What started essentially as a wake up call in Hollywood with many women coming out and sharing their stories of horror against Harvey Weinstein, found more resonance in India than one would have expected.
Women from the film industry to media houses came out and shared their own stories of sexual harassment that for many years were whispered but never acknowledged. This was all the more heartening to see since India has remained a largely patriarchal society despite the increase in the number of working women in the last few decades.
Last week Twitter released the list of “Top 10 Hashtags in India” and the #MeToo movement was listed at number eight on the list. The first seven spots went to South Indian movies, a testimony to India’s craze for the celluloid.
While for some the number eight spot was a bit disappointing, many nevertheless saw this as a sign of the changing times. #MeToo was also ranked as the second most influential moments of 2018 on Twitter.
In India, as more and more stories of sexual harassment poured out the reaction in some quarters was swift. A number of prominent journalists were demoted and some quit. The moment saw its biggest success when the junior minister in the foreign affairs ministry M.J. Akbar resigned as a wave of allegations poured against him.
He has now taken the legal route and is fighting the case in the Indian courts and has sued one of the first women who spoke about her trauma by him. And that has also become a source of concern and worry for many. The legal route is expensive and time consuming and not many want to pursue that.
The government in response to the #MeToo movement has constituted a group of ministers to strengthen the legal and institutional frameworks that will help prevent sexual harassment at the work place. The first meeting of this group was held earlier this week.
India has remained a largely patriarchal society despite the increase in the number of working women in the last few decadesSimran Sodhi
Suparna Sharma, senior journalist and one of the women who came forward to talk about her sexual harassment at the hands of MJ Akbar said that the #MeToo movement by its nature was spontaneous and as one woman stood up, she empowered thousands of other women to stand up too. “I don’t know what will happen in the next year or as to what and how things will shape up, but I am absolutely confident that things will get bigger and bigger from here on.”
She said the women came out and shared their stories out of ‘frustration’ with the existing due processes and legal systems. “It is an anarchist movement where you name and shame people. People keep asking me what do women want and I say that we want truth and reconciliation and then perhaps we can all move forward.”
She is dismissive of some of the criticism that has come in the way of the #MeToo movement pointing out that women who “were questioning only the behavior of women and did not ask a single question of men were basically behaving like misogynists themselves.”
The #MeToo movement in the United States was not so much a movement on the social media as major publication houses actually published well researched articles on the topic first. In India, it was interesting to note that the movement seemed to just hit Twitter and Facebook which seemed to be the choice of medium for many women who wanted to share their stories.
The stories were picked up by the Indian national media only later when the movement had snowballed into something of a monster that could no longer be ignored.
Kamla Bhasin, a well-known feminist activist and social scientist who writes extensively on gender rights said that things don’t happen suddenly. “Women in 2018 are going to the police to complain about rape. This wasn’t always the case, so we have to look at things as a culmination of work.”
She gives the example of Bhanwari Devi who was gang raped by higher caste men in a rural area of India for trying to stop child marriage in a high caste family.
“Twenty two years later, Bhanwari Devi hasn’t received justice yet. But because of her we got laws for looking into sexual harassment at work place, the Vishaka Guidelines. And she is an illiterate woman so again you can’t dismiss these movements as western educated ones.”
Harassment at workplace
(The Vishakha Guidelines refer to the 1997 judgement of the Indian Supreme Court which provided the basic definitions of sexual harassment at the workplace and the guidelines to deal with it.)
Bhasin feels that the #MeToo movement came as a culmination of many things. “It is not the first or the last,” she said. She said that the government has taken a good step by forming this group of ministers but she wishes that they had acted more swiftly in asking their minister MJ Akbar to go. “The Constitution has given us all equality. And ultimately it is we the people who need to change, governments can only do so much,” she said.
Interestingly Google came up with an interactive map in October, which showed that India has more #MeToo google searches than any other country in the world. In recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Google created a 'Me Too Rising' global map that shows the top 300 cities searching for the phrase.
According to Google Trends, the search has been used the most in India as compared to every other country in the world. The map tracked search and social media trends from October 2017 to 2018. It does not measure the total number of searches but records the number of times 'Me Too' is searched compared to other searches on specific days.
It is also significant to note here that earlier this year, a report or rather a survey done by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found India to be the most dangerous country for women to live in. The report was rejected by many in India as having a western bias but there were many others who argued that many of the issues highlighted by the report needed to be looked into.
So it seems that #MeToo is something of a beginning and something of a culmination of what women in India have been trying to say for a very long time. The movement helped put the spotlight on what happens when a woman goes out to work and that spotlight might shift a little in the coming year or so, but the voices it seems will continue to be spoken and heard.
Simran Sodhi holds Masters Degree in International Relations from American University (AU), Washington DC. She has contributed to leading newspapers like The Indian Express, Mail Today, The Statesman and The Tribune and has reported from the US, Pakistan, Israel, Tokyo and Beijing. Since 2012, she has also been appearing as anchor and guest on All India Radio programs, mainly on issues of foreign affairs. Her book on the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, titled Piercing the Heart, Untold stories of Mumbai 26/11 was published in 2009 and was featured amongst the bestsellers of the country.