India & #MeToo

Content warning: this transcript includes descriptions of sexual violence. 

By Deepanjana Pal  

 

I acknowledge that I meet you on the land of the Kulin nations and that sovereignty was never ceded. I pay my respects to the Elders past and present, and acknowledge the pivotal role the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to play within the Australian community.

There’s beauty and power in those simple sentences. It’s a statement that recognises how insidiously abusive recorded history can be as well as the importance of culture and storytelling when it comes to disrupting norms. Following in the footsteps of this everyday resistance, I’d like to take you back in time and tell you the story of a woman who I would like to believe would be an elder if Indian feminists were a tribe.

It’s September 1992, evening, in a village in Rajasthan and a woman named Bhanwari Devi is being gang-raped. She had been working in the small field she and her husband own when five men, armed with sticks, attacked her husband. Then, two of the men held Bhanwari down while two others raped her.

Bhanwari knows her rapists and the men know her. Four months ago, Bhanwari had earned their wrath when she reported one of them for arranging a marriage for his nine-month old daughter. He’s a powerful man in the village; Bhanwari is a woman, poor and a Dalit, among the lowest castes in the Hindu social pyramid. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Bhanwari also worked as a grassroot level social worker for the Rajasthan state government, her protest against the child marriage would have been inconsequential. But she had the government’s ears because of her job and officials paid a visit to the family that had tried to marry the infant off.

Since then, Bhanwari and her family had become persona non grata in the village. She had to go to the next village to get water, to grind her grain. The village stopped buying the pottery Bhanwari and her husband sold to supplement their income. Her children were bullied in school. Finally, there was the rape.

After the men leave, Bhanwari, bleeding but not broken, gets up and walks to a police station with her husband to file a complaint. The police refuse. They tell her she has to submit evidence – the blood and semen-stained skirt she’s wearing. It’s a tactic to keep her from registering a complaint. It doesn’t work. Bhanwari gives them her skirt and her husband unravels his turban so that she can wrap it around her waist as a makeshift skirt. Then the injured couple walk home.

What they didn’t know was that even with the skirt in their possession, the police hadn’t filed a formal complaint. That would happen days later, after women’s groups put pressure on the police.

This was just the beginning. At every level and at every stage, from police station to hospital to the courts, Bhanwari Devi faced harassment and resistance. Medical examiners would refuse to conduct the necessary tests, magistrates avoided her, and even when people grudgingly cooperated, they did their best to ensure her evidence wouldn’t hold up in court. Everyone knew what she’d been through and no one wanted to acknowledge it.

Meanwhile, other women who worked as grass root level workers in Bhanwari’s area reported they were being threatened by village councils. “They are circling us like a pack of wolves,” said Kailash Bai, another grassroot level worker. The fact that these women weren’t being allowed to do their jobs gave a couple of women’s groups an idea. A public interest litigation was filed against the Rajasthan government, in the Supreme Court of India, for failing to protect the fundamental rights of their employee, Bhanwari. The petitioners argued that Bhanwari had been raped as a consequence of doing her job — the state employed her to inform authorities of violations like child marriages so that they could stop them – and given the prevailing gender bias, an employer must take steps to ensure a secure working environment specifically for its women employees.

Around the same time, the case Bhanwari had filed against her rapists lurched its way forward. In 1995, three years after Bhanwari had been raped, a lower court acquitted the men who had raped her. The lawyer for the accused said that the judgement was “bold and courageous” and that his clients are “still scared that she will start another campaign against them,” referring to the media reports supporting Bhanwari that were largely a result of women’s rights groups campaigning for justice.

An appeal was filed against the verdict. “Since the day I was raped. I have lost all my options,” Bhanwari told India Today. “The only way ahead is to fight.”

