On Sunday, when MJ Akbar, India’s junior minister of external affairs, returned to the country to face accusations from more than a dozen women about his alleged actions, including accusations of sexual harassment and assault, his tone was defiant. In the face of demands for resignation, Akbar instead issued a statement that insisted all accusations were false and then proceeded to file a defamation complaint against journalist Priya Ramani, who was the first to name him. But something changed between then and Wednesday. Despite his initial belligerence, Akbar is no longer a minister. He tendered his resignation on Wednesday, telling the media that he was stepping down to personally fight his case of criminal defamation against Ramani.
The battle isn’t over yet – indeed, it has scarcely begun. But for the women who have been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement, which seeks to call out sexual harassment and misogynistic cultural attitudes, and, actually, for anyone invested in a more equal, just society, this is a victory worth savouring. It wasn’t so long ago, when women began naming their harassers online, that some cynically responded by saying that such an effort would never be able to take on the really big names. In less than two weeks, one giant has been felled, or at least cut down to size.
Akbar is a globally renowned journalist who also was a minister in the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Combined, those two positions bring with them tremendous amounts of clout. It is also worth noting that, in the past four years, no minister under Modi has had to step down because of scandal, in part because this government is dead set against giving an inch. The #MeToo movement has now taken a yard.
In some ways, Akbar’s resignation is even more significant because it came after initial defiance and the threat of legal action against accusers. That was a classic aggressive gambit, intended to silence anyone else who might have a story to tell. Instead, even more women came forward to tell their stories of alleged harassment at his hands, taking the total count of accusers to 16. The day before he resigned, 20 more women from a newspaper at which he had worked signed a statement describing the “culture of... sexual predation” that he engendered. This response seems to have tipped the scales.
Instead of scaring other women, the minister’s resignation sends the message that more voices can help move the needle. It reinforces the core tenet of the movement, that it is built on solidarity and belief. That airing an account will put the burden of proof on the man who has been accused, rather than simply turning the accuser into a target.
As journalist Sandhya Menon, one of those spearheading the movement, put it, five years ago she wouldn’t even think to wonder if people would believe her stories of harassment. She was 100% certain they would not. #MeToo has changed that. “Now it was like, ‘Maybe they will believe it’ and then I have seen that support, I have seen people turn around and say, ‘I believe in’ and this is something that women have just naturally taken to over the last week, ‘I believe you,’” she said.
Of course, not every #MeToo story will have 16 accounts and 20 others turning out in support. Some stories were told on a list a year ago, when far fewer were willing to listen. Others will continue to be messy, not as easily accepted and still scarily individual, with as much risk to the woman as before. Indeed, for those outside these broadly upper-class, upper-caste online spaces, the movement may yet be out of reach. But those are places where the movement has to go. The momentum it gained on Wednesday can and should drive it to expand in those directions. But for now, it is worth noting how far it has come. #MeToo cannot be dismissed just a hashtag, or a flash in the pan.