NEWS
12/10/2018 8:59 AM IST | Updated 16/10/2018 6:03 PM IST

#MeToo In India: To All The Women Who Called Out Predatory Men, THANK YOU

As #MeToo swept across my social media timelines the past week, I watched first with awe, then horror, and then just plain gratitude, as women called out men who have oppressed them, sometimes even decades ago.

Over the past week, most women and many men seemed to have acknowledged the power and legitimacy of shaming a perpetrator on a public forum.
linephoto via Getty Images
Over the past week, most women and many men seemed to have acknowledged the power and legitimacy of shaming a perpetrator on a public forum.

NEW DELHI—One evening in 2006, a couple of weeks after I had joined the Kolkata bureau of a national English daily, the news editor of the organisation walked out of his cubicle and asked me to see him in his room. He hovered over his desk, shuffling printouts into a neat stack and arranging his pens in the holder as I waited nervously. Then, as he proceeded to dust the monitor of his PC with a tissue, he looked at me and said sternly, "Don't wear jeans so low that your panties show. No one wants to see your panties. At least, not me."

I was 21 and had been hired for my first job out of college barely three months back.

As I stared back, frozen with embarrassment, I furiously tried to remember what I was wearing at the moment. I couldn't bear to look down—at my own body—and dragged myself to the washroom, only to remember that I was wearing a boxy, long kurta and denims.

Later, the man casually said that the 'panties' conversation was preemptive: to ensure I did not wear 'vulgar clothes' to work like women my age were wont to.

That was not the last time he would speak about 'girls whose panties showed' and how that titillated men. On other days, while he casually walked past our bay, he'd make eye contact and glance at my neckline to indicate that I should pull it up. As days passed, I found ways to normalise this as just one of those things men do that is a woman's burden to put up with.

At 21, redirecting rage to resignation was an achingly familiar process, actively supervised by women a generation older than mine. I did it when someone squeezed my breasts on a public bus, I was 12. I did it when a professor in my college said an essay should be like a woman's body—"the lower you go, the more interesting it gets". I did it when at 16, I finally realised that an uncle had been sexually abusing me for at least a year, that I had a memory of when I was about eight years old.

So I had to invent just another trick in order to accept and minimise the effect of yet another man's actions on my life. Simple.

At 21, redirecting rage to resignation was an achingly familiar process, actively supervised by women a generation older than mine.

Every other day before I left for work for nearly a year till I moved to another team, I yanked at my top to check if it was dipping too low, squatted in my denims and ask someone at home to check if my underwear peeked out.

My mother shook her head while helping me up from squatting one day and said, "What can you even do?"

I have an answer to that, twelve years later.

As #MeToo swept across my social media timelines the past week, I watched first with awe, then horror, and then just plain gratitude, as women called out men who have oppressed them, sometimes even decades ago.

Raya Sarkar's 'list'

When Raya Sarkar first floated LoSHA (list of sexual harassers in academia), I was among the people who were not entirely convinced by the method. Was it fair, or even legal, I wondered.

But #MeToo posts flooding my social media timelines reminded me that it was not fair that women, powerful journalists themselves, had to wait two decades to gather the courage to publicly name the man who harassed them relentlessly.

It was not fair that Vikas Bahl and his entourage went on to thrive, while the woman he allegedly assaulted struggled to find work and deal with the trauma at the same time.

It was not fair that the rape trial of Tarun Tejpal has dragged on for five years, despite having been in a fast-track court.

It was not fair that the celebrated feminist boys' club of stand-up comedy, whom youngsters looked up to, actively protected the harassers among their brood.

Journalist Nasreen Khan, who alleged that Satadru Ojha, an editor with Calcutta Times, harassed her and then went on to publish a sexist article under her byline as vengeance, told me, "To be honest the movement has been very cathartic for me... I'm just another woman with no special qualities, except for the fact that I refused to be bullied or to succumb to pressure. I salute whoever started this movement. I cannot thank her/him/them enough."

A staggering number of men and women were critical of Sarkar's methods when she first began compiling a list of men in academia accused of harassment and assault. Over the past week, which saw hundreds of women naming and shaming perpetrators of assault, most women and many men seemed to have acknowledged the power and legitimacy of shaming a perpetrator on a public forum. The fallout was also swift and the most concrete that we have seen so far. All India Bakchod lost a show on Hotstar and several journalists are facing investigations in their respective organisations.

Sarkar also said that this wave of #MeToo protests in India is a sign of more people accepting the fact that a majority of women are not naming men as harassers to fulfil some sort of a vendetta.

"I think a key difference between what happened last year and what is happening today is that women who helped me add names to the list were fearful of retaliation on professional fronts so they chose to remain anonymous but today many women are overcoming this fear and making the accusations themselves. I am very glad this is happening," Sarkar told me, over email.

Sarkar also said that this wave of #MeToo protests in India is a sign of more people accepting the fact that a majority of women are not naming men as harassers to fulfil some sort of a vendetta.

"My heart goes out to the survivors who had publicly accused men of harassing them in academia last year (after the list was published) but were not taken seriously, they were accused of enabling my so called 'witch hunt'. I hope society takes cognizance of their allegations and extend their solidarity to them as well," Sarkar told me.

Fear of backlash, and mental health worries

Two days before writing this article, a very close friend finally mustered courage to publicly share details of the horrific assault she suffered at the hands of a friend we had both known and trusted for years. The day she wrote the Facebook status detailing the assault was the when we saw the clarity she had about how she sought closure. She was aware of the backlash that would come her way, anticipated a smear campaign and also the fact that many people she knew may side with the assaulter.

"By sharing this story, I am giving myself a chance to get rid of that weight," she wrote at the end of a long, difficult post. The assault and now going public with the details have taken a toll on her mental health.

Khan, who alleged that the Times Group devoted their entire machinery to discredit her experience, also filed an FIR in 2015 in Kolkata. In fact, she told me, cops refused to file the FIR until she made a hue and cry at the police station. "Three years have passed since then. The cops did nothing. So basically it was sent to the cold storage. I too did not pursue further. Because there's a limit to letting yourself be assaulted like this mentally and psychologically," Khan said.

Sarkar, who compiled the LoSHA and engaged in multiple arguments about its credibility, told me that she "got very depressed, gained 20 KG and just dissociated for while". A law student in the US, she reminded me that she suffered this despite having a strong support system and access to healthcare facilities, thanks to her college's insurance.

I'm hoping that after so many big names being called out due to this movement, there will be a professional atmosphere at the workplace and it won't be treated like someone's living room.

Five years ago, when the rape accusation against Tejpal surfaced, it felt wildly unreal to dozens of young women journalists in newsrooms across India. Thanks to bawdy older men cracking inappropriate 'jokes' in the newsroom all the time, women colleagues being told to 'ignore' older men expressing their 'love' for them after one drink too many, older women telling younger women 'oh that's just XYZ for you' when the latter complained about sexual advances from seniors, we had till then only dealt with powerful, predatory male editors like we deal with street harassment—best suffered quietly and forgotten quickly. To have such a man held accountable of sexual predation—a badge worn with pride and arrogance by scores of such men in our experience—was empowering yet shocking.

At this moment, it feels like the most plausible thing to have happened.

Khan said, "I'm hoping that after so many big names being called out due to this movement, there will be a professional atmosphere at the workplace and it won't be treated like someone's living room."

For at least some men among the millions running the circus of oppression, it really seems like time's up.