Two years later, in 1997, Bhanwari got the only victory that she has known so far in her fight for justice. In response to the petition that had been filed by the women’s groups against the Rajasthan government, the Supreme Court of India delivered the Vishakha Judgement, which defined sexual harassment in the workplace and laid down the processes that an employer must have in place to ensure complaints can be filed and dealt with swiftly. The Vishakha Judgement was to be treated like a law until actual legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace was passed, said the court. That, incidentally, would happen in 2013. For the intervening 20-plus years, all we had was Vishakha and even in 2018, Bhanwari continues to wait for a final verdict in the case she filed against her rapists, who are out on bail (one died a few years ago, of old age).

Yet whatever systems of redressal we have for survivors of sexual harassment in India are because of Bhanwari and the Vishakha verdict. The guidelines it offered are the bedrock of every committee or cell instituted to tackle complaints of sexual harassment, be it in colleges or offices. Without Bhanwari, there would be no Vishakha Judgement and without Vishakha, there would be no due process as far as sexual harassment in a workplace goes.

Whenever topics like sexual abuse or violence against women come up in India, everyone stresses the importance of bringing the guilty to book, of trusting the systems that have been put in place by institutions. If there isn’t an official record of the crime and how it was tackled by authorities, then it’s very hard to shut up the naysayers who claim feminists are just women corrupted by the West, banging on about imaginary offenses. The systems may be flawed, but they do formally acknowledge the fundamental rights of women, and that has only happened because of the concerted and determined efforts of feminists and legal activists in most cases.

And there are times when due process works, which suggests that rather than the law and the processes, it’s the people enforcing these that are the problem or potentially, the solution. When they act responsibly, like Ambedkar University Delhi did, the system seems to work. In March this year, Lawrence Liang, the dean of Ambedkar University’s law school, was found guilty of sexual harassment. Even though the allegations were from the past and no one had complained at the university, the committee ran a probe and recommended that Liang be barred from occupying any administrative position for two years.

When the institutional response is callous, on the other hand, as in the case of the Asian College of Journalism, the system seems broken. Responding to allegations of harassment against Sadanand Menon, a respected cultural critic who teaches at the ACJ, the college’s official statement effectively said it wasn’t going to do anything because “unproven allegations … are not within its jurisdiction to investigate or enquire into.” Never mind the minor detail that the whole point of an investigation is to find proof that either verifies or proves allegations to be false. If it’s “proven”, it’s not an allegation; it’s a charge. The college, acting almost like Menon’s mouthpiece, also informed us that Menon has voluntarily decided not to teach at ACJ this year and is considering taking legal action against “those who have published false and defamatory allegations against him.” There was no explanation as to why the college believed Menon over those who had accused him.

I mention Sadanand Menon and Lawrence Liang specifically because both these names were in The List, a crowd-sourced document on sexual harassment in Indian academia, compiled by Raya Sarkar who is of Indian origin, presently lives in America and identifies as a Dalit feminist. The List is perhaps the loudest shout of #MeToo we’ve heard in India in recent times. Ambedkar University decided to investigate the claims and ended up finding Liang guilty; the ACJ chose to ignore the claims and side with Menon instead.

Raya’s list is one of those incidents that galvanised consciences across India. The last time this had happened was in a much larger scale, in 2012, when a 23-year-old woman in Delhi was gang-raped on a bus. The crime itself was brutal, but depressingly common. What was extraordinary was the response it evoked. We hadn’t seen such an outpouring of passion and anger in decades, and certainly not for a rape victim ever. This was the start of the third wave of Indian feminism and it marked the beginning of women’s rights becoming a topic of popular, national conversation. While the victim battled for her life, thousands, mostly women but also some men, took to the streets. They were mourning the young woman who was fiercely holding on just long enough to give the police the details they needed to file a complaint and apprehend the accused. Women gathered to protest the fact that unsafety was the norm for them in Delhi and that the solutions given to them — come home before sundown, don’t look male strangers in the eye, dress conservatively – were useless. Those that came out as protestors after the 2012 gang-rape were effectively saying “Me too” before the phrase reached India as a hashtag. The government of the time panicked at the sight of the swelling crowds, the placards and the slogans. Police attacked protestors, water-cannons were aimed at them, tear-gas was thrown at them. But the crowds dispersed only to reconnect, and they demanded something more than platitudes.

