In In­dia, a long-awaited #MeToo mo­ment gath­ers steam

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - NEWS - PADMAPARNA GHOSH

Across so­cial-me­dia plat­forms, women in the coun­try are find­ing the courage to tell their sto­ries

Free­lance jour­nal­ist. She worked with In­dia To­day mag­a­zine from Fe­bru­ary, 2011, to July, 2011, as an as­so­ciate ed­i­tor.

Eight years ago, Shutapa Paul was a young, en­thu­si­as­tic re­porter in Kolkata who had just hap­pily landed a job at In­dia To­day, one of In­dia’s na­tional mag­a­zines. To­day, the story of what she en­dured there is part of a news story it­self – the story of In­dia’s bur­geon­ing #MeToo move­ment.

Across so­cial-me­dia plat­forms, in­clud­ing, most promi­nently, Twit­ter, In­dia’s women have been find­ing the courage to tell their sto­ries, bol­stered by the courage of oth­ers who are also tes­ti­fy­ing about sex­ual as­sault and sex­ual ha­rass­ment in work­places, par­tic­u­larly across the creative sec­tor, from me­dia to stand-up com­edy, film, de­sign and the art and lit­er­ary worlds.

The re­sult­ing bl­iz­zard has re­sulted in res­ig­na­tions, ab­di­ca­tions of posts, fir­ing and le­gal cases.

Ms. Paul, now the founder and ed­i­tor of NewCrop, a dig­i­tal me­dia news plat­form, kept silent about her mem­o­ries of M.J. Ak­bar for al­most a decade be­fore she felt able to tell the story pub­licly of her ex­pe­ri­ences with In­dia To­day’s ed­i­tor. Over 2010 and 2011, Paul al­leged in a se­ries of tweets from Oct. 10, Mr. Ak­bar ha­rassed her in a way that was “deeply trau­matic.”

Ms. Paul is one of the more than 20 women who have ac­cused Mr. Ak­bar of vary­ing de­grees of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and as­sault. On Nov. 1, Pallavi Go­goi, chief busi­ness ed­i­tor for NPR, ac­cused Mr. Ak­bar of rap­ing her 23 years ago. Mr. Ak­bar has de­nied all charges and said that he was in a con­sen­sual re­la­tion­ship with Ms. Go­goi. Since the al­le­ga­tions have emerged, Mr. Ak­bar, who was the min­is­ter of state for for­eign af­fairs, re­signed from his post.

Other men brought down in the past few weeks in­clude a Hin­dus­tan Times bureau chief; the co-founder of the Kochi Bi­en­nale; two stand-up comics and a Bol­ly­wood film di­rec­tor.

“In some cases, there has been swift ac­tion – apart from pub­lic sham­ing, sev­eral of th­ese preda­tors have been stripped of their jobs and op­por­tu­ni­ties. It’s send- ing an im­por­tant mes­sage that this kind of be­hav­ior will not be tol­er­ated,” says Sonal Nerurkar, a se­nior ed­i­tor who has worked in news­rooms in Delhi and Mum­bai for more than three decades.

For the hun­dreds who have spo­ken out, as well as for the thou­sands who haven’t, what lies ahead is un­clear. But what is clear is that this up­ris­ing has been a long time com­ing. Back in 2014, Joanna Lobo, a young fea­tures writer at DNA news­pa­per in Mum­bai, faced ha­rass­ment from a se­nior ed­i­tor, C.P. Suren­dran. Ms. Lobo had made a ver­bal com­plaint to her or­ga­ni­za­tion’s in­ter­nal com­mit­tee against sex­ist, misog­y­nis­tic be­hav­iour, but in­stead of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, she had be­come an of­fice punch­line. Her con­fi­den­tial com­plaint was cir­cu­lated and co-work­ers be­gan openly teas­ing her about it.

“I was in tears that day … of anger, not grief,” Ms. Lobo said.

She quit the news­pa­per soon af­ter. But last month, when sev­eral other women pub­licly de­nounced Mr. Suren­dran’s be­hav­iour in var­i­ous work­places, Ms. Lobo felt com­pelled to add her voice. Eleven women in all have ac­cused him of ha­rass­ment.

Mr. Suren­dran has ad­mit­ted to mak­ing sex­ist com­ments, but de­nied the other al­le­ga­tions. As the num­ber of ac­cu­sa­tions rises on so­cial me­dia, the is­sue of due process has also been in the spot­light.

