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The Indian Quarterly – A Literary & Cultural Magazine – Let’s Talk About Sex

Let’s Talk About Sex

By Iona Italia 0

In India, #MeToo has been criticised as urban and elite, irrelevant to the lives of most women. But can it force a public conversation on topics that were once taboo, asks Iona Italia

       The #MeToo movement became prominent in the United States around a year ago, as a viral social media campaign, spearheaded by actress Alyssa Milano, though it was founded by Tarana Burke over a decade ago. At first, one of its main aims was to expose the crimes of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who is currently facing multiple charges of rape and sexual assault. But the campaign snowballed into something far broader in scope, as an increasing number of women (and some men) began to share their experiences. The movement soon came to encompass everything from harrowing stories of brutal rapes to complaints about inappropriate jokes. It serves an important purpose: providing a public forum in which victims can speak out and meet with the support and kindness that may help remove the shame and stigma associated with being a survivor of a sexual attack. It has also permitted people to identify, describe and specify behaviour patterns which—while they stop well short of the criminal or sociopathic—are thoughtless, unkind, selfish or cavalier and help spread toxic or retrograde attitudes towards women and sexuality. It is helpful to clarify what we as a society are not willing to condone.

       But, at the same time, #MeToo provides cover for malicious accusations, especially when the accusers are sheltered by anonymity, and it has encouraged some to offer paranoid dissections of completely harmless behaviours, which are part of normal flirtation or social interaction and which do not constitute harassment at all. The movement is an unwieldy juggernaut. It has created a landscape thick with the smoke of accusations. We know that there are real fires to extinguish, but it’s become difficult to differentiate five-alarm blazes from smokescreens.

       In India, the situation with regard to sexual harassment and assault is both far more extreme and more complex. In the West, #MeToo has been a vehicle for naming and shaming, i.e. for simply pointing out the persistence of behaviours everyone agrees are wrong. In India, the lines of what constitutes socially acceptable sexual behaviour are still deeply blurred. Western notions of consent clash with deep-rooted prejudices and beliefs. And such a gulf separates the expectations and world-views of the women who are denizens of Bollywood and the higher echelons of society from those of most of the country’s half-billion female citizens that in this context #MeToo seems both badly needed and absurdly out of touch.

       Specific legal protections for Indian women in the workplace are a very recent phenomenon. In 1972, Ela Bhatt founded SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association, which represented many women in precarious, low-income occupations in the textile and construction industries, in transportation, domestic labour and other sectors. In 1988, Rupan Deol Bajaj brought a case against a superior officer, KPS Gill, who had patted her on the bottom. Gill was convicted in 2005. And in 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit development worker, was gang-raped while campaigning against child marriage in Rajasthan. Following her ordeal, she began a campaign, which led to the Supreme Court’s formulation of the Vishakha guidelines, designed to safeguard women’s safety and equality in the workplace.

Illustration: Harshad Marathe

Illustration: Harshad Marathe

       While these early measures were inspired by the struggles of lower-caste and lower-income women workers, India’s recent #MeToo movement focused on academe, Bollywood and the media. Tanushree Dutta repeated the story of her on-set harassment by actor Nana Patekar; Raya Sarkar published #LoSHA, a List of Sexual Harassers in Academia, which Inji Pennu supplemented with a spreadsheet of further names; the Kashmir Women’s Collective issued a document detailing abuse by a slew of public figures. A social media campaign began gathering steam and women (mostly) shared their stories of abuse and harassment at the hands of actors, politicians, journalists, businessmen, media personalities and other powerful figures. The American #MeToo movement has been criticised for its elitism because so many of its most visible proponents are among the world’s most powerful and wealthiest women: big-name Hollywood stars. While I believe the movement could produce a genuine trickle-down effect which could change attitudes more broadly, this concern is valid—especially in India, in which so many middle-class women have domestic servants. If #MeToo is about allowing the most vulnerable a forum in which to speak out about the abuse they’ve suffered, it surely forfeits some credibility if the voices of maids, for instance, are absent.

