#MeToo: The good, the bad and the ugly

So a lot happened this year. I got my degree. Did a diploma. Became a legal consultant. It’s easy to get caught up in your issues, especially after graduation. Just as I started making a conscious effort to disengage from social media and get a life, this maelstrom broke out on Twitter. #MeToo.

I’d been following the movement in America ever since the article on Harvey Weinstein appeared in the New York Times. I admit I was a bit incredulous; that one man could have left such an incriminating trail of offences, was astounding. How did he get away with it for so long? How had he gotten caught? And why had women chosen to speak up now?

While I was still reeling from the names of prominent Hollywood actresses and their gut-wrenching stories, an Indian actress gave an interview about being harassed by a veteran male actor and how she was bullied by his supporters until she had to withdraw her complaint. As the #MeToo movement gained momentum in India, my response was pretty much the same as most women. I was horrified by the magnitude of this problem, sympathetic to all the victims and proud of those who were standing up for themselves. It has been, quite simply, the most awe-inspiring move of solidarity on social media. It’s an overhaul of the gender-equality paradigm.

Over the next few months, however, I grew discontented. Something was niggling at the back of my mind. A scene from To Kill A Mockingbird kept playing in my head where Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl, was put under cross-examination. I remembered the prosecuting attorney’s shrill voice when he said “You felt sorry for her? You felt sorry for her?” 

Could that happen to our men? Could a technicality, like chivalry, get them into trouble now?

A friend once told me that he was afraid of asking out a woman he liked because of how things were these days. I did not sympathize. I mocked him. He was afraid of getting caught if he did something wrong? I’m sorry, I guess it was more fun when men were harassing women and not having to deal with the consequences. I reckon it gave them the freedom to be…. how do you say….. quite blasé. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to understand that our men were raised in a patriarchal society. Any change that we were expecting, would take time, patience and fortitude. I also got his point; every move on a man’s part- a look, a smile, a touch, a joke- was going to come under intense scrutiny. And what was worse, everything was now being classed as the same thing: ‘harassment‘. To date a woman, there has to be an open approach. To work with her, there has to be a rapport. This wasn’t going to be easy anymore.

It’s all very confusing right now. What is acceptable and what is not has become very subjective. I can’t tell what is appropriate behavior anymore. It’s such a grey area. Even politeness is being treated with distrust and suspicion. If sexual harassment includes only women under its ambit, surely that isn’t fair? And how do we weed out true claims from the false ones?

Harshita Pandey, MBA student at IMA, Trichy

Confusion was to be expected, though. There was going to be a seismic shift in gender-relations and I was OK with that. Things would settle down eventually. We’d all learn our cues and figure out how to have more respect for one another. Maybe it was how the media was portraying #MeToo which was bothering me. Sensationalizing every story. Giving us juicy tidbits, salacious details and bold headlines. Republishing first-hand accounts that had gone viral. Or just the general, I don’t know, naiveté in believing everything we were reading. There was no objectivity. It was as if every woman who told her story was speaking the gospel truth. There was absolutely no proof yet the words themselves, Me Too, held power over every man’s fate. This was good though, right? If a man is afraid of making a woman feel unsafe, that can’t be bad, right? A healthy fear of raping a woman, is a lot better than an unhealthy fear of being raped. So what is my problem then?

The first thing you learn in law school is to argue from both sides. Regardless of your personal opinion, a good lawyer always mounts a credible defense no matter who your client is. After 5 years of this, it becomes a habit. Sometimes you need to be critical of yourself so that you can anticipate how people might attack you. You need to debate the merits but more importantly, the demerits, of your own stand. This does not mean you become a rape apologist or start blaming the victim. But the absolute ethical duty of every lawyer, is not just to see that the guilty is punished but to ensure that no innocent is unduly harmed. Our legal system values innocence and believes that every accused person is innocent until proven guilty. Audi Alteram Partem, let the other side be heard.

Lawyers are urging women to come forward and file police complaints. They’re telling them not to be afraid of being unheard or disbelieved or even counter-sued for defamation; women are being assured that the Court will hear you out. It will take into account your testimony and gather all the corroborative evidence. If there isn’t any, it can even convict on the basis of your word alone as long as all the material particulars are absolutely incontrovertible. So why are women instead, relying on social media to raise their voice? Why not muster the courage to file a complaint first?

Consider social media itself as a medium. From sharing gym selfies, gourmet meals and holidays in exotic locations, we’ve suddenly upped our ante. We are now sharing our #MeToo stories. And while these stories are powerful, edifying and galvanizing, there is absolutely no guarantee as to the motive of the writer. Is she writing because she is a victim who has long since suffered in silence and finally decided to speak her truth? Or is she, in fact, a freeloader? A woman who sees an opportunity for attention by coming forward with fabricated stories and half-truths, falsely accusing any man she wants to bring down?

“I feel, somewhere down the line, women are going to take unfair advantage of this movement. I’m sure in 99% of the cases something actually happened, but when the platform being used to air your grievances is social media, how could you possibly know what the truth is?”