What we got as a result was the report of the Justice Verma Committee, which would form the basis of a major amendment to Indian criminal law in 2013. The definition of rape was expanded to include non-consensual oral sex as well as the insertion of any object or body part into the victim’s vagina, urethra or anus. Fast-track courts were to be set up for rape cases. Stalking, voyeurism, unwanted sexual advances and touch were now to be seen as sexual assaults rather than actions “outraging the modesty of a woman”, which was how the Indian Penal Code previously described it. Whether this reminds you of a Barbara Cartland heroine or the cartoon character Modesty Blaise probably depends on your reading. Neither are particularly representative, sadly.

Most importantly, the amended laws kickstarted a conversation about consent, and this would leave enormous ripples among men and women in India. The question of what constitutes duress and how to know whether consent is freely-given continues to be a much-debated topic. Ever since the Justice Verma Committee report recommended that there be an improved standard of consent, a large group of men have complained that this leaves them vulnerable. What if a woman pretends she’s consenting and then later reveals she wasn’t? How’s a guy to know? It’s alarming that so many men think their performances of romance encourage women to at best fake it and at worst, feel victimised, but that’s toxic masculinity for you. Another topic for another day. For women, there’s a more serious and problematic grey area here. Especially when there’s a fear of being attacked or revenge porn, women tend to sugarcoat rejections rather than be blunt, for their own safety. In a court of law, however, the documentary evidence — quoted emails or messages, for instance — suggests the women are agreeable. How do you separate the genuine fear from the genuine affirmative consent?

For instance, in 2015, an Indian theatre director and storyteller, a man, was accused of sexually assaulting an American scholar in India. A lower court found him guilty, and this was the first instance of non-consensual oral sex being seen as a crime in India. The accused filed an appeal and the High Court would overturn this verdict, saying that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove lack of consent. The case ultimately went to the Supreme Court, which delivered a judgement that deserves to be framed in the Mansplaining Hall of Fame because it informed us that “a feeble no may even mean yes”. Their words, not mine.

Feeble nos and other ambiguous manifestations of consent would show up when Raya’s list went viral, and those accused in it tried to clear their names by pointing out that their victims hadn’t complained to them. The immediate trigger for the list was Huffington Post taking down American academic C. Christine Fair’s essay in October 2017, in which she named and shamed a number of people in American academia. Raya, herself a survivor of sexual violence and someone who has first-hand experience of not being believed when she spoke up, decided to compile The List as an act of solidarity and warning. She knew there were whisper networks that cautioned students off certain professors, but what if you didn’t know the right people? Why shouldn’t everyone be aware of these reputations?

So on October 23rd, 2017, Raya wrote a Facebook post in which she said she was compiling a list of sexual harassers in academia. “If anyone knows of academics who have sexually harassed/ were sexually predatory to them or have seen it first-hand, PM me and I’ll add them to the list,” she said. It was, as Raya freely admits, an impulsive gesture that didn’t anticipate virality.

The response her Facebook post received was overwhelming. “I was taken aback that so many women reached out to me with their experiences,” she told me. “I did not expect them to trust me with sensitive information that was required from them. But they did – not only did they share their testimonies but sent me copies/ screenshots of emails, text messages, got their friends and witnesses to vouch for their narrative.” There was a process of verification that Raya put in place instinctively and this has been conveniently ignored by those who have subsequently attacked her and The List.

A day after Raya posted the list of alleged sexual harassers, some of Indian feminism’s most respected names went on a warpath. Against The List and Raya.

Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, said that Raya had bypassed the process of justice, as though a Facebook post was a Supreme Court verdict. Raya was called a vigilante by some, she was accused by others of being everything from gullible to a master manipulator.

Nivedita Menon, whose book Seeing Like A Feminist deserves to be included in syllabi all across India because it’s brilliant , published a statement on behalf of 14 extremely well-respected figures in Indian feminism. They dismissed Raya’s list as “the initiative on Facebook”, denying it the right to be considered even a footnote in what Menon claimed as their “long struggle to make visible sexual harassment at the workplace”. There’s no doubt that these 14 people have done incredible work for women’s rights in India, but that they would claim ownership of the movement in a way that excludes other women was disappointing. “It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously,” read the statement, ignoring the fact that Raya did have an informal process of verifying claims in place. The statement also said the undersigned were “committed to due process, which is fair and just”. No mention of the fact that students rarely press charges because they’re often intimidated and fear for how their grades will be affected by such a move. No mention of how barely a handful of educational institutions in the entire country have active cells for complaints against sexual harassment. The statement concluded with this: “We appeal to those who are behind this initiative to withdraw it, and if they wish to pursue complaints, to follow due process, and to be assured that they will be supported by the larger feminist community in their fight for justice.”

It’s worth pointing out that months later, when due process found Lawrence Liang guilty, there was a terse one-line statement on the same website, which would go on to carry a long post by Nivedita Menon, who would attack The List again, instead of offering the support she’d promised in that first response.

But that was later. Soon after Raya published her post, a South Asian blogger and journalist in America named Inji Pennu copied the names on Raya’s post on to a Google document and started adding to it. Meanwhile, the opposition to The List grew louder and fiercer. Some of the men on it demanded to be told who had “nominated” them, which didn’t do much to make the complainants feel their academic careers were safe, but did underscore the point that anonymity was problematic in terms of getting redressal for both survivors and those falsely-accused. Male academics, even those who were not on the list, started writing to students and colleagues, to establish their innocence. It seemed as though every other day, there was a Facebook status update in which a male academic felt the need to point out that he believes in sexual freedom and has been misunderstood.

The nervous flapping among academics and the updates on the Harvey Weinstein investigation gave rise to hopes that women would come forward and name abusers in the Indian film industry, particularly Bollywood (which is the Hindi film industry in India). Not one person did.

Does that mean Indian film industries are squeaky clean and shiny in the absence of gender bias? Of course not. They’re pits of exploitation, prejudice and cover-ups, which is why all we get are rumours and no one dares talk about it on record.

If this sounds cowardly, then consider this. In February 2017, about eight months before the Weinstein exposés were published, an actress was kidnapped in Kerala. She was in her car, going home after a shoot, when another car hit hers. Her driver got out to have the customary shouting match with the other car’s driver and while this was happening, the men in the other car got into the actress’ car and drove off. For two hours, she was held hostage, sexually assaulted and filmed.

She filed a complaint and the police investigations revealed that the plot had been hatched by one of the biggest heroes of the Kerala film industry and a man with whom this actress has done many films. His name is Dileep and he says he’s innocent while the police say they have testimonies, eye witness accounts and call records to back their claim. He was arrested and is currently out on bail. Even though the media backed the actress and the police have enough evidence to file a chargesheet, it was Dileep who had most of the industry’s sympathy. Not the actress.

Meanwhile in Bollywood, which is considered more progressive and open than most other film industries in India, Ekta Kapoor, the most powerful person in Indian television and one of the more influential film producers in Bollywood, said this when asked about sexual harassment in the Indian film industry: “Well, I think there are Harvey Weinsteins in Bollywood, but there is  probably an equal number of Harvey Weinsteins on the other side of the story, but people do not want to talk about that part. Yes, there are people in power like producers who use their power to take advantage of people, but at the same time, there are people on the other side, like an actor or others who need the job, who would also use their sexuality to get things done. Therefore, I believe that predators should not be put in a box based on power. It is not always true that the person who does not have power is the victim.”

You could make a strong argument that Ekta Kapoor doesn’t really know the meaning of words “victim” and “predator”, but that isn’t really what we should take away from her statement. When I mentioned this comment of hers to some film industry professionals, a few explained to me that Ekta was trying to say that sexual harassment should be considered a gender-neutral territory, but poor dear, she didn’t have the right words. Here’s the thing: sexual harassment should absolutely be a gender-neutral crime ideally because it has nothing to do with desire and everything to do with abuse of power. However, we don’t have a gender-equal society anywhere in the world, so it would be idiotic to turn a blind eye to the central power imbalance while arguing that sexual harassment is about power. Also, when your first response to sexual harassment is to indulge in a spot of victim-blaming, my only response is my resting bitch face.

What Ekta Kapoor’s statement actually indicates is how normal and accepted harassment and sexism are in the Hindi film industry. Sexuality, as she terms it, will get people jobs rather than their work experience or an audition. “Who did she sleep with to get that role?” or “He’s got the part because he’s the producer’s bitch” aren’t even considered offensive. They’re just statements of fact. Off the record, assistant directors and crew will talk about directors and producers who bring actresses into projects because they’re in a relationship or hope to be in one with the actress in question. Rumours abound about actors who demand “girls” be sent to them after a day’s shoot is done. On sets, no one bats an eyelid at offensive remarks, ranging from “Stop behaving like you’re on your period” to throwaway sleazy comments that women are supposed to ignore. That’s her test as a professional. The fact that the man in this equation isn’t behaving professionally, who cares?

From the people I’ve spoken to on the subject of sexual harassment, here’s what it boils down to in Bollywood: “No one talks about it because everyone does it.” “You talk about it and you’ll never get a call from a casting agent again. There are hundreds waiting anyway. They’re just looking for reasons to drop you.” “You give one specific name, and you’ll be identified. Then everyone will say, ‘She’s a slut. She slept with him and didn’t get the role so she’s framing him.’” “It’s not worth complaining about because it’s not going to change. They’re too powerful.”

So in terms of victories, results and concrete change, there’s very little to show for #MeToo in India so far, except for that solitary guilty verdict against Lawrence Liang. Within weeks of The List being published, Raya left Facebook, exhausted by the attacks in her inbox, and Inji took down the document. This was taken as proof of The List being false and not as an indication of the kind of threats and intimidation they’d faced. (Raya’s original Facebook post is, however, still up.) The divide within feminists remains, with the older, more-established lot unwilling to engage in any kind of dialogue and the younger, furious at being dismissed in this manner. The film industries in India have kept calm and carried on. The closest to concrete change could be the way multinational companies in India have stressed the need to have systems in place against sexual harassment and communicated to their staff that such charges will not be taken lightly. Whether this is a threat to the complainant or the accused, depends on the company’s individual culture.

As a disruption, on the other hand, #MeToo is a phenomenal success. The 2012 gang-rape brought everyone together. #MeToo in India isn’t doing that, but it is laying bare the power structures and inequalities that we’ve tried to paper over for years. In the lack of concrete results and resolutions, in the stubborn silences, we see the tight grip in which the pieces are held in place by those who wield power and influence. There’s also a new collective being formed, steadily and subtly by everywomen who resist in everyday ways, particularly on the internet. As long as you don’t keep quiet when you see sexism, you’re a heroine. After centuries of being forced into docility and poise, this is like a call to anarchy.

At one point, soon after #MeToo started going viral as a hashtag, Indian women on Facebook swamped the site with stories of their sexual harassment on the streets, in family functions, at work. It came as a shock to many men that practically every woman they knew had faced sexually offensive behaviour and violence of some sort from a man — and usually, more than once in their lives. It didn’t matter how rich or poor a woman was, how old she was or where she lived, there were situations in which she was vulnerable and someone took advantage of her. And that someone was invariably a man. Statistics became words and turned real, and it was, for many men, a rattling experience. Because if every woman in India has experienced sexism at least once, then every man in India has dismissed sexism and been sexist, at least once.

Since October 2017, one thing that we’ve seen more and more of is women taking to social media to talk about traumatic experiences, particularly those of sexual assault. It’s almost like they’re processing in public. It seems odd to do this on platforms associated with trolling, but what these survivors have found on the internet are allies and a sisterhood. For many, this is more valuable and therapeutic than due process.

