The rise of #MeToo in India

Last year, Indian journalist Priya Ramani wrote an open letter to “the Harvey Weinsteins of the world,” published in Vogue India.

In it, she detailed a job interview with an unnamed older male editor, which he scheduled to take place in a hotel room. “You taught me my first workplace lesson. I was 23, you were 43. I grew up reading your smart opinions and dreamt of being as erudite as you. You were one of my professional heroes,” she wrote.

“Turns out you were as talented a predator as you were a writer,” she continued. “It was more date, less interview. … I escaped that night, you hired me, I worked for you for many months even though I swore I would never be in a room alone with you again.”

A year later, on October 8, Ramani identified that editor as M.J. Akbar. He had entered politics and was serving as the minister of state for external affairs (akin to a deputy foreign minister). Multiple women came forward with more allegations, many of them journalists who had encountered Akbar at various publications.

Akbar officially resigned from his post last Wednesday.

“As women we feel vindicated by MJ Akbar’s resignation,” Ramani tweeted. “I look forward to the day when I will also get justice in court #metoo.”

Akbar is now one of the most prominent men to have been brought down by India’s growing #MeToo movement, which has taken hold with intensity.

Ramani’s statement is part of a larger wave of activism, sparked by Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta, who revived decade-old allegations against an actor, and by writer and comedian Mahima Kukreja. Kukreja detailed allegations on Twitter about a male comedian who had sent her lewd messages. After she posted her tweet, the outpouring began.

“It snowballed into now what is now essentially the #MeToo movement in India,” Kukreja told me. “It became larger than one particular story, or one particular woman … it became about how men in power are just getting away with it.”

That reckoning is sweeping through the entertainment and media industries in India and is now spilling into politics. Women are calling out sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace, leading a new movement fueled by social media.

India’s patriarchal and conservative society, and the divides between regions and languages, have so far limited the reach of #MeToo to mostly elite sectors of society and urban areas. But activists believe it has to start somewhere, and they see women, coming forward and naming themselves as survivors, as a turning point.

“This movement [has] broken the silence,” said Zakia Soman, co-founder of the Indian Muslim Women’s Organization and a longtime advocate for women’s and human rights. “The breaking of the silence is the important first step.”

India’s survivors have turned into #MeToo activists

Kukreja, the writer and comedian, said her decision to come forward with allegations against a harasser in October felt impulsive. “There was something inside my head that snapped — which was just this moment of anger and resentment and this pure urgent need to tell the truth,” she told me. “That all just came crashing down in my head.”

The catalyst was a tweet from male comedian Utsav Chakraborty calling out other Indian men for harassing women. It frustrated Kukreja that Chakraborty was pretending to be a feminist ally when she knew, she says, his private actions didn’t match up. She spoke up. And then so did other victims.

Chakraborty apologized on Twitter, and it soon came out that one of the founders of his comedy troupe knew about the allegations against him, and another was later accused of sexual misconduct himself; both stepped away from the company.

Kukreja thought there might be other women who had a similar story to tell about Chakraborty, and there were. But she didn’t quite expect the large number of messages she received.

“We became — and I especially, in the first couple of days — became like trauma keepers,” she said. “All these women were waiting to tell their stories, waiting to be heard, to be seen, to feel like a human being.”

High-profile women are coming forward. Tanushree Dutta, a Bollywood actress, renewed allegations in late September that fellow actor Nana Patekar had tried to change around a scene in a movie so he could grope her. (Patekar has denied the allegations.)

Dutta spoke out when the alleged incident happened, back in 2008, but says she was shamed and threatened into silence. Now, a decade later, she’s bringing it up again, and has submitted her harassment complaint to the police.

And this time, people are listening.

Where does India’s #MeToo movement go from here?

The female-led activism that’s surged in recent weeks in India owes a lot to social media. The #MeToo conversation spiked online, including in India, during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings and the allegations and testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. Social media has provided a platform where women can speak out to name the perpetrators, and find a community, and solidarity, with other survivors.

The groundwork for this #MeToo moment in India may have started a few years ago. In 2012, a gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi galvanized the country, sparking mass protests and criticism over the government’s handling of the case. It also incited real activism and discussion about violence against women and other gender inequities.

Rachel Vogelstein, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who’s studying the #MeToo movement worldwide, said the activism after the 2012 rape case helped establish advocacy networks and provide the vocabulary that’s driving the current movement.

But the culture hasn’t caught up with the laws in all cases. Women still face incredible stigma for speaking out about rape or sexual assault. Victims are frequently blamed for bringing sexual violence on themselves. Because of this, many don’t see the law enforcement or legal system as a real, viable option for recourse against misconduct.

This includes sexual harassment. In 2013, India enacted a law to prevent sexual harassment at work. But Soman said even though the law exists on paper, enforcement has lagged. “That is what#MeToo is contributing,” she said. “It’s creating that kind of an awareness.”

That, too, may have helped prompt the grassroots movement on social media to call out abusers; it may have be the closest thing to some sort of justice.

Which is why Akbar’s resignation underscored the growing power of the movement: that a once-powerful figure in journalism, a government official, actually lost his job. “The fact that we are seeing any kind of consequences is really, really new,” Vogelstein said of India.

It also reveals the challenges, and the risks of #MeToo. “[To] publicly come out and name names and put your face and identity behind it — it takes a lot of courage to do that,” Kukreja told me.

This is particularly true in India, which has strict defamation laws. Alyssa Ayres, an India expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me that in India, defamation — meaning the act of intentionally damaging someone’s reputation — can carry criminal penalties.

For example, Akbar is pursuing a criminal defamation case against Ramani “intentionally putting forward malicious, fabricated and salacious” accusations that harmed his reputation. Ramani has multiple witnesses backing her up. But the threat of criminality could certainly put a chill on women coming forward.

The #MeToo allegations so far have centered on men in mostly high-profile industries, but it’s also feeding into the discussion of larger questions about gender equality and discrimination in India — and how much more work is left to do.

“People are also saying, ‘Well, we do have a problem in India, and the #MeToo conversation is only about the elite. Go to some of our villages or take a look at the kinds of inequities and harassment that women in other Indian-language media have to face,’” Ayres said.

India’s regional and language diversity, differences in access to technology, and the stigma around sexual violence all contribute to a culture of silence. Many women could also be risking their livelihoods if they speak out. For a woman in a small town, Soman said, “if she were to come out and say this is happening to her, it will be really, really dangerous.”

And yet there are some early signs that #MeToo movement is cracking — if not yet breaking — those barriers. Reuters reported that government officials were considering tightening sexual harassment laws in the wake of Akbar’s resignation, and there have been some reports that companies are examining their policies, too. The National Commission for Women in India has set up a dedicated email for people to submit formal complaints about harassment. The email address — ncw.metoo@gmail.com — is evidence of how just how much this movement has jolted the country.

“There is an unmistakable change in the last couple of weeks with the number of women who’ve come forward to share their experience,” Vogelstein said.

Looming above it all is the fear of a backlash before any kind of wholesale change can happen. Recently, a minister for the ruling party in India called #MeToo a product of “people with perverted minds.”

Kukreja said there will always be trolls, but anyone who thinks this is some sort of “witch hunt” isn’t paying attention. The #MeToo movement is real — just ask any woman.

“This is insidious, it’s complex, it’s far-reaching,” she told me. “It is present through every single intersection of gender, bisexuality, religion, and class system, careers … and to ignore it now would be to [miss] the chance, the greatest chance that we’ve had in recent modern history to be able to make it better.”

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