A Break in the Narrative: The Significance of the MeToo Movement

Aradhana - Intern, Gender Equality Mandate

Image Credit: D. Bastard / RSF

Actress Alyssa Milano took to Twitter in October, 2017 starting the phenomenon of the #MeToo movement, that encouraged survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault to speak out. The movement, originally started in 2006, and was coined by activist Tarana Burke, who sought to encourage solidarity among survivors of sexual harassment

The response to the tweet was overwhelming. Millions of survivors, not just in the United States, but across the world spoke out. Some detailed their encounters of sexual harassment and violence, and some simply spoke out with a #MeToo, marking themselves as survivors as well.

The UNDP defines sexual harassment as “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another person.” 45% to 55% of women have experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15 in the European Union. This number is expected to be higher both in the EU and worldwide, since most cases of sexual harassment are not reported.

The narrative around sexual violence and harrasment, that has perpetuated in society, media and even the law, marks perpetrators as anomalies. The perpetrators are viewed as social deviants or ‘sick’ individuals, and often attributed to men from marginalised communities. This narrative is another measure used to alienate and villainize minority communities. This perpetuates harmful stereotypes against such communities and provides unfounded justification for violence against such communities. However, the massive response of the #MeToo movement challenged that narrative, demonstrating the widespread nature of sexual harassment and how deeply it is embedded into social norms. The movement reaffirms what scholars and activists have been arguing for years, that such acts are a reflection of a deeply entrenched ‘rape culture’.

Further, the movement challenged the existing power structures in society, where well-known and powerful men have been accused, ousting several out of power, and in some cases, leading to criminal charges. The movement was important, not just because it opened up a greater avenue for accountability, at least through public opinion, but because it sparked a larger debate around sexual harassment. It went beyond the rigid limitation of the law.

In India, the #MeToo movement sparked nearly a year after the movement in the US saw a lot of women come forward, with their own #MeToo stories. The movement called out a lot of powerful and privileged men. The #MeToo Movement brought into focus the idea that sexual assault is a very widespread and normalised phenomenon in Indian society. The 2017 Unnao rape case highlights how banal sexual assault is in our society and there is an inadequate or nonexistent amount of help and protection offered to victims. This especially is true when the perpetrators are powerful, such in the case of former BJP MLA Kuldeep Sengar. The survivor of the horrific rape had to go to extreme lengths to gain attention to her plight, lost members of her family, and nearly lost her own life, before enough media attention pushed for the country and administration to notice, and prosecute her rapists. The pervasive nature of sexual harassment, that is hard to define under the law, is explored in a public forum. These forms of harassment are supported by the uneven power schism between genders that oppress a certain community and normalised. The #MeToo platform is an opportunity for victims to validate their experiences, dismissed by the law and larger socio-cultural practices. It is an attempt to address and change those practices. The huge number of participants emphasizes the widespread nature of problems caused in an uneven power structure, in the patriarchal society we live in.

In 2018, during the burgeoning movement in India, journalist Priya Ramani came forward with her own #MeToo story, accusing prominent politician and journalist MJ Akbar of sexual harassment at a job interview. Akbar was one of the most powerful people to be named and accused during the movement in India, serving as the Minister of External Affairs in India during the time and was forced to resign. In response, Akbar filed criminal defamation charges against Ramani, accusing her of damaging not only his personal reputation and goodwill, but also his political career and social standing. After a prolonged legal battle, Ramani was acquitted in February this year. The judgement is being hailed as a hallmark of recognition of the spirit of the #MeToo movement by the judiciary.

Former Indian minister MJ Akbar has lost a defamation case against a journalist, in a ruling with huge implications for the country's #MeToo movement.

Image credit :BBC

In Priya Ramani’s case, it becomes clear that criminal defamation charges are a notorious tool used by powerful men to suppress any claims of harassment. It can be used as a further deterrent to suppress victims who wish to speak up. This is why the acquittal of Priya Ramani has been hailed as groundbreaking.

The judgment gives a sense of legitimacy to the #MeToo movement in India. It acknowledges that institutional mechanisms have failed sexual harassment victims. Thus, taking to social media can be viewed as a form of self defense, acknowledging their experiences. “The woman cannot be punished for raising her voice against the sexual abuse on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation as the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman.” This excerpt of the judgement indicates how necessary it is for women to be able to speak out, even against those in power. Their experiences are genuine, and they have every right to seek out any possible recourse against abuse. It moves beyond the narrative of unknown sexual harassers. It encourages a greater look at how social practices normalises such harassment. “The time has come for our society to understand the sexual abuse and sexual harassment and its implications on victims.” Power and prestige are supposed to be irrelevant, especially when it is used to hurt the physical and mental well-being of another human being.