Take, for instance, the story of K, who last month took to Instagram to recount a horrific Tinder date from 2015. She alleged she’d been held captive, raped and photographed against her will by a man she met on a Tinder date. He was fine until they went to his place. The reason she couldn’t leave after the first warning bells rang is that it was late at night and therefore unsafe for her to get out and grab a cab. Her choice was between the possibility of sexual violence at her date’s house and the possibility of sexual violence in public transport (on the premise she got a cab in the first place). Then at one point, her phone was out of battery, her date was alternating between tender and threatening, and she was counting the seconds till daybreak. The whole experience was recounted in a string of 15-30 second videos that made up K’s Insta story. She recounted what happened without any drama or high-strung emotion. Her story went viral and, unsurprisingly, reached the man in question.

He started his own Instagram story, protesting innocence and showing messages K had sent him and photos of hers which he argued established her claims as false. She said she was being nice to him because she didn’t want him to put the photographs he had of her online. A flame war followed between the two. Ultimately, both of them took their stories down and no one has gone for the legal route. Quite clearly, it’s far less important than getting the words of their stories out.

More recently, a young woman in Mumbai was in an autorickshaw when she realised the driver was masturbating. At one point, he turned his vehicle into a dark alley and pulled out his penis. The woman ran out. She got the number of the autorickshaw’s license plate and then, once home, she wrote posts on Twitter and Facebook, telling her readers what had happened, but that she had no intention of going to the police because they don’t take such complaints seriously. This time, though, the Mumbai Police did take her tweets seriously. They convinced her to file a formal complaint and within 24 hours of her doing so, they caught the driver. The woman wrote a gushing post, thanking the Mumbai Police. Someone sent me screenshots of the posts with a sarcastic one-liner: “Now that they got this guy, bet all pervy rick drivers are shaking in their pants.”

I actually wouldn’t be surprised if at least the pervy rick drivers in that neighbourhood think twice before trying that stunt with a young woman in their vehicle. That’s the impact that law enforcement can have when it’s done right. The point, though, isn’t the arrest, but the fact that this woman spoke up — and that’s got everything to do with #MeToo. The norm is to keep quiet, feel awkward or even shame and to get out of that situation as soon as possible, and say nothing to anyone. #MeToo has disrupted this and made it cool to speak up. For a vast number of Indian women and girls, the audience that the hashtag guarantees has given them the confidence to speak up, without fear of being silenced. That’s an enormous gain when you consider how much stigma has traditionally been attached to being a victim who would almost always be told that they’d asked for it so they shouldn’t blame the perpetrator.

The conversations that we’re having have also turned the spotlight on a massive problem in the system as it stands in India: the onus of bringing about change is upon the person who simply cannot be expected to carry that cross, the victim. It’s the victim who must report the crime, suffer the social stigma, relive the trauma repeatedly in court hearing after court hearing; the victim has to wait, the victim has to appeal, the victim has to push, the victim has to resist, the victim has to come forward and change the way people think. It can’t work like this. The heavy lifting must be done by allies, those who aren’t personally vulnerable but can campaign on behalf of victims. And the only way to gather allies is through conversations, like the ones #MeToo has amplified.

We’ve never had as many conversations about women’s rights as we have had since 2012 and later #MeToo became rallying points. There are those who will argue that these Twitter threads and Facebook confessions and Instagram outpourings are frustrating in their hollowness – a story trends, everyone clucks for a day or two, and then it’s forgotten or replaced by a new point of outrage. They’re right. There’s an informality to all this that is unnerving because nothing’s on record and everything is a story.

Yet in this very same informality is a strength – stories travel, from mouth to mouth, ear to ear, chipping away at old conventions by slyly raising questions in a listener’s mind. They’re not contained in archives, but they tend to linger in memory. If we’re going to change the way people think, it’ll be through the stories we tell and the ones we make sure are heard.

The one thing that the blade-like lines of the #MeToo hashtag have done is cut through the silences surrounding women and minorities in India. We’re done being quiet, and that is movement enough. For now.

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Deepanjana Pal is an author and journalist. Her most recent book is Hush A Bye Baby, a feminist thriller set in Mumbai, India. As a critic, she has written extensively on culture and gender for the past decade. She works with The Hindustan Times and is also part of the selection committee of Mumbai Film Festival. She tweets via @dpanjana

 

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