What is the future of India's #MeToo Movement?

The #MeToo movement, a collective social campaign that aims to give women the space and power to voice instances of sexual assault and harassment, is named after a term coined by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 when working with survivors. It became a popular term in 2017 when famous actresses in Hollywood began to speak up about particular instances of abuse, assault and harassment they were facing in the industry. The trend has then emerged in different parts of the world, recently seeing an uprising in India.

The movement was spurred on by a student who compiled a crowd-sourced list of academics accused of misdemeanors by female students in October 2017. In September of 2018, the #MeToo movement gained significant momentum in Indian political and media spheres. The Minister of State for External Affairs, MJ Akbar was accused of sexual harassment by numerous women from different points of his career. Many prominent filmmakers, producers, and actors have been accused of varying degrees of misbehaviors and misdemeanors by their female subordinates and counterparts.

Even at first glance, there is a lot of positive coming from this strong upsurge of accusations. Indian women’s voices are being heard and acknowledged in a patriarchal society that has traditionally had male voices at its fore on its stages and forums.

Since the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case wherein one woman’s gang rape led to country-wide protests, a stronger vocabulary has emerged to speak up about such cases, and a stronger body of people stand behind those who speak up.

There have been consequences and direct actions taken for many of the accusation presented by Indian women. Two films have been dropped from the line-up of the prestigious Mumbai film festival.  MJ Akbar stepped down from his post after 16 women (and counting) spoke up loudly against his actions. Prominent corporate leaders are said to have lost major business contracts after word of their misdemeanours became public and too prominent to ignore or wave away. There is a reverberating movement that has caught on from the ways and methods of  the #MeToo crusade in the US.

But there still remains a lot of progress to be made. First and foremost, the #MeToo movement that has currently emerged is centered on the urban elite, in a group that speaks English and not vernacular languages, that has access to social media platforms, that is perhaps more financial secure or independent than large swaths of the country.

Secondly, the movement is scraping the top of a very deep rooted patriarchal system in the country. The 2012 Nirbhaya case has led to an increase in the reporting of rape cases, but the rate of men indicted for such crimes stays constant. The police has complete control over how and when reporting of a crime can potentially take place, providing plenty of space for bias and mistreatment to sweep in, and the burden of proof lies on the victim. Marital rape continues to be legal in the country where child marriage rates have been going down even as the practice continues to persist.

While it is promising to see some tangible changes follow in the heels of powerful and emotionally vulnerable confessions and accusations, the manifestations of an entrenched patriarchy problem are seeping through the cracks of how accusations is being addressed. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently held a forum with prominent Indian media personalities to discuss the role of the film industry in promoting economic growth, but not one female media person was present.  

The media coverage and salient conversations on the topic have been laden with passion, hatred, suspicion and fear. Further, there is a glaring lack of productive conversation on what this might mean about how women are treated in Indian society. The anger has not yet led to debate on how communities can learn to treat women better and give them a space to air their grievances.

Indeed, solutions have involved clamping down and removals rather than opening up to constructive analysis. Men are stepping down from prominent positions, but there are very few apologies and a lot of defiant statements of a lack of memory of such incidents. Many accused of sexual misdemeanors are pursuing defamation cases against their accusers and the men who have supported them.

The future of the movement, then, is encouraging, but precarious. The conversion of unbridled emotion to a sustained improvement for women, who are often harassed, bullied and assaulted in the workplace and elsewhere, will only occur when women are given a platform to speak and share in a way that is healing for them, which will have socially productive ripple effects.

Tarana Burke recently spoke out in an interview over how she has seen a change in the #MeToo movement becoming centered on perpetrators. She sees the future of the movement in a different way, saying - “We have to shift the narrative that it’s a gender war, that it’s anti-male, that it’s men against women, that it’s only for a certain type of person”. Her focus is on the changing how we talk about and understand assault.

This is the kind of attitude that the Indian #MeToo Movement needs to embrace as it treads the murky waters of harassment and tries to recenter the way women are seen and heard in the workplace, at home, and in society.