Power girls steering #MeToo

Women crusaders are courageously sticking their necks out to help victims of sexual harassment and abuse. Here are their stories, in their own words

Many big names in media and entertainment are in the dock, years after they allegedly harassed and exploited women in junior and hence vulnerable positions.


Chinmayi Sripaada

More stories will tumble out: Chinmayi Sripaada

Popular singer Chinmayi Sripaada, based in Chennai, has exposed big names in the #MeToo campaign: Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu, Sri Lankan cricketer Lasith Malinga and singer-songwriter Raghu Dixit.

In an exclusive interview with Metrolife, she describes how she, as a victim of sexual abuse many years ago, didn’t have any forum to bring the abuser to book. 

What gave you the courage to speak up now?

This movement was not there before and there was no collective consciousness to listen to the victims. People instead chose to shame them. I had filed a case in 2012 about online harassment where there was repeated bullying and I know how much of shaming I went through back then. It was a Twitter harassment case in which two people got arrested. I still remember people said I was doing it for publicity. Would people who don’t trust me now, when I am successful, have trusted a girl back
then with no contacts, no social media and no one to complain to? I derived my strength from women like Tanushree Dutta, Sandhya Menon and Manisha Kukreja.

Are the victims of sexual abuse on whose behalf you tweeted relieved?

When I spoke out openly about poet Vairamuthu, people said it is had been just hearsay till they heard it straight from the victim. After I shared my ordeal, many found the strength to speak up. Victims sharing stories want to see some action being taken. When they see action, it emboldens them to come out in the open.

What is the best thing about the movement?

Now we see Vikas Bahl (screenwriter, director and founder of Phantom Films) losing his job, comedy shows being cancelled, people calling for internal inquiries. The best thing is that people are seeing action in front of their eyes and now they are also seeing a union minister being asked to step down. I am sure there won’t be enough police stations to accommodate the increasing number of cases.

What positives do you see coming out of this movement?

There was a statement from the Department of Women and Child Development saying they were working with the law ministry to see how they could work on laws to accommodate cases 10 or 15 years old. Because of the increase in collective consciousness, I can now petition the industry and ask them to make the sets safe or set up a committee where such grievances are addressed.

Have you received any threat calls?

No. Interestingly, a lot of people have been asking me to be very cautious.

How supportive is your family?

At one point, it was only me and my mother. I am now married and I have a husband and parents-in-law who support me. Support from family makes a huge difference for victims to speak out. I have so many women telling me that they are afraid to tell their husbands that they had their father-in-law sexually abusing them.

Did you have a lot of women approaching you after you opened up?

My inbox is filled with thousands of emails from women narrating stories about how their fathers, uncles, brothers and grandfathers sexually abused them. You think this is few and far between but it is actually an avalanche. Some stories that I read made me numb.

Are you hopeful the situation will change?

It is not about Vairamuthu or people coming out. And it is not even
about cleaning up the industry. It is about cleaning up homes and making them safe for the next generation where children are not abused by an adult in their own family.

Some say the power of the movement is overestimated…

It is not. If the police and society are supportive, I am sure a lot of women will come out and narrate their ordeal.

Chinmayi has outed

  • Vairamuthu, celebrated film lyricist (in denial)
  • Lasith Malinga, Sri Lankan cricket celebrity (no comment)
  • Raghu Dixit, Bengaluru-based singer-songwriter (has apologised)

 

Journalists based in Bengaluru have played a big role in naming and shaming sexual abusers in powerful positions. The most prominent among them is Sandhya Menon, freelance writer, whom the Mint newspaper has described as a superhero. Here’s what she told Metrolife.

Tonnes of stories in IT firms and startups: Sandhya Menon  


Sandhya Menon

Freelance journalist Sandhya Menon, steering the #MeToo campaign in the media industry, tells Metrolife about the challenges she faced when she set out on her mission.

What made you reveal what you did?

A lot has happened from the moment it started and now; the campaign never died out. The campaign has remained in public memory for a year now, it has caused people to relive or reflect on their own experiences with sexual harassment. This set a good fertile ground for us. There were many reasons, Tanushree and the opposition she was facing, people who had derogatory things to say about women, and the final straw was Utsav Chakraborty’s apology, which couldn’t even be called an apology. After seeing that apology, I spoke to a friend about how I feel like posting about the issue and that little push was all I needed. I’ve never been quiet about any of this. I had posted about it on my blog in 2011 without taking names, which is still there.

Most social media campaigns fizzle out after a while. How is the #MeToo campaign growing by the day?

There could be different reasons for this. The conversation has been so strong for the past year. Women did not know what to do; we didn’t trust the system. We have friends, boyfriends and husbands who believe us but beyond that, there was no faith. It can be really frustrating to live with these incidents for years. To hear 20-year olds go through the same incidents by the same individuals makes one want to be vocal about their stories.
It’s interesting to see the progression is in this mass rage. Some women said they wanted to talk about it but didn’t feel courageous enough; I’ve asked them to think it out and they have come back in a few days to share their stories. There are others who saw Anoo (Bhuyan), Chinmayi (Sripaada) and me being trolled and wanted to add their name to the movement, as they had gone through similar things. Some women who have daughters shared their stories as they wanted safer workplaces for their young ones. Also, people have had enough!

Do you foresee any changes because of the campaign, especially in the media and entertainment industry?