Tejal Deshpande, Chef and Entrepreneur, New Delhi

How indeed? The same medium that is open and vulnerable to cyber attacks, hoaxes, child pornography, stalkers and government surveillance is now all of a sudden, a soapbox. Without any fact-checking, we’re all being whipped into a frenzy, triggered by those two words. But I don’t want mass hysteria, widespread persecution or mob-lynching; I want progress. So there are things we need to think about as more and more stories come out.

“I feel like the entire movement might collapse because of one lie. It’ll damage the work feminism has been doing for women because someone might misuse the whole thing. I work in a field where there is not adequate representation of women, where women are not given jobs and where men still dominate the field. All I want is for women to be given that opportunity and I don’t want anyone to deny female scientists that chance, simply because of this #MeToo.”

Neelam Sheoran, Physicist, PhD student at North Carolina University

And let’s not forget what kind of picture we’re painting here. When we decide to write our stories, we can’t ignore how we’re portraying ourselves. The sympathy and commiseration is heartwarming, but we’re starting to not just look like victims but feel like ones too. We are not victims. Yes, horrible things have been done to us. But we are far more resilient than we are given credit for. There are women out there who have actually fought back. They’ve been savvy about it too; they’ve outsmarted stalkers, harassers and potential rapists. They’ve confronted lurkers, perverts and peeping-toms. They’ve lodged FIRs and won those cases. They’ve established personal boundaries, worked on their self-esteem and self-confidence and they’ve taken stock of how they’d like to be viewed in the workplace. They’re well-informed, aware and alert. They want to be taken seriously. They need an honorable mention here.

I’ve been in an abusive marriage and I survived it. But I have concerns about this movement. We’re using a hashtag to judge a man’s character now. There’s no authority which is monitoring what is going on and no filter for all the claims. It’s mayhem. I want people to stand up for what is right. This isn’t about how women outflanked and outgunned men. This is about justice. I want this to be about humanity.

Anjali Mohanty, HR Recruiter, Mumbai

The thing that I have the biggest issue with, as a feminist, is that this movement so far has been non-inclusive. This isn’t a battle of the sexes. We’re not trying to alienate men here, even though that does appear to be the fallout. This is war against patriarchy which hurts men and women in equal measure. Men so far, have been absolutely silent. We need to get them on board. We need them to speak up, not just to admit their mistakes, but because they might have their own #MeToo stories to tell. And we’ve totally forgotten about the transgender community. For transgender people, sexual harassment is part of everyday life. India recognizes them as a third gender and I’m positive if men and transgender people were allowed to participate, this movement would go from being a mud-slinging contest to a literal transformation of gender-dynamics and breakdown of gender-based violence.

The most important thing right now, is getting the real picture. The Indian government needs to undertake a massive survey dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. The studies published so far are woefully inaccurate. Someone needs to go and talk to everyone. Take a poll. Give us the numbers. This will help companies formulate their policies. We need Internal Committees and Awareness Campaigns. We need Advocates and Activists conducting gender-sensitivity sessions. We need counseling, training and communication. We need to know what the law says, how it defines sexual harassment, what is the mechanism in place to handle it and what are the penalties. Companies need to be told that it is good business to prevent sexual harassment rather than deal with the fiscal losses caused by gross indecency: mediating between parties, hiring consultants, lawyers and experts, dealing with law enforcement and judicial process, staff suffering with low morale, falling levels of productivity, firing employees, sustaining damage to its reputation and goodwill and ultimately losing clients. The CEOs on top need to understand the economics of sexual harassment. Lastly, we need to teach men how to treat women like human beings, both professionally and personally. 

My point is that every time a woman speaks up about harassment there are consequences that she will face. I work in an office. I know if women want to survive in the corporate world, they have to seriously consider whether they’re ready to deal with the aftermath of making a complaint. And then there’s the way society treats such women. They’re ostracized and vilified and often lose out on professional opportunities. So are we willing to take that risk?

-Akshita Bhatia, Corporate Lawyer, Pune

So it’s high time we asked ourselves some tough questions about #MeToo. We have to ask them before our detractors, much to our consternation, start asking us. This began as a social media trend, but like any trend it has a shelf-life. I don’t want people to forget about it in a few months because of the #HarlemShake or the #MannequinChallenge. Social media was only the beginning, we need to carry this fight forward. Things are changing and we need them to change the right way. Let’s not give people, especially men, the idea that our methods have defeated our aims. Because let’s face it, none of this is possible without men. There is no movement without them. This is a dialogue that needs to happen because we want equality for everyone. So no, men, this isn’t a witch-hunt; it’s a council meeting. This is where the panchayat comes together and talks about what’s best for the village. So are you coming or not?

Where do we start? I’ve conducted workshops and written a dozen articles, I’ve read books on it and researched it, I’ve talked to social workers and women’s rights activists, I’ve counselled my clients, discussed it at length with my peers, I even became an activist for this…. Consent. Recognizing, understanding and respecting consent. That’s it. That’s the conversation we need to have.

That’s how we take a social media hashtag and turn it into real change.

That’s how we make sure none of this is in vain.