Who would have thought that two seemingly innocuous words, strung together, and fitted into a hashtag, would serve as a trigger to redefine gender dynamics at the workplace? From Hollywood movie moghuls to politicians across the international spectrum, and from corporate head honchos to media personalities, the #MeToo movement has successfully pulled the rug from under the feet of several powerful men that have sexually harassed women, and men too.
While it is early days yet to pass judgment on the success of the movement, there can be no denying that tremors have rocked the workspaces, and proved a shot in the arm to women engaged for long in a battle to correct the lopsided power equations between the sexes. Hitherto browbeaten into feeling deep shame and guilt for actions that they felt powerless in the face of, women across the world have drawn strength from the collective testimonies of the sisterhood, and gained the courage to face up to their tormentors.
Although #MeToo as a movement has derived tremendous mileage from the shakeout in Hollywood in 2017, that saw the names of powerful men like studio boss Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey being called out, and the publishing of what is known as the Raya Sarkar list closer to home, naming and shaming several top Indian academicians, the origin of the movement can be traced back to the efforts of American social activist and community organiser Tarana Burke in 2006. It took the hashtag trending on social media in 2017, of course, for the movement to truly capture the public imagination and trigger off testimonies en masse, naming not just perpetrators of abuse at the work place, but also those within the inner family and friends circles.
The Indian context
In the Indian context, even while the Raya Sarkar list did create ripples, it was the Bollywood shakeout, quite akin to what happened in Hollywood, which set off an avalanche of sorts in 2018. It shouldn’t come as a surprise given that news of the shenanigans of Bollywood stars, right down to the sartorial choices of their tiny tots, is what provides fodder for 24/7 news channels and news sites to feed on. So when a major Bollywood star like a Nana Patekar, or a filmmaker like Sajjid Khan, or more recently, an A-list filmmaker like Rajkumar Hirani, have sexual harassment allegations slapped on them, the news media devotes major chunks of primetime or newsprint to covering the news. So much so that a layperson could even be forgiven for imagining that sexual harassment is the exclusive preserve of the film industry in India, such the focus on the industry related cases.
So is the Indian film industry some kind of den of inequity, where women are preyed on all the time? I don’t know if I am truly qualified to answer this one since I can only comment with certainty based on personal experience, and going by that, the answer would be a resounding ‘No’. In my close to two decades of being a member of the film fraternity, albeit not really inhabiting the mainstream space, I can say in all honesty that I have not been propositioned a single time. As shocking as it may sound, I have encountered far greater misogyny and sexism during my brief stint as a journalist. I have had male colleagues pass vulgar comments and crack crude jokes on the genitalia of prominent female politicians. I have been propositioned by a United Nations official when I approached him for support to a project. In contrast, I have been treated with utmost courtesy by my film industry colleagues, and never has my gender been a cause for any kind of harassment or mistreatment. I must add a rider here of course that I have been extremely careful and selective in my associations, and have guarded against the kind of vulnerability, which desperate efforts to gain access or opportunity forces one to subject one’s self to.
Obviously, like in any other industry for that matter, the film industry too has its share of men who choose to coerce or subjugate women co-workers or staff, as drunk as they are on the power of their position or influence. The film industry does not subject itself to as strict a scrutiny as a corporate set-up for one, although the 2018 shakeout has seen a sea-change on that front, and there is a certain element of arbitrariness involved in granting opportunities and access that allows for a greater chance for harassment and exploitation. Keen to gain a foothold in the industry, and brainwashed into believing that sex is the currency that will buy them the opportunities that they so desperately seek, young women and even men often succumb to what is called the `casting couch’ phenomenon. The #MeToo movement has triggered allegations against two high profile casting directors among others. In one case, an audio has been released in the voice of the alleged perpetrator, where he is heard telling the listener that she won’t get an opportunity unless she is willing to offer sexual favours in return.
The post facto event
It is important to take note here of the often heard murmurs on how sexual harassment allegations are being made post facto, even in cases where there was explicit consent. In other words, the woman knew what she was getting into and she went into it willingly. I believe a more nuanced understanding of consent is required here. While the legal validity of consent obtained under duress can be questioned, it must also be understood that the duress may not necessarily be in the form of a gun to the head. When it is someone’s burning ambition to be a part of the world of showbiz, and when she is told that granting sexual favours is the only way to do it, the coercion is certainly implicit. Another important point to note here would be that the consent is also contingent on the granting of the access or the opportunity that is being sought. When there is a breach of contract, as in one of the parties to the contract does not fulfil the conditions on the basis of which the exchange of sexual favours took place, there are instances of rape charges being filed by the women. Since the law neither recognizes sex as currency and hence, any charge of breach of contract involving said currency would not be legally tenable. Reason why we find rape allegations being made in such cases, where the claim is made that the consent stands nullified post facto given that the conditions on the basis of which it was granted remain unfulfilled. I believe we may need to revisit the relevant provisions of the law in this context to ensure that there is scope for legal relief in such cases.
Another often heard argument is how allegations are sometime baseless and the reputations of innocent men even are taking a hit as a consequence of the movement. We recently saw the case of a corporate executive, who committed suicide where he was not allowed an opportunity to present his case. Then there was also the case of Varun Grover, a film lyricist against whom allegations were made, following which the Netflix show that he was writing was almost cancelled. However, the allegations remained unproven, and it appears things were resolved before any further damage could be done.
While instances of unsubstantiated allegations and hit jobs, and the misuse of the public support that the movement has garnered, cannot be brushed aside as collateral damage, the larger issues that #MeToo hopes to address remain and the validity of the movement per se cannot be questioned. I believe this shakeup was a long time coming, and I can only hope that the purview of the movement would extend beyond the salacious coverage of sordid celebrity dramas, and provide relief for marginalised women working in various unorganised sectors too, that offer no scope for relief and redressal to the victims of sexual harassment.