The coming of age of the #MeToo movement in India is as paradoxical as it is phenomenal. For the first time, many women overcame traditional mores of shame and taboo associated with victims of sexual misconduct and spoke up publicly, calling out their harassers. Being vocal on Twitter about past harassments is liberating and empowering. The viral hashtag campaign helped overturn normalisation of abuse of power to some extent. It also set examples for younger women to find the courage and speak out instead of accepting things quietly as previous generations did. This is a welcome change.
Despite the buzz around the movement, little action has been taken against people who were called out. There are celebrated cases such as journalist Priya Ramani versus former union minister M.J. Akbar. Or the one filed by TV writer-producer Vinta Nanda who accused actor Alok Nath of rape. These are still being contested in court. But I do not know of any case where perpetrators have paid the price for misdemeanours. The allegations might have irritated or disturbed them. But I suspect these cases did not cause them much grief. Akbar, then Minister of State for External Affairs, stepped down but filed a criminal defamation case against Ramani.
The #MeToo movement has also raised more questions and concerns than the solutions it has offered. Moreover, one could not ignore an unintended kind of backlash taking place at the workplace. The movement might have sensitised men, but the knee-jerk reaction has led many senior executives to avoid one-on-one meetings with women colleagues. Many are unwilling to mentor woman leaders, fearing 'trouble'. Studies show that male colleagues are avoiding informal interactions with female colleagues; neither do they socialise as before.
One reason is the misuse of the #MeToo campaign. I am aware of cases where women called out men for 'inappropriate actions' although they were in romantic relationships earlier. When things did not turn out well, the women alleged abuse and molestation. This happens due to cultural dissonance in society. Women have become independent and want to experiment with life, but society compels them to be chaste and docile. Even now, patriarchal society blames women if abused or exploited. To avoid social backlash, women, too, play victim and cry wolf when men refuse to marry after an affair.
In April 2019, the Supreme Court passed a landmark verdict that could have long-standing impact on women's rights. According to the apex court, a rape charge cannot be invoked in case of sex between consenting adults. It can only be considered rape if a man has made a false promise of marriage. But unless the 'false promise' could be proven, and the relationship was consensual, it will not amount to rape.
The unfortunate outcome of all this: We will become a society built on distrust and fear. It will be a double whammy for women, the sad fallout of a supposedly liberating movement. Women are in a disadvantageous position at the workplace and do not have any support system. If men are wary of hiring or communicating with them, women will pay the price. While men will mentor men, women are bound to lose out. As women play multiple roles, the necessity of being a mother and homemaker could hinder them from taking junior women under their wing.
We need to sensitise women and men. If a woman wants to be treated as an equal, she has to take equal responsibility for her actions. Given the current mahaul of extreme views, there is need to educate women on navigating the chequered cultural canvas. Whether we like it or not, patriarchal and feudal perceptions exist. What we need to learn is to manage life and freedom alongside.
The writer is Founder and Chairperson, Spatial Access. (As told to Sonal Khetarpal)