It is a sad reflection on the male of our species that he has been taken aback by the outpouring of sexual harassment and assault revelations by women through a global campaign called #MeToo.
Let me count myself among these men.
I watch with consternation as the women I know – friends, colleagues, cousins and my wife; professors, police officers and politicians – reveal harassment, abuse or assault that they have not previously acknowledged. I am staggered by the sheer mass of predators – in schools, at bus stops, at home, in the office, by the roadside and online; they include uncles, bosses, friends and strangers.
I know that I should not be shocked or surprised. I know every time sexual assault or abuse becomes public, the women in my universe tell me it has happened to all of us. I know a woman’s reality is very different from a man’s, especially in India where, unlike the West, women have been chary of naming their tormentors. I know nine of 10 sexual attacks in India come from men known to women. I know that no woman of any age is immune – rape and violation of infants routinely appear on the inside pages of newspapers. I know all of this.
Yet I am shocked and surprised. I think this is because while I know the majority of women have been sexually harassed or abused, I do not realise almost all – or all – have. I realise it is common, but I do not realise it is universal. I do not realise how easily men get away with abusing women. I do not realise how it is to live with a shame that should be not yours but your attacker’s.
Above all, I have not experienced what it is to be stalked, groped, harassed or sexually violated. The #MeToo campaign gives me an up-close glimpse of that experience. I realise that to most women what I am saying sounds naive and betrays a life lived in a bubble of security. I realise just how far removed a man’s reality is from a woman’s. I realise I am part of a world that needs to change.
“If you’re one of these men, good on you,” Mitali Saran, a columnist, wrote this week. “But remember that you aren’t doing us a favour.”
I am sure many well-meaning men have been startled by the #MeToo campaign, our minds more open than ever to the dark reality that girls and women – and some boys – endure, mostly in silence. The question is: what can men do?
The answer is that the world and mind of men – domineering and privileged – must change, and that change must come from men, although mothers have an important role to play.
Changing the rules
It is true the dominion of men over women is ancient. It is also true that epochal change is apparent. Women have emerged in work and public spaces. They are CEOs, soldiers and pilots. It is true we celebrate these women – and end the day watching insurance ads about supposedly caring fathers, never mothers, who plan for their daughter’s future; refrigerator ads, washing machine ads, cookware ads featuring a superwoman who works all day but returns to wash clothes, transforms herself to look like a model and puts hot chapatis on the table. It is true we celebrate these women – and expect them to laugh off a sexist joke, ignore the odd pat or squeeze, not be trouble-makers and accept that old saw, men will be men.
The greatest truth is that there appears to be no end in sight to the freedom that men feel, the licence they believe is inherent to their position in life – to dominate, harass, grope, abuse, attack and rape. This freedom must be curtailed.
Men must not be allowed to be men.
Three years ago, I argued that the domination of the Indian man would not end until change began at home, the source of our distorted, privileged masculinity. The key to changing men is to change how children – both boys and girls – are raised.
I include girls only because they must be taught men hold no rights or advantages over them. They must not be taught that it is somehow alright to accept their traditional place in life, to defer to men and to endure abuse, especially from a father, brother or husband. As various studies have shown, a majority of Indian men beat their partners, a majority of women admit to being beaten, and a majority see nothing wrong in all of this. As soon as girls can understand, they must be told what is wrong and what is right and that the privilege of men can never be right.
I do not have a son, but I have a seven-year-old daughter who currently believes girls are stronger than boys. The only reason I teach her to cook and clean is to be independent. We will, in time, teach her how to be a strong woman capable of looking after herself, but we realise that she will, inevitably, run into – and must combat – entrenched male privilege. She is stronger than most boys in her class, but she already puzzles over why boys exclude her from football. To be fair, some mothers of these boys have already given them a talking to.
Lasting transformation can only come when we change how boys are raised. To understand equality, boys must be made to understand – by fathers and mothers – that despite physical differences no sport, behaviour or task is exclusive to women or men. No son should be “mera raja beta”. The education of boys, at home and school, must begin with cooking and cleaning – this is not exclusively about gender but being a better person – and end with what is forbidden: to touch, harass or otherwise abuse a girl or woman. Parents, fathers in particular, must constantly talk about these subjects, tell them the right stories and show them the right movies, so that boys grow up to be men whose minds are scrubbed of patriarchy, misogyny and male privilege. This is, admittedly, a distant horizon. But it is time we began the journey.
Samar Halarnkar is the editor of IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit.