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Wednesday, 31 October 2018 06:57

#MeTooIndia: After Scandals Erupt, Is the Country's Future a Feminist One?

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India 1031wrp(Photo: Meena Kadri / Flickr)


The Indian edition of the global #MeToo phenomenon blossomed with the formidable beauty of a Venus flytrap in early October. The fountainhead of the movement can ostensibly be attributed to a decade-old case of sexual abuse that occurred in the Indian film industry of Bollywood.

Actor Tanushree Dutta, in an interview with the entertainment portal Zoom TV, recounted an incident in harrowing detail; she said that she was inappropriately touched and groped by her famous co-actor Nana Patekar on the film set of a Bollywood production entitled Horn Ok Pleassss back in 2008. After she rejected his advances, Dutta said that Patekar called goons belonging to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a regional political outfit, who in turn trashed her car.

Indeed, video footage exists depicting the vandalism. Not unlike the Harvey Weinstein scandal in the US, this incident also occurred in the world of entertainment and served as the catalyst for the #MeToo movement in India.

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Pandora's box has been ripped wide open, and women from all walks of life have taken to social media with aplomb to name and shame their abusers. Not surprisingly, a whole slate of male directors and actors have joined Patekar in the proverbial hall of shame.

Meanwhile, the burgeoning #MeToo movement has spilled forth beyond the confines of the film and entertainment industry. The list of accused sexual abusers and harassers now includes journalists, writers, artists, executives, musicians, politicians and others. In fact, it appears to be growing daily with a frequency that is alarming.

Indeed, the success story of #MeToo is seemingly no small victory for the feminist movement in India. Sexual abuse and harassment is an issue that has never received this kind of national attention in India, save for the Nirbhaya incident in 2012, in which a young medical student was brutally gang-raped on a moving bus in the capital of New Delhi. The #MeTooIndia movement has certainly been a watershed moment in the discourse of women's rights.

This watershed moment was perhaps most pronounced in the case of outing Indian politician and eminent journalist MJ Akbar as a perpetrator. No less than 16 women have reported multiple incidents of harassment, mainly within the context of the workplace. There is a consistent motif at play: Akbar repeatedly misused his power as an authority figure in several news outlets during his venerated career as an editor to molest women that were his junior and, not surprisingly, enamored by his celebrity.

A privileged and powerful misogynist, Akbar is the quintessential target of #MeToo. He is India's parallel to Bill Cosby, and his fall has been no less disgraceful. Journalist Priya Ramani was the first woman to open the floodgates against Akbar by describing him, "as talented a predator as ... a writer." Ramani's tweet opened the floodgates as more and more survivors came out into the open with their own stories of abuse at Akbar's hands.

Wielding the #MeToo hash tag, these women shone like modern day Joans of Arc and captured headlines across India with the inexorability of the perfect storm. Akbar, who until recently, was minister of state for External Affairs in the Narendra Modi-led cabinet, filed a defamation suit against Ramani but was forced to resign nonetheless.

Yes, #MeToo has captured the imagination of India, but is the country's future really a feminist one? I discussed this with a female colleague who, like me, works in the Indian film industry. India is no Beverly Hills, and while #MeToo social media grandstanding is the new cool, the reality on the ground remains as bleak as it ever was. Women are brutalized and raped, tortured and murdered every single day in India.

The majority of these women live in secluded rural areas that are way beyond the ambit of #MeToo. We almost never hear their stories. But will that really change with how the #MeToo discourse is now playing out? After confiding some of these doubts to my colleague, she said that, while she agrees the conversation is currently restricted to urban women, the movement will somehow "trickle down."

Out of politeness, I refrained from pointing out that trickle-down theories had been criticized as ineffective by just about every credible source in economics; I'm still left wondering whether feminism is really that different.

In a January poll by the National Health Survey of India, 52 percent of women said it was acceptable for a man to beat his wife, as opposed to the 42 percent of men. Patriarchy is deeply embedded in the Indian psyche, and the question arises whether the urban-centered India edition of #MeToo will succeed in crossing over to the rural majority.

I have my doubts, and as this movement gathers momentum and steals the limelight, I am left to wonder to myself whether rural Indian women will remain sidelined.


Agneya Singh is an award-winning Indian writer and filmmaker based in New Delhi.