       The women leading the #MeToo movement are highly atypical of Indian women in general. India has one of the world’s lowest rates of female participation in the workforce and the percentage is declining, not growing. Only a quarter of Indian women work—the vast majority of them in subsistence farming and other menial rural occupations. Only 5 per cent of women have regular, salaried employment and the majority of those in the most junior positions.

       Attitudes towards female employment in India vary widely. But, in many cases, they are so negative that comparable views can be encountered only in some Muslim theocracies. Educational attainments frequently decrease an Indian woman’s likelihood of working outside the home: families often seek education for their daughters so that they can attract higher-calibre husbands, who will then be able to support them financially. (This may also reduce the dowry demanded.) This is especially true for upper-caste women, for whom staying at home is a sign of caste status.

       There is a degree of shame and stigma, in India, attached to the very fact of working outside the home as a woman. This must affect at least some male co-workers’ attitudes towards their female colleagues. It leaves the women more liable to be held cheap and more vulnerable both to harassment itself and to self-blame and crippling embarrassment in its aftermath.

       While the #MeToo movement has led to some prosecutions, it is primarily a consciousness-raising endeavour, necessary at least partly because of the inadequacies of the law. In some cases, of course, those involved want to call out unacceptable behaviour, which needs to stop but which is not egregious enough to merit legal punishment. But the movement also arose because the law is a poor means of dealing with sexual crimes.

       This is true in every country: sex crimes rarely have witnesses and are by their nature difficult to prove. But this is doubly true of sexual harassment in India. Victims have a time limit of three to six months to lodge complaints. They are vulnerable to countersuits by the accused, who can and often do prosecute them for defamation of character. Former minister MJ Akbar has filed suit against Priya Ramani, one of his accusers; Nana Patekar has threatened to prosecute his accuser, Tanushree Dutta. Bringing a case to court can be traumatic for the victim and in the Indian courts that trauma is likely to be protracted to Jarndyce v Jarndyce lengths: the Indian legal system is reputed to be the slowest in the world.

       Victim shaming is rife in India, too. We still hear reports of police using the notorious ‘two-finger test’, banned in 2013 by the Supreme Court, on rape victims (if they can easily insert two digits into the victim’s vagina, she is considered a loose woman and therefore her testimony cannot be trusted). Even in the case of Jyoti Singh, such voices were heard. Godman and convicted rapist Asaram Bapu accused her of having been complicit in her own attack. Abhijit Mukherjee, the then president’s son, scornfully said that women who “go to discotheques” have no right to protest when such things happen. And Singh was the victim of a brutal gang-rape who died of her injuries. Imagine how little sympathy such people would have for a young office worker made uncomfortable at work by comments about her breasts or pats on the bottom.

       The first criterion, if you want to fully understand and combat sexual harassment, is to recognise the bright line between consensual sexual interactions and unwanted ones. Sexuality is an integral part of the human experience, which cannot be rejected wholesale: we must differentiate. Yet it is now a truism that the land of the Kama Sutra and Khajuraho is one of the world’s most prudish and censorious. The silence and shame surrounding healthy expressions of sexuality leaves many baffled and vulnerable. Recent initiatives, such as the Saathiya peer counselling scheme—which explains that both same and opposite sex attractions are natural, and destigmatises masturbation—and the government’s Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health (ARSH) programme, launched in April 2018, may help. But these initiatives are likely to be implemented only patchily. A previous programme, rolled out in 2005, met with fierce resistance, resulting in a ban on sex education in eight Indian states. Meanwhile, worshippers rioted at Sabarimala at the idea of women of reproductive age defiling a temple and a 14-year-old girl was killed by Cyclone Gaja in Tamil Nadu because she had been exiled to a flimsy forest hut as a result of menstrual taboos. If even involuntary bodily processes like menstruation are hedged about with shame, how can you talk with frankness about how to manage sexual attractions and urges?

       There are some deep contradictions in Indian society. While Bollywood presents an endless stream of tales of true love triumphing against all opposition, 90 per cent of Indian marriages are arranged. In real life, we have decoupled spontaneous sexual attraction from long-term relationships. Within heterosexual marriage, rape is legal, but loving relationships between same-sex partners were only decriminalised mere months ago. No wonder some Indians have such a hazy understanding of consent.

