In India, a long-awaited #MeToo moment gathers steam
Across social-media platforms, women in the country are finding the courage to tell their stories
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.”
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.