However, while hailed as a beacon of hope,the same still has some disturbing elements to it. By quoting stories such as Ramayan, where Laxman did not dare look past the feet of Sita, this aspect of the judgement continues to add to the yarn that only ‘pure’ women are true victims. This suggests that women cannot show their own sexuality, and the ‘good’ woman is to be put on a pedestal. This perspective strips women of their agency. Ramayan is not the best example to take, in a case that deals with the question of the right to dignity of women over the right to reputation. This epic has displayed a disturbing treatment of its female characters. Sita had to undergo an abduction and after her rescue, was treated as ruined and rejected by her family. To protect her family’s reputation and honour, she had to prove herself repeatedly. Using such examples, it further places the burden on the woman to not venture into unsafe situations, rather than on the perpetrators who create that situation in the first place.

It is pertinent to mention that in India, the movement did not have as big an impact as it did in the West. Survivors who came out were heavily scrutinised, and it was generally viewed as ‘just another trend’, as an imitation of the West. While there were greater legal repercussions in other countries, such as in Harvey Weinstein’s case, India mostly saw temporary repercussions of the accused in the court of public opinion. Prominent people who had been named in the course of the movement, may have lost status and power temporarily, but soon regained it, as evident in the entertainment industry. Survivors who came forward were viewed as attention seekers, and the threat of the loss of reputation and livelihood against the accusers were viewed as more important. For example, the recent judgment by the Bombay High Court, acquitting a man under the POCSO Act, where groping a minor’s breasts with no skin contact, did not apparently fall under the offence of sexual assault. This judgment sets a dangerous precedent, where there is already a sense of impunity in many segments of society regarding sexual assault. Fortunately, legal authorities are treating the issue with the importance they deserve. The Supreme Court has ordered a stay on this judgement. Nevertheless, such readings of the law are not unusual, and there is a need to change policy attitudes towards sexual assault.

An important example of the schism between policy and reality is the sexual harassment case filed against the former Chief Justice of India. It was summarily dismissed as false last year. Instead there was a greater focus on trying to determine if the accuser’s allegations were part of a larger conspiracy against the CJI. A special bench had been convened, headed by the CJI himself, and he presided over his own case. Regardless of whether the allegations were true or not, by shifting the focus to possibilities of a conspiracy and allowing the accused to play a significant role in determining the outcome of his trial, the court failed the person seeking justice. This further discourages victims from coming forward and seeking legal action against their abusers. MP Mahua Moitra’s speech in Parliament highlights the failing trust in the judicial system, “It (the judiciary) stopped being sacred the day a sitting CJI was accused of sexual harassment, presided over his own trial, cleared himself & accepted a nomination to the theUpper House within 3 months of retirement replete with Z+ security cover.” Cases such as these are why #MeToo gains more relevance. If there are concerns of a miscarriage of justice, victims seek other avenues, such as the court of public opinion.

Mahua Moitara's Speech in the Parliament of India about former CJI

Recently, the current Chief Justice of India, came under fire for his remarks on a case of rape. “If you want to marry we can help you. If not, you lose your job and go to jail. You seduced the girl, raped her. We are not forcing you to marry. Let us know if you will. Otherwise you will say we are forcing you to marry her.” The CJI also stayed the accused’s arrest for a month. These remarks show a disturbing lack of empathy for the victim, as well as suggesting that instead of legal action, marriage is a solution to rape. This again, sets a dangerous precedent, and continues the narrative of viewing women as property. By encouraging the accused to marry the schoolgirl he raped, it suggests that her family’s ‘honour’ is more important than her well being. It also continues the reviled narrative that marital rape is acceptable.