       The world is growing ever more interconnected. Social media provides a space in which young people can find a privacy often lacking in Indian society and share intimate or taboo thoughts and feelings. Numerous reports of khap panchayats attempting to ban village girls’ access to mobile phones confirm that they too know that social media can be a means of rebellion and liberation. The #MeToo movement has given voice, across the globe, to concerns formerly only whispered about. It is an amplifier.

       #MeToo does not work well as a means for obtaining justice against individuals. It is too easy to make allegations, too difficult to clear one’s name following false assertions: George Takei is so far the only American celebrity to have successfully rebutted a #MeToo charge. But it can be an effective vehicle for wider social change.

       Clearly, some of these changes will be driven by companies who want to protect their international brand image. After purchasing the Indian firm Flipkart in May, Walmart instigated a probe into the behaviour of former CEO Binny Bansal, who has been accused of “serious personal misconduct”. Association with a suspected sexual harasser would sully the US giant’s global reputation—Bansal has since resigned from the company.

       Hopefully, the #MeToo movement will lead to legal changes: the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act is a step in the right direction and we must spread awareness of the regulations and make sure people know their rights. But we need to focus not so much on punishing perpetrators as on building less hostile workplaces for women. Companies need to institute transparent complaints procedures, protect accusers from intimidation, have a zero-tolerance policy towards suggestive remarks, lewd comments and persistent unwanted advances and provide gender sensitisation training for all staff. Widely reported behaviours—such as calling women at all hours to repeatedly beg for a date, telling female employees to flirt with clients or wear sexy clothes to help the company clinch a deal, asking questions about a colleague’s sex life or confiding details unsolicited, forcing alcohol on reluctant co-workers at an out-of-office event—need to end.

       But this must go beyond corporations and employers.

       The Indian iteration of #MeToo has differed from its American counterpart in some telling ways. First, in the greater recourse to anonymity. Many women with large social media followings have opened up their mailboxes to victims and published their correspondence, anonymously, on their own Facebook and Twitter accounts. Some of these accounts read more like confessions than accusations: there is a level of shame, humiliation and self-blame seldom present in most Western accounts. Union minister of state for shipping and finance Pon Radhakrishnan has said that the movement was started by “people with perverted minds”, implying that just discussing such topics is in itself shameful.

       The responses to some of the #MeToo accusations have been revealing in themselves. Following a recent scandal at SRM University in Tamil Nadu, where a male worker is alleged to have masturbated in front of female students in a lift, some commentators blamed the female students’ lifestyle (their short dresses and the fact that they “smoke and drink” at their hostel) and others called for a ban on all male workers on campus. Those who believe sexual harassment of female students can only be prevented by segregating men and women reveal both an eagerness to police women rather than reform men and a low opinion of men in general and Indian men in particular. While there will always be a few creeps and perverts among any group, an increase in such incidents is not an inevitable result of men and women mixing more freely at schools, colleges and workplaces. In fact, if we give young men and women more opportunities to socialise with each other, to become friends, to date, to explore their sexuality in healthier ways, it will foster greater respect for each other and a society which is safer for women. We must not allow sexuality to be associated only with the illicit, surreptitious or dirty. People respond better to positive role models and to examples of how to behave well than to mere prohibitions—especially in the case of sexuality, which can be suppressed or hidden, but never completely avoided or ignored.

       India has a—at least partially deserved—global reputation as an exceptionally hostile environment for women, in which sexual harassment and abuse abound. It is futile to deny or attempt to hush this up. This must change and the first step towards that change is openness. This is especially necessary in India, where women are not encouraged to speak out about their experiences in general and sexual topics, in particular, are highly taboo. To that end, we must allow people to tell their stories. #MeToo provides one forum for these narratives. The movement has a very different resonance in India than in the US and at first glance may even seem irrelevant to India’s more pressing problems. But, by bringing to public attention things which have previously been only whispered about, it is, surely, a force for good.

Fiction CoverThis essay was published in the Jan-Mar 2019 issue.

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