India ushered in 2017 with a shocking incident of mass molestation of women who were out on the streets of Bengaluru to greet the new year. Instead of festive mirth, the occasion became tainted for them by an ugliness all too pervasive in this country's public life.
Headlines screaming out barbarities perpetrated on women are ubiquitous in the Indian media. Cities and towns here proudly appear in lists of the most unsafe places in the world for women travellers. Patriarchy is what we breathe in the air here, mixed with a noxious dose of vehicular pollution. And not much seems to change even after repeated outbursts of public protest.
Over the past few days, women across the world have been reliving their own Harvey Weinstein moments on Twitter, since allegations of sexual harassment against the Hollywood producer spilled out in the open. In India, similar allegations against Khodu Irani, the owner of a popular bar in Pune called High Spirits, led to an outpouring of #MeToo stories of women's struggle to be heard.
Within hours of reports of harassment pouring in from people who have been to the bar for years, women, especially those with access to social networking sites, began speaking up. A litany of voices rose, loud and clear.
Not only did women condemn the incidents at High Spirits, they also started sharing personal stories of harassment, abuse, intimidation and much worse that they have lived with, more often than not silently, for years. As their voices flooded the Internet, a spirit of solidarity spread like a wildfire.
But confronted with this unified show of resistance, which should have ideally shattered divides of gender, a group of men decided to speak up on social media as well — not to add their voices to condemn violence against women but to say that #NotAllMen are culpable of such crimes.
If mansplaining is a bad enough manifestation of the unthinking privilege a majority of men internalise in the course of their lives, this righteous self-defence exposed a daftness surpassing any other.
The misplaced priority of these 'aggrieved' men invited the scorn of many, but such patterns of thinking are hard to get rid of. And the proof of such impervious male chauvinism is here as, once again, we witness the sordid dance of the fragile Indian male ego.
A sorry bunch of men, in India and elsewhere, have armed themselves with ridicule, supercilious self-worth or plain bile to counter the worldwide chorus of women of various ethnicities, sexual orientations and ages speaking out against their abusers — past, present and future.
That's as sad a reflection on the male gender as a whole as it can get, enough to make any member of the species cringe.
As a man, I've been overwhelmed by the sheer number of women on my social media timelines who have invoked the #MeToo hashtag to claim their stakes in calling out gendered violence.
As a man, I've been overwhelmed by the sheer number of women on my social media timelines — friends, family members, colleagues, strangers, acquaintances — who have invoked the #MeToo hashtag to join an army out there on the Internet, claiming their stakes in calling out gendered violence.
Some spoke of their ordeal not for the first time in public, others broke a painful silence they have preserved for years, if not decades. Every time a new message popped up on my phone or computer screen, I felt a stab of despair.
Women I have known for years, forged close friendships and formed bonds of trust with, spoke of private traumas in public for the first time. At long last, this was contrary to the social ethos we had grown up in, encumbered with a value system where to speak out against injustice was unnatural. Silence is golden, it helps perpetuate the patriarchal order of things.
There are many who may be sceptical of a politics that speaks itself through hashtags — perhaps rightly so. It's easy, even flippant, to type it out and hit post, they say, it doesn't make the slightest difference to the world.
Or does it?
Here's an analogy for men who are cynical of the hashtag exercise: Imagine letting go of a memory you've held tightly inside, like your breath underwater, for decades, and then the sense of relief, as you come up for air, the relief of inhaling freely again.
For me, one silver lining, for the lack of a better phrase, in this episode has been to encounter a number of men on my timeline also posting #MeToo stories, breaking the taboo that is sexual violence against men in India.
A HuffPost India report highlighted earlier this year the culture of silence around male victims of sexual violence in India and its endemic grasp over society. And as the #MeToo movement shows, the shame and stigma associated with being victims of sexual harassment can only be defeated by a reactive culture of fearless speech — against the perpetrators who commit these crimes as well as those who urge people to hold their silence.
Sexual violence doesn't discriminate, though historically, women and children, have mostly borne the brunt of it. But in a society like India, where patriarchy is written into the very fabric of communal living, men can become easy targets of hate, too, for refusing to endorse a toxic ethos of masculinity.
In India, now more than ever perhaps, a man's refusal to entertain locker-room talk or his stand against the objectification of women is likely to be derided by the majority of his kind — for whom all-male WhatsApp groups, dripping with sexism, are but an extension of their male privilege, sealed by the approval of many generations of social engineering.
Making a misogynistic remark is often as routine an affair as manspreading on public transport. Look no further than Bollywood for validation.
No wonder such conditioning has spawned hashtag battles, with even so-called 'woke' men busy drawing the attention back to themselves from a social evil that members of their own sex are complicit in.
No wonder such conditioning has spawned hashtag battles, with even so-called 'woke' men busy drawing the attention back to themselves from a social evil that members of their own sex are complicit in. Instead of listening to the #MeToo testimonies with the care and respect they deserve, being stung by the horror of it all, and introspecting on its larger implications, some men on social media came up with #NotAllMen as the answer to all their troubles.
It was enough for them to brandish their self-proclaimed virtues by claiming to treat women as members of their own family. The fate of all women, according to such logic, is to forever remain a mother, daughter sister or wife to men, never to exist individuals in their own right, as equal stakeholders in society.
Apart from making a stride in public perceptions of gender justice, at least among the urban elite and the generation that's growing up ensconced in social media, the #MeToo movement has shown men in India just how hard it is to leave their comfort zone, to give up the halo of entitlement, and begin to earn a real one.
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