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by Steven Allison

How #metooIndia is confronting the ‘world’s most dangerous country for women’

The patriarchy that helped confirm Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court may reign strong worldwide. However, a second wave of the #metoo movement is helping to advance the discourse of women’s rights, this time in India. Steven Allison discusses.

How #metooIndia is confronting the ‘world’s most dangerous country for women’ Subscript
The second wave of the #metoo social media movement is taking place in India, where a number of women have spoken about their exeperiences

Constrained by fears as to potential consequences of outing their transgressors and by a cultural tendency towards respect for men, it has been the historical norm for most of India’s women to remain silent about their mistreatment by men.

A survey published in June of this year by Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked India as the world’s most dangerous country for women, uncovering a toxic societal consensus among the country’s male citizens that women are perceived as being of little worth. Added to India’s proclivity for exalting powerful men, the outlook for those who dare to take a stand against male subjugation appears to be gloomy at best.

Nonetheless, many plucky Indian women are venturing forth into relatively unknown territory. In October 2017, Priya Ramani penned an open letter “To the Harvey Weinsteins of the World”, featured in Vogue India. Accusing an unidentified former editor of sexual misconduct, she wrote: “You were as talented a predator as you were a writer”. A year later, she revealed his identity as Jawed ‘M.J.’ Akbar, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs at the time. In a Tweet on 14 October, Akbar dismissed the allegations as “wild and baseless”, but subsequent accusations of sexual harassment by other women have forced him to step down from office and to take legal action against Ramani for criminal defamation.

The courage of Ramani and those who came before her – including Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta, with her allegations against actor NanaPatekar – have encouraged others to follow suit. After being “groped, rubbed against and flashed on public transport and on the streets by colleagues and strangers”, writer and former intern at The Times of India Gauri Iyer, has had enough. She states that she was sexually harassed on countless occasions over her lifetime. “I was 10-years-old, sitting in a rickshaw when a cyclist groped me from behind [and] 14 when I woke up on a train to a man’s hands crushing my breasts through an open window”. Iyer is now scared to travel on public transport and feels an “apprehension” when she passes any group of men.  

As an increasing number of Indian women like Ramani, Dutta, and Iyer feel empowered to share their stories, the upsurge of #metoo in India is perceived less as a branch of the original movement and more as one in its own right.

However throughout the infamous Kavanaugh inquiries, criticism against the movement focused on the veracity of sexual assault and harassment claims, essentially claiming that women were fabricating their stories. This has led to worries that the potential prosecution of Ramani could result in #metooindia being seen as a crusade by Indian women to defame powerful men. With a mocking tone, Iyer congratulates anyone who condemns the movement in this way, arguing “they have never been assaulted…and have no clue”.

If Akbar wins his case, there is no certainty that an entire nation will be hoodwinked by the ruling. Sure, it will serve to gratify the patriarchy. And yes, it will legally invalidate Ramani’s claims. But has Kavanaugh’s ability to wade through the proverbial crap that he’s had thrown at him managed to suppress #metoo? No, it hasn’t.

Whatever the outcome, there’s still a chance that social attitudes towards the treatment of women by men will continue shifting in the right direction. But even if this happens, there’s still work to be done.

In India, women might be inching out of the lion’s den, but free from danger they are not. The louder, clearer voice that women have been gifted by #metooindia falls short of being the panacea required for the deep-seated issue of sexual assault and harassment.

Indian women remain under pressure to keep their experiences of sexual assault and harassment to themselves, and many victims are made to feel they are to blame. Iyer talks of the shame and fear faced by women considering coming forward: “It’s hard knowing that you will be blamed if you tell people, that your career will be ruined, that you’ll be called a slut, and that your family will also be shamed”. She is unsurprised by the fact that “99% of women have just kept quiet and lived with it, internalising their traumas and passing on their fears to their daughters”, but is now thankful to “feel safe enough to speak up”.

Reuters recently reported that the Indian government is looking to tighten sexual harassment laws, following the deluge of complaints of sexual abuse lodged by women across the country. Additionally, the determination of public figures like Ramani, alongside the frankness of members of the public like Iyer, may just allow fairness to prevail. “We’ll get you all one day”, Ramani assured the world’s Weinsteins in her 2017 article. We can but hope that she makes good on that promise, for those who abuse their power as a free-pass to do unspeakable things to women, must pay for such misfeasance.

By Steven Allison

Freelance writer, editor and proofreader

Steven is a Scottish freelance writer and editor living in London. You'll often find him in a cozy corner of some coffee shop or other working on an article or his first novel. He also loves to learn French, sketching, and bake in his spare time.