Last year, just as the world was reading with disgust stories emerging as a result of the #MeToo movement in the US, a journalist from Bengaluru decided to tell her story in Vogue India. She wrote a detailed, graphic account of harassment by a senior editor and founder of two national newspapers who had invited her for an interview. But Priya Ramani stopped short of naming her alleged tormentor.
For Indian women, the courage to identify a man in power does not come easily. In a culture where sexual harassment is normalised and trivialised, where the line of consent is blurred by the patriarchy and flawed ideas of machismo, where a women’s testimony is too often disregarded, it took an external force, in the form of #MeToo, for Ramani and other women to feel as though they could call out their alleged tormentors. But they were still fearful.
Now, a year on, it feels as though the momentum has returned. This month, Ramani finally named the unknown editor. It was Mobashar Jawed Akbar. He had left journalism to join the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), and had been inducted in the country’s cabinet as the minister of state for external affairs in 2016.
Within days of Ramani’s allegation, more than 20 female journalists accused Akbar of molestation, with complaints including forcible kissing and groping. Every day a harrowing account of harassment by Akbar found its way on to social media under the #MeToo hashtag.
The government, led by the prime minister Narendra Modi – who assumed power in 2014 on the promise of providing a safe and just environment for women – remained silent. So did an entire cabinet of ministers.
Emboldened, Akbar filed a defamation case against Ramani, hiring a battery of the best lawyers in the country. But, by that time, Ramani had the support of thousands of women who had found their voices, shaming the Indian government over its lack of a response. On 16 October, Akbar, who continues to deny the allegations, stepped down from his post. Indian women celebrated the first concrete victory of their own #MeToo movement.
Journalism and politics aren’t the only worlds to have been rocked. In the weeks leading up to the first anniversary of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, a young Indian actor returned from the US. Tanushree Dutta, 34, alleged in an interview that she had been sexually harassed by veteran actor Nana Patekar on an Indian film set 10 years ago. The trauma had made her pack her bags and leave the country, abruptly ending her acting career.
Now a US citizen, and inspired by what she had seen in her adopted country, she returned home to slay the demons of her past. It was an opportunity to speak out about the “boys’ club” of the film industry, and the fact that “everyone knew” about her harassment, but “did nothing”. And, crucially, having witnessed the new mood in the US and other parts of the world, India was now willing to hear her story and stand by her. Shortly afterwards, Patekar stepped down from his latest film, though he strongly denies the allegations.
Over the past few weeks, India has witnessed a change that feels like nothing short of a revolution in our culture. The social media spaces that have often been the bane of outspoken women now provide a platform to share evidence and testimony. Those who were dissuaded from speaking out by their families to “protect their honour”, who refrained from complaining at workplaces so they were not labelled the “problematic employee”, were now using #MeToo to shake skeletons out of their closets.
It has felt like India is being cleansed of the toxic male entitlement that has long been glamorised in our arts and popular culture. From the resignation of the political editor of a newspaper to the disbanding of a film production house and the falling apart of the country’s most popular comedy collective, #MeToo India has been unsparing. But a movement as apparently transformational as this will not be sustained if those in power continue to see sexual harassment as an issue to be tackled only in urban elites, dismissing it as another western phenomenon.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This is not just the concern of prominent journalists and famous actors. In a country that worships women as goddesses, there is also one of the highest rates of sexual abuse in the world, with many cases going unreported due to the stigma attached to these crimes. During communal riots rape is used as a weapon of intimidation.
In January this year in Kashmir, Asifa, an eight-year-old girl, was allegedly held hostage by a group of men who are reported to have drugged, starved and then raped her for days before her death.
When the case became public, members of the BJP marched in protest against the arrest of the accused, calling it an attack on Hindus (the girl belonged to a Muslim family). BJP legislators and the prime minister remained silent then just as they remain silent now over accusations against Akbar and the #MeToo revelations at large.
We will no longer stand for this kind of silence. Women have decided to rebel against the norms they have long been asked to conform to. What started as a foreign import has become a moment of reckoning at home. My country’s women are saying loud and clear that they won’t be told to shut up like their predecessors, and won’t accept the indifference of those in authority. We must hope, for the sake of all India’s women and girls, that they are finally heard.