Shobhaa De
Shobhaa De

Nichola Pais reports on a panel discussion that saw Shobhaa De, Vinta Nanda and Saniya Shaikh pondering the future of #MeToo

#MeToo had been the subject of the closing debate of 2018’s Jaipur Literature Festival held earlier this year. Since then, the movement exploded exponentially on Indian soil. Taking the conversation further was an all-woman panel discussion on #MeToo and the Culture of Impunity, conducted at the Mumbai preview of JLF 2019 . Moderated by journalist Namita Bhandare, writer and columnist Shobhaa De, filmmaker Vinta Nanda, queer activist Saniya Shaikh, filmmaker Shazia Iqbal, and Lodestar UM CEO Nandini Dias discussed the shape of the movement and its future.

Teeing off, Vinta Nanda touched upon her decision to call out her alleged rapist, actor Alok Nath. “My trigger was obviously the atmosphere. There was an enabling environment suddenly, and I was very certain that I would be heard and supported, because the movement had gathered momentum and it was galvanised of course by Tanushree. It was spiralling and I put it out.”

Saniya Shaikh
Saniya Shaikh

That done, she apparently went to sleep! “I had held back something for so many years so I was relieved but I had given sleepless nights to everybody else, including my family because by the time I woke up the next day, from my building to my office there were media vans parked everywhere. I woke up to the fact that I have done it and I have to live up to it, which is what I’ve been doing till today,” she emphasised, adding, “I’m trying desperately to get back to normal life now and this is the last panel I’m saying yes to!”

Shobhaa De maintained that the predators who have hung on to their secret lives are still protected. “If you examine the environment in India particularly, despite all the hashtags and people like Tanushree and Vinta coming out, I would say the biggest culprits back then continue to be around; even the ones who have been named haven’t lost their jobs.” She expressed the hope that ‘the movement’ is not arbitrarily transformed into ‘a moment’, adding that women shouldn’t feel discouraged that there is simply not enough support from society at large.

“Women are now seen as having nuisance value,” De noted, referring to the recent developments on Wall Street, which has evidently adopted a new attitude in the #MeToo era: avoid women at all costs. “When I read the Wall Street piece it was really an eye-opener for me that if Wall Street is talking about excluding women completely, they don’t want women in the workplace, it is going to happen here as well. They are talking about women not contributing enough to justify the conduct that men now will be forced to adhere to – to behave like good boys. So they don’t want to hang with their female colleagues, they don’t want to invite them to their offices, they don’t want the CCTV cameras, the attention, the stress – they don’t want women at all! And that’s something that is going to be a huge backlash that we have to consider if we, the victims, are going to be further victimised and thrown out of our workplaces.” Admitting that this is something that has not been thought through completely, De added, “But that should not discourage a single woman from speaking up. Because the minute you feel you are surrendering to bullies and you are the first one to blink, the war is already over and to me, it has just about started. So I hope and pray that this backlash is not going to impact us in a way that is going to send us scurrying back and pretending that all is hunky dory because it never was. The open secrets are still open secrets and it is about time that we named names.”

The absence of inclusiveness has been a common criticism of the #MeToo movement – it has failed to include women who work in the informal sector, Dalit voices, the LGBT groups, or men and boys as well. “Any movement needs to start with voices, in solidarity, and it should be out of love, a sense of companionship, of taking everyone together, rather than ignoring certain voices,” suggested Saniya Shaikh.

The future of #MeToo: Movement or moment?

Shaikh believes the answer lies in conversations about consent. “It stems from how we look at relationships and interaction, how are we talking to other people, a lot of which is directed by norms. It is an exciting time to be looking at the conversations within the movement. Not looking at consent as just a power dynamic where people are trying to establish their sets of power structures, but also giving it a voice of love and creating that area where it can be talked about and not enforcing the yes and no kind of binary. It is about looking at the larger force that is driving all of these emotions that are carrying the movement.”

As Shobhaa De summarised, “It is a complex issue which is not going to be resolved either through legislation or infusing a so-called new corporate culture. It can’t be done overnight. The change is going to be gradual and we have to be realistic and accept that.”

Movement or moment, the choice is eventually ours.

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