Men, women need to re-wire attitude to each other

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To say that the #MeToo movement in India is exploding by the minute would be an understatement. Every passing hour is seeing names tumbling out of cyberspace, with men being called out as sexual predators by women who have been their targets in their working spaces. Many of the victims had chosen to seethe in silence for years, the fear of exposing powerful men and facing the consequences overruling the trauma of their physical and mental defilement. Several women chose to opt out of their oppressive surroundings. Because they were not able to come to terms with what had happened. Because they felt that they had allowed this to happen to them and had carried on working in the same environment without raising their voice. Because the system had not come to their aid when they did raise their voice. Because, perhaps, sometimes there was no system.

This is how things were in that ‘real world’ that everybody talked of. Where such whispers were heard and discussed. Not in the open, but in the safe, dark back-alleys of life. From where the spectators looked at what was happening, like at a bizarre theatrical play. Except that in this case, the spectators and the villains could go back home to their lives, the victims had only that limbo space to retreat into.

It is not as if we all did not know sexual harassment happens. Each one of us who have a female relative at home – mother, sister, wife, daughter – know that every single one of them has been a target of sexual harassment -- in crowded buses, at functions, at public events where hundreds gather in our country, in quiet corners of family life. It would not be exaggeration to say that every Indian woman has been a victim of a sexual harassment at one time or another, in one manner or the other.  The mental scars will always be a part of their lives – whether they are just abrasions, or scratches, or deep cuts.

And for that suppressed, seething anger, social media has become a place where it is being released. The ripples caused by the #MeToo movement in the US took some time to reach Indian shores. But when they did, they became tidal waves that are exposing a shocking number of prominent people in the world of media and entertainment. The initial feeling is that of revulsion and numbness at the horrors that the women faced (some repeatedly, over a period of time).

There is an internal complaints system in place to check precisely such issues, made mandatory by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013. Many corporate organisations and institutions have these committees, and complaints are seen to be taken seriously. Investigations on such complaints had to necessarily be carried out discreetly, behind closed doors – both parties innocent until proven guilty and all that.

That mode of propriety in probing was perhaps what was taken advantage of by those who were powerful – mingled with the victim’s fear of shame and ridicule if the truth got out.  

Social media has taken care of all that. Call it the pent-up, white-hot fury whose time for release has come. Or, call it the sudden realisation that social media is a democratic platform where there are no tedious, labyrinthine processes for getting justice or exposing their oppressors. Ironically, the tremors rocking India are revelations from the media and the entertainment industry – considered by most as leading engines of social change.

The predictable victim-blaming and shaming begins immediately. Already, some of the accused are brazening it out, rejecting the charges, while others are getting ready to sue their accusers for vast, intimidatory sums of money. Streamlined, swift processes need to be set in place to ensure that the law can step in to investigate such allegations further to give succor for the innocent and punish the guilty.

Zero tolerance clauses must become mandatory, especially in the loosely-organised sectors. And surely, there cannot be just a vague notional act of punishment by sacking the guilty, or banishing them from their known social circles. Well-meaning people and organisations could come forward to set up a legal fund to help those who cannot afford to take their cases to their logical, lawful conclusions.

The US, where this storm began, already has such a foundation set up and has reported thousands of applicants seeking legal assistance.

Gender dynamics will never be the same again after this. Men and women will need to re-wire their attitudes to each other at work places, and hopefully let neither over-consciousness nor flippancy ruin wonderful team equations.

The Sexual Harassment Act covers both genders, but these rounds of revelations have so far seen largely only women calling out men. This is just the tip of the iceberg – the tiny but powerful, English-speaking, tech-savvy percentage of Indians who have access to social media. There are thousands of victims who may not know English, or who may not be at ease with social media, both rural and urban, who continue to languish even as you read this, waiting for liberation and justice. One can only hope that this #MeToo movement will mean that they, too, will one day wake up to a bright, clean morning where everything is alright. Maybe not fine, but at least alright.

(The writer is a senior television and print journalist and actor)

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Men, women need to re-wire attitude to each other

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