The #MeToo movement has made welcome change in India but, like the many feminist movements before it, it has left the most marginalised behind, says Shivani Das.
In an exceedingly male-dominated society, as we find in India, the system of patriarchy becomes even more complicated due to the intersections of caste, class, and religion. The #MeToo movement has started an important conversation and brought crucial justice to many. However, unfortunately, like much of the history of feminism in India, it fails to address the intersectional concerns of the majority of Indian women.
A brief history of feminism in India
The Indian Feminist movement started way back in the early 19th century, due to the efforts of torchbearers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and Jyotiba Phule. These men and many like them began a movement for women’s emancipation. They fought for equal access to education, the abolition of sati, the right for widow’s to remarry, the banning of child marriage and property inheritance rights for women. This movement was often carried by the efforts of men exercising their privileged positions to work for women’s causes. But after independence in 1947, it was women who took up the cause for themselves.
These women addressed several socio-economic issues, the most significant one being the passing of the Hindu Code Bills in the 1950s which legally empowered women in the private sphere of marriage, adoption, divorce and inheritance. In the 1980s, the women’s movement also took up issues of Dalit and Adivasi women. However, the issues of women coming from socio-economically marginalised communities were never really highlighted and the discourse remained confined to the concerns of Savarna Hindu women.
A new generation: #MeToo
The #MeToo has failed to redress this tight focus. In 2016 after sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein surfaced on social media using the hashtag, #MeToo, many more women, outside the entertainment industry, started sharing their stories of sexual assault and harassment. It was not long before the movement spread to India. It was a shocking revelation as it showed the predatory actions of powerful men, contradicting the liberal, noble ‘public image’ that they had created for themselves.
This was not the first time sexual assault and harassment had been discussed in the Indian mainstream. In 2013, the Tarun Tejpal sexual assault case had gone public. Tarun Tejpal the founder of Tehelka, a magazine known for its investigative journalism, was accused of sexually assaulting a female journalist during the THINK 2013 festival in Goa. Only a few months prior Tehelka had published a magazine issue condemning rape and empathising with survivors. The sexual assault incident brought to light the sheer hypocrisy of such organisations that used empathy and concern for rape survivors as a marketing strategy, to promote sales.
In these high profile cases, survivors managed to get justice. But there are still a number of cases that have lingered where the legal and judicial process in investigating and holding assaulters accountable was either delayed or denied. In some cases, the survivors were subjected to more humiliation at the hands of the accused.
The #MeToo movement provided an opportunity, giving space to the nameless and voiceless. Women who had been violated but could never dare to come out for fear of victim-blaming, victim-shaming or death at the hands of violent patriarchal forces were empowered to share their stories. It shined a light on how deeply entrenched misogyny and sexism were in society as many who came forward were publicly shamed or blamed for putting themselves in that situation. The women who came out with their stories of sexual harassment exposed not only the men who had violated them but also the vulnerability and helplessness of being victimised.
Life at the intersections
The #MeToo movement was essential but it was ultimately confined to social media, and as such to women with digital access. As such, it remained focused mostly in cities and could not seep into small towns and villages, where accessing the internet was still a problem (due to poverty and illiteracy). The movement was not intersectional as it failed to include rural women, Dalit and Adivasi women, poor women, people from the LGBTQIA community, sex workers and women incarcerated for murder after acting in self-defence.
Another problem specifically found in India is the divide between communities based on caste. It has been observed that women coming from lower castes had a double disadvantage. “Upper caste” patriarchs exploit “lower caste” women sexually to assert their caste superiority and then use the advantage of the societal structure to secure impunity. Awareness of this fact deters women from coming forward and ensures their continued suffering.
Most sexual assault cases in India go unreported. Their voices are stifled by the powerful. The police in India are notorious for failing to document reports of rape and investigating poorly. This is especially acute when the reports are from poor, illiterate or minority communities and when the assaulter is a powerful high profile person, police rarely take cognizance. Survivors are routinely met with disbelief and antagonism and subjected to forensic tests, callously conducted neglecting the minute details that could have served as significant evidence to ongoing cases. Sexual assault survivors are rarely if ever provided proper counselling sessions to cope up with the trauma. In most cases, they are also denied proper medical care to inspect the injuries and infections or chances of sexually transmitted diseases or the risk of pregnancy, as a result of the sexual assault. All of this reflects how poorly structured the criminal justice system is in India.
The #MeToo movement opened the gates for a discourse to take place on the prevailing vulnerable conditions of women which hitherto remained a closed-door topic. But it also disclosed the harsh realities of power dynamics. Many continue to remain unheard, getting trapped in vicious social, legal and judicial systems. What is needed is an all-inclusive structural change to a strong, robust, fair, and accessible addressal and redressal system.