement has left its most significant impact in its country of origin --the US--where heightened public awareness of sexual harassment and assault led to numerous prominent men losing their jobs and/or reputations to allegations of sexual misconduct. The movement also spurred more than 300 actresses, writers and directors to establish the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund and raise $21 million in only one month to fund legal assistance for people suffering from workplace harassment, abuse or assault. The National Women's Law Center is handling the considerable job of matching applicants with free legal advice and reports more than 2,700 requests for assistance from every state in the US.”
India still has a long way to go, but, the cause took several steps forward when the Delhi Court presided by Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey stated, “A woman cannot be punished for raising her voice against sex-abuse on the pretext of a criminal complaint of defamation, as the right to reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman as guaranteed in the Indian Constitution under Article 21 and Right of Equality before the law and equal protection of the law as guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution.”
One fight won in an ongoing battle.
(The title of the piece is a Val Doonican song)
The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.