Al­most ex­actly a year ago, at the height of the #MeToo move­ment in North Amer­ica and Eu­rope, Raya Sarkar, a law stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia who once stud­ied in In­dia, re­leased a list of al­leged preda­tors on In­dian col­lege cam­puses. She said she “put the list out to make stu­dents safe.” In the re­sult­ing mael­strom, an open let­ter signed by sev­eral well-known women’s rights ac­tivists ex­pressed con­cern for “name and shame” tac­tics. “Where there are gen­uine com­plaints,” read the let­ter, “there are in­sti­tu­tions and pro­ce­dures, which we should uti­lize. We too know the process is harsh and of­ten tilted against the com­plainant. We re­main com­mit­ted to strength­en­ing th­ese pro­cesses. At the same time … we re­main com­mit­ted to due process, which is fair and just.”

How­ever, some women say that their ex­pe­ri­ence of at­tempt­ing to go through es­tab­lished channels of griev­ance re­dres­sal il­lus­trates why women take to so­cial me­dia.

In 2013, a jour­nal­ist at Te­helka mag­a­zine first al­leged to the or­ga­ni­za­tion that her boss, ed­i­tor Tarun Te­j­pal, raped her. She says that not only did she not re­ceive any sup­port, but was “slut­shamed” at meet­ings and be­rated for be­tray­ing the com­pany.

“The com­plainant, rather than the of­fender, is of­ten treated like the per­son that’s try­ing to ruin the com­pany’s rep­u­ta­tion. You can see this in mul­ti­ple ac­counts from women on Twit­ter right now, many of whom tried to seek re­course through their or­ga­ni­za­tions, but failed and are now out­ing them on Twit­ter,” says the for­mer Te­helka jour­nal­ist, who can’t be named be­cause In­dia pro­hibits the pub­li­ca­tion of a rape sur­vivor in any me­dia.

She took her case to court five years ago. Even though many com­plainants find the In­dian court ex­pe­ri­ence de­layed, tor­tured, ex­pen­sive and trau­ma­tiz­ing, it is still ex­pected to give a more fair hear­ing than any work­place or or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Her case is still drag­ging on. “The de­lays are in­ter­minable, and all legally per­mis­si­ble. In ad­di­tion, the in­sane and out­ra­geous ar­gu­ments the de­fense makes … are by na­ture al­ways de­signed to shame the vic­tim. Why would any­one want to par­tic­i­pate in a process as re­trau­ma­tiz­ing and hu­mil­i­at­ing as this?” the for­mer Te­helka jour­nal­ist says. While there has been ac­tion against some al­leged ha­rassers, many haven’t had to pay a tan­gi­ble price, such as res­ig­na­tion. Nev­er­the­less, Ms. Lobo says, it was the right time to come out, to hold some­one ac­count­able. “I just want ac­count­abil­ity from an or­ga­ni­za­tion. I want a safe space to work for ev­ery­one, of­fice com­mit­tees that look out for vic­tims and aren’t just for show,” she says.

Many like Ms. Lobo are un­sure of what is at the end of this. But they all agree that while there is power and re­lease in speak­ing out pub­licly, noth­ing beats a just and im­par­tial process of re­dres­sal. “Imag­ine an ac­tual in­ves­ti­ga­tion – that would have been the right way,” Ms. Lobo adds.

The form of the #MeToo move­ment in In­dia is evolv­ing ev­ery day as in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal tur­moil roils, as more women light more lit­tle fires in dark places.

One of the crit­i­cisms of the move­ment has been that, for now, it seems to be lim­ited to a priv­i­leged, elite class that can af­ford to speak out, that can still bear some of the blow­back.

“It is a huge prob­lem that this move­ment is lim­ited to English­s­peak­ing women who use so­cial me­dia – but this is also a pop­u­la­tion that is some­times able to af­fect change. I don’t know how this will move, ev­ery day throws up new sur­prises – but if its only im­pact is to get work­places to take sex­ual ha­rass­ment more se­ri­ously, I will al­ready count that as a huge win,” the for­mer Te­helka jour­nal­ist says.

Ms. Nerurkar, the vet­eran ed­i­tor, who does not iden­tify her­self as an op­ti­mist, says that this is per­haps the first time she has felt hope­ful. She adds, “But the real need of the hour is to get men talk­ing about their no­tions of mas­culin­ity, and the fears and in­se­cu­ri­ties they ex­pe­ri­ence in a world where the power bal­ance is tilt­ing away from them. That’s the most es­sen­tial step if we want to cre­ate an equal, re­spect­ful work en­vi­ron­ment, and world.”

MAN­ISH SWARUP/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In­dian women block a road and ar­gue with law en­force­ment dur­ing a protest against sex­ual ha­rass­ment in the work­place in New Delhi on Oct. 12. Re­cently, In­dian celebri­ties and ac­tivists have turned to so­cial me­dia to air al­le­ga­tions of as­sault and ha­rass­ment.

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