Image Credit:Quartz India

However, while the movement has sparked a larger debate around sexual assault, and attempts to hold perpetrators accountable to some extent, it has heard a limited number of voices, especially in the Indian context. Women, who might already have some social and economic clout, have the space to speak out. While not discounting their experiences, there needs to be an acknowledgment of the fact that people from lower castes and other socioeconomic backgrounds do not receive the same publicity. #MeToo is reflective of the existing socio-economic hierarchy that exists in India. The majority of voices that came out during the movement were from people of privilege. Women from rural areas, are less likely to have access to the same luxury, to speak out on the #MeToo platform. Access to the media platform is nonexistent and the consequences of speaking out within their socio-economic realities might be more severe. The movement does not account for their experiences. In the case of Priya Ramani, she had an established reputation and clout as well. If it was someone from the Dalit community or other marginalised sectors, they might not have had the same resources or support to continue to fight the case. They do not even receive the same audience attention or sympathy. It has been established often that sexual assault is tied to power, and the intersection of caste and other identities with gender play a vital role in their lived realities.

The case of Bhanwari Devi is a resounding example of that. She was brutally raped in Rajasthan, as punishment, for daring to act ‘above her station’ both as a woman and through her caste. The acquittal of her rapists showed the level of seriousness with which the courts treated her case. It was her voice and continued defiance that led to the creation of the Vishakha guidelines, that actively tied sexual harassment with the workplace. She could be viewed as one of the pioneers of the larger movement against sexual harassment in the workplace

The legal system has continued to fail victims from marginalised communities. The recent Hathras gang rape and murder showed how deeply caste is intertwined into the police and administrative systems. A 19- year old Dalit girl from the Valmiki community was brutally raped and murdered by four men from the Thakur community. The accused faced no repercussion, the woman’s body was burned without her family’s consent, and assertions that the rape never even took place were made by the police. Rape is an assertion of power, and when viewed through an intersectional lens, it expresses dominance nation of one community over ver another. As India’s justice system is predominantly upper caste and mysogynistic , it is rare for Dalit women to receive justice.

Caste, often viewed by some by some as a bygone evil, however, continues to play a strong role in determining how people in India are treated. The socio economic background that one comes from determines how they are treated both by the law and society. Women from the marginalised class and castes are even more vulnerable to sexual harassment, with fewer options for recourse.

The #MeToo movement, especially in India, has not recognised the intersection of caste, economic positions and gender. Policy has not been inclusive when it comes to women from lower socio-economic categories, and the movement too, lacks the same inclusivity. In fact, it has been mostly limited to urban spaces and the media industry. Those working in the industry usually have certain privileges already accorded to them, that might be denied to people from lower socio-economic classes.

These are instances, not from the so-called miscreants and poor of society, but from people who have a great deal of status, privilege and power. It highlights just how oppressive a culture exists against women, permeating the highest echelons of power. This is why the movement holds importance, as its attempts to change that narrative. It is meant for women to show that they will no longer keep quiet and suffer the abuse, that they will try to glean some kind of accountability. In a society, that still continues to victim blame, the space provided through the Me Too hashtag, allows for a sense of solidarity as well as emphasising the urgency of the problem.

While everyone, including those accused of sexual harassment are innocent until proven guilty, when the flawed justice system, sees fewer convictions, especially against powerful people, the #MeToo movement is a necessary means to highlight the flawed system of rules we live in. This is why the Priya Ramani acquittal is so important. While it does not prove that sexual harassment did take place, it also does not dismiss the victim’s experience and validates her right to seek recourse. This sets a good precedent for victims to speak up and be acknowledged for the horrific experiences they might have gone through.

The movement has been used as a space for victims to come forward and share their stories, and add their voices to a broader practice as a form of consciousness raising. It has made a contributituin to the broader conversation that works to eliminate sexual violence. However, since most of the people who came forward already held some power in society, it did not reflect the ground realities regarding sexual harassment and assault in India. A purpose of the movement, is to highlight just how extensive and widespread a problem sexual harassment is, and how deeply intertwined it is in our social, economic and political realities. When women from marginalised communities do not have the means to come forward or are not accorded the same wide audience, the movement fails in its purpose to include all experiences.

While the movement is still in its nascent stages, and has dwindled considerably, it still has the power to spark debate and take the conversations forward. Movement building takes time and work, and the disruption and outrage the #Me Too movement brings needs to encompass the voices of minority women as well. Change, through a very limited sphere, is hard to undertake. For the movement to be truly relevant, it needs to be more inclusive. Highlighting the intersection of oppression can only further societal understading of the complexities of the rape culture that exists in our society. Only through the consideration of all identities can it attempt to truly affect a positive change in social practices, and encourage more inclusive policy. The movement will be truly successful when we can then look beyond the idea of simply #MeToo and undertake measure to address the systems that allow sexual harassment to endure.

Image Credit: LiveLaw

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