‘What message is the government sending by keeping MJ Akbar on?’
The attitude reflects cultural impunity born of political patronage and power, says CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat
CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat has been active in the women’s movement for a large part of her political career. She believes the #MeToo movement is a very important trend in breaking the cultural impunity and silence around male attitudes. In an interview with BusinessLine (conducted before Sunday’s developments surrounding Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar), Karat talked about the criticality of attitudinal change in ensuring fair and safe public and work spaces. Excerpts:
What do you think is the most important achievement of the #MeToo movement?
Let us understand this phenomenon in the dominant culture of impunity and silence. The institutional cultures reflect the inequality and patriarchal value systems that prevail in the society and families where men are dominant. If a man is a patriarch at home, he is not organically going to evolve into a progressive modern person at the workplace. So the feeling of male dominance, culture of impunity around the actions of a male boss prevails and easily translates into sexual entitlement.
The difference that we are slowly seeing is that women are breaking the code of silence. I am not talking about the #MeToo campaign alone. I am saying, generally and socially, in our colleges, universities and public spaces, women are challenging dominant stereotypes and refusing to accept these attitudes. You can see it in a village, where a young girl refuses to become a child bride, you see this in self-choice marriages, you see it where women and men defy caste hierarchies and systems in their personal relations.
In this context, the most significant contribution of the #MeToo campaign is that it breaks the silence around cultures of impunity. It has to be welcomed. I do not think that it will replace movements aimed at strengthening laws and due processes. I would rather say the #MeToo campaign complements movements in our social life in challenging the culture of impunity.
OI think it is very important that the issue of consent has been once again brought centrestage. The issues being debated relate to unwanted, unsolicited, sexually motivated actions of different degrees which women face.
If someone does not acknowledge consent, then he has to be taught the hard way. What the testimonies of some women, and Ghazala Wahab’s description of MJ Akbar’s conduct, reveal is clearly a case of sexual molestation.
The onus is on the employer to provide a secure environment for women. What the women’s movement has been working towards is not just to ensure that there are serious consequences once the crime has been committed but to prevent the crime from happening. So who is responsible for securing that environment? Today there is legislation, there are Vishakha guidelines and it is imperative for the employer to implement them.
#MeToo is targeting the shield of impunity and shaking the status quo that prevents these laws from being implemented. It is a moment of social change but it is not isolated and let us be very clear, we have to move beyond naming and shaming to take the social change forward. We need to give a clear message that a man cannot keep his job if he is going to behave like this. So the onus has to shift. And that shift is still not happening. You cannot be constantly fearful of the backlash. It happens. But that cannot be a reason not to act.
What would you say to the criticism that #MeToo is too elitist and individual-centric?
Individual actions have a role to play in challenging the status quo. Individual women have pushed the envelope. These individual actions are significant even if collective action, collective voices and collective movements will be the main engine that will bring about social change. In most of the media, corporate houses and entertainment business, there is no unionisation or collective action. That is a very relevant issue. It is important to have these collective organisations because internal complaint committees cannot replace that.
A woman in the film industry is alone. In the corporate sectors, too, lack of unions results in a large number of such cases going unreported. An environment has to be created in the workplace and unions have to play an important role in it.
What do you have to say about MJ Akbar’s continuance in office?
What message is the government sending by keeping him on? We need to question the politics of such a government and the cultural impunity that it is strengthening by refusing to take action against him.
This is exactly what cultural impunity is all about: political patronage, corporate power, money power and position power.
The BJP had the same response when a brave girl gave such detailed evidence against a minister. This government supported him; they supported what happened in Unnao and Kathua.
These are indications of political patronage strengthening impunity. Their sexist, patriarchal attitude protects and strengthens the culture of masculine entitlement.
“The most significant contribution of the #MeToo campaign is that it breaks the silence around cultures of impunity. I do not think it will replace movements aimed at strengthening laws and due processes...it complements movements in our social life in challenging the culture of impunity”