There wasn’t anything resembling a #MeToo movement back in the 1980s and the 1990s, when I was a young woman. What we did have is perhaps best described as a #BeCareful movement, based on the logic of “prevention”. Like many other young women, I completely internalised the idea that if I was careful, I would be safe, that I could actually prevent or pre-empt sexual harassment.
What did it mean to “be careful”? It meant a series of “small” sacrifices involving personal liberty “for one’s own good”. It meant not going out at night, not making eye contact or talking more than was strictly necessary with men, not placing ourselves in “tricky” situations, not drawing “undue” attention to oneself. It meant dressing always in clothes that did not reveal an inch of skin. It meant remaining hidden in a way I find hard to explain.
The fact remained of course that despite our best efforts in these directions we were not entirely safe. We got groped, we were at the receiving end of unwelcome attention, the streets did not belong to us in the way it did to men. But each time we were harassed, we blamed ourselves for somehow not having been “careful enough”. And then, we did our best to bury the memory of what had transpired. In fact, we lost count of the number of things we buried in this manner. We just “got on with it”, in a manner of speaking. This logic of “prevention” and “burial” permeated everything we said or did. In a sense, I still operate within its boundaries. It is a logic that has become me, prevented me from living certain lives.
Years of quiet practice
It is the same logic that followed me into my writing life. I did my best to stay out of “harm’s way” and just focus on the writing. It seemed to me like the