“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” – Muriel Rukeyser.
Every day, Rukeyser’s words seem to ring true. Take a look at Google’s #MetooRising map and you will get a visual history of the trend that spread like wildfire across the globe. And a question pops up inside my head - Is there something so wrong with our society that a poem from 1968 is being reflective of 2018?
But today, silence is shattering our societal ceilings. Even stories from Pakistan are breaking out. In a recent allegation, students from Bahria College of Islamabad called out their professor and external examiner Sadat Bashir for sexual harassment. He is accused of molesting 80 girls during biology practicals. Such is the extent of the roots of misogyny. Not to be surprised, one of them who spoke up on social media was never backed by the school authorities.
In a society where freedom of expression is censored, Muyi Xiao is one of those voices from China who spoke about her #MeToo encounters. In an interaction with the media, she reveals she never had faith in Chinese civil society.
“I thought anything I said would simply end up as part of the feeding frenzy,” claims Muyi.
She recounts incidents of being harassed by a cousin at the age of four, to being raped by a roommate’s boyfriend during her university days. Muyi alleges that she had to face numerous ‘incidents’ during the 27 years of her life.
Even if we set aside the regular encounters of sexual abuse and harassment, the attitude of men in power at workplaces needs to be taken note of. Karl Lagerfeld, Creative Director of Chanel and Fendi, undervalued the #MeToo movement and defending stylist Karl Templer who was accused of sexual misconduct by a model this February and said, “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model.”
Silence shatters the ceiling
It took the Harvey Weinstein scandal to revolutionise victim and survivor voices. Over the past year, the talk has crossed the boundaries of simple harassment to a greater underlying problem. North America is the hotspot for the #MeToo and saw it surge across California, Canada, Washington and New Orleans. As a result, legislators are now bringing in amendments to balance this problem. But, is it that easy to uproot patriarchal weed across society? Probably not.
“One distinctive feature of the #MeToo speakouts are those who have spoken out and described in detail what happened to them, going against the grain of what society considers 'decorous' female speech,” says V Geetha, an eminent writer and a publisher.
The desi connect
Since 1970, the Indian narrative of sexual violence has been focussed on extreme forms such as child marriage, sex-selective abortion or dowry-related violence. But 2012 changed that. The brutal gang rape of a young woman in a moving vehicle in the national capital shook the country to its core. And accounts by the six perpetrators stating that the reason behind their actions was the victim’s choice to be out late evening with a male friend, enraged India.
The economic liberalisation since the 1990s is believed to have increased financial independence for women, empowering more female voices. But the lines of her rights to her choices, her movement in public places and her right to her body still remain blurred.
However, the populist excuse to disparage speaking up against these issues is the reason why women have held back for so long. “Silence is an evil to every society,” says Andrew Sesuraj, an Assistant professor of Social Work at Loyola Autonomous College, Chennai. He explains that the fear of slut-shaming still stops many women from speaking up. “India is not at par with the #MeToo movement that’s happening in other parts of the world. Instead of supporting these women, people are pushing them back again,” he says.
He adds that this is the overall scenario in South Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia and many more. “And this holds back the nation from developing. Most of the developed countries such as the Scandinavian countries are developed because of their strong and outspoken women. Society gives them this power,” he adds.
The problem with the concept of ‘boys’
Geetha believes a lot of this has originated from the concept of ‘being boys’. “As long as women felt they ought not to speak, or if they did speak, it would be held against them, these men were 'safe'. Men would continue to believe that they were just 'being boys'. That women are only sexual preys and that this is in the nature of things. They would continue to believe that to impose themselves on women was a perk that was given to them,” she says.
But Andrew thinks that times are changing as we see more and more is being talked about women empowerment, be it in films or on social platforms. “In India, it will take time. But things are better today when compared to 10 years ago and it’s the right time to speak. It’s time ‘MeToo’ becomes a platform for women to speak about any kind of abuse happening to them without hesitance,” he says.
It’s also about taking the #MeToo uprising to the next level. Both Geetha and Andrew suggest we need to portray more courage and speak up. “There are not just instances of adult women being harassed; men and children also face this rampantly, and this movement needs to integrate them to reach its next level,” says Andrew.
Geetha adds, “We need to spend time on acts of nurturing and pay heed to each other's sadness, pain and anger. We have gone to the law, to the courts and to the institutional spaces to seek redressal as we indeed must. But, there is a further task that awaits us - to understand what makes uncivil behaviour possible and misogyny routine.”
The biggest taboo - Sex
Andrew portrays another difference in the Indian context that stares us in the face. “Sex is a taboo here, which does not happen in Western countries. This whole array of slut-shaming comes from this root,” he says.
Another example of this rampant victim-blaming culture is the African continent. A man could easily escape after slapping his partner/wife in front of family members because of his ‘hot temper’. Such is the noose of patriarchy over women, that even complaining of domestic violence is an uphill task, let alone bringing down men in power. Either the predators do not face consequences, or enjoy the silence of young girls. When the entire system is pulling women down, can we expect reports of physical or sexual violence to reduce in the near future?
Taking instances from Russia, a country that brags about this machismo, it is tough for #MeToo to break through these walls. President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov even labelled Hollywood actor Alyssa Milano, who broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal, a prostitute.
Sexual misbehaviour is a daily grind
In Europe, Sweden, Spain, France and Britain are seeing the uprising. Spain’s socialist movement ‘I believe you’ led the government to amend its rape law introducing explicit sexual consent. This move was to stop the culture of perpetrators regularly getting protection and acts of sexual violence been ignored.
While French President Emmanuel Macron had already declared fighting sexism a priority much before the Weinstein scandal, the country has had its run-ins with social injustice and inequality. Several instances of ‘come-ons’ from men in France have been treated as gallantry. Catcalling was so prevalent that a new law had to impose an on-the-spot fine.
South America stands no exception. Sexual misconduct is rampant in Brazil, and the law has fallen short to curb it. Inequality and machismo can be found in homes, the film industry and even in the streets. Given a tropical country, women wearing ‘revealing’ clothes are easy targets of prompt sexual remarks. Brazilian culture is found to be suffused with warmth yet marked by harassment and assault.
What Tarana Burke, the crusader behind the ‘MeToo’, started through an activist group in 2006 to help women survivors of sexual violence, is today taking the form of the next wave of feminist movement. But there is a lot more that needs to happen to fight these underlying evils.
As Geetha asserts Dr Ambedkar’s saying, “'An ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt”, we need to start respecting all lives around us.