What I have seen so far is extremely encouraging. For me, in the media, if there are definitive actions taken by the media house on the person I have named (K R Sreenivas), that will be a big signal. Other places have done what they are expected to do. I’ll only be able to believe that things will change when such actions happen. We are all open to investigation and I believe that none of us, who are disclosing stories, is lying. I’m hoping that media houses will change policies and I hope that people who are hired at top designations have zero-tolerance to any such incidents. Even when the smallest complaints pop up, immediate action should be taken and a genuine investigation held. These are changes we are hoping to see. Another change I hope to see is that decent or half-decent men will think twice before doing anything out of place. I think the campaign is a good chance for men to reflect and I hope they take that chance.  I also hope that the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) Act is tightened.

Do you believe that big sexual predators in the media have been named? Or are there more stories waiting to be told?

There are tonnes of stories to be told. This is not even the tip of the tip of the iceberg. And we haven’t even touched the movie industry yet.

How bad is the scene in Bengaluru? Have all big fish been named?

I’m pretty sure there are big fish. I have messages and incidents narrated to me in the IT industry and startups but none of them are willing to come on record yet. Most of these startups do not even have an internal committee in place.

Did you face any challenges in speaking out and getting others to speak out?

The trolling hasn’t affected me but it is coming in the way of my work. The threat of legal action to be followed, sheer disbelief that people have, with ridiculous questions like ‘Why didn’t you report this earlier’ were the other things. There were a couple of things I had posted and had to withdraw because the person had second thoughts. There were instances where I tried to console people and urged them to speak out but I do not push them.

How do you see the movement moving ahead? Will it result in better workplace conduct, and enforcement of rules against sexual exploitation?

One can only hope. I am sure that women will be stronger going forward, especially in taking action where their work is concerned. Workplaces which have informal and loose structures like the film, the media industry will tighten up.

Do you see the employment prospects of women being affected by the campaign?

If this happens in any company, it will be the biggest proof that the organisation is the kind that encourages predators. If an organisation wants to be progressive, it can’t do that. In most industries audits happen and no organisation can say something like this on record. They will have to cite other reasons for disqualifying women candidates.

Sandhya Menon has outed

  • K R Sreenivas, resident editor, Times of India (he has resigned)
  • Gautam Adhikari, senior fellow at Center for American Progress, Washington DC (resigned from post).
  • Manoj Ramachandran, works with Hindustan Times (investigation in process).

This is just the tip of the iceberg: Sandhya Ramesh


Sandhya Ramesh

Sandhya Ramesh, senior assistant editor (science) at The Print, is among the journalists helping women share their #MeToo stories. When she saw posts by comedian Mahima Kukreja about fellow stand-up Utsav Chakraborty, she reached out in support. Soon, many others named him as a sexual predator. Sandhya, who works from Bengaluru, started retweeting the posts and began receiving more messages from others. Here’s what she told Metrolife.

What explains the tremendous success of the #MeToo campaign?

I’d like to attribute anything that’s happening in the #MeToo movement to law student Raya Sarkar. When they (Raya prefers to be called they than she) started this movement last year, they didn’t get enough support. But after that, it felt like everyone was bottling up their feelings and the dam was ready to burst. We eventually saw that it reached to Bollywood and media and journalism felt the impact too. However, it did start off with a stack of comedians. The women were all just waiting for a trigger.

How are the stories affecting you?

It’s been awful. Most of us have been getting messages from completely random women, of women sharing completely personal intimate stories of hurt, abuse, paedophilia and so on. It’s been affecting everyone. People are talking about falling sick, including me. I know that a lot of women cry out of helplessness, anger and frustration every single day. It has almost reached a point where everyone is going numb, but we need to tell ourselves that we shouldn’t. We should all know that there are many more stories to come out.

What changes do you foresee in media and entertainment?

Social media has really started to hold people accountable. And because of that, as compared to the situation five years ago, firm action is being taken, especially in media outlets. I can only see this being implemented in other fields now.

Would you say the big sexual predators in the media have been named?

This is just the tip of the iceberg. A lot more is yet to come out, in corporate companies and NGOs. With the collective anger on social media, it may feel like we have reached saturation, but there’s plenty more to hear from non-social media. For them, things are just building up and they are releasing that they can also speak out.

Is it challenging to get others to speak out?

Not at all. There have been people contacting me and others hoping someone else will start the topic so they can jump into the conversation. I’m sitting on a few stories where victims are hoping to get the topic going. This whole exchange is not just outing the person anonymously but helping others also speak out their experience. There is no dearth of stories here.

Where do you see the movement going? 

One of the core aspects we need is for men to recognise everyday sexism because that really needs to change. Yes, it is not going to happen overnight but with #MeToo, what we can do is get employers to take notice of what is happening and how rampant sexual harassment is. This should help put better policies and be more responsible.  

Some people are saying in private the campaign may affect the employment prospects of women...

More women are going to be hired. It’s come to a point where people are looking down on companies that do not have a proper gender ratio and these things are being actively called out. Usually, in corporate companies as well, we talk about maternity and paternity benefits. Now with #MeToo, I believe that hiring actions are going to be out there in public.

What do you have to say to the women who are still struggling to open up?

This is the time for everybody to come out and share their experiences. If a person is outed by one woman, five other women come out and share their experiences with the same person. Sexual harassment is repetitive behaviour. It’s almost never an isolated case. So speak up or reach out to others about it.


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Power girls steering #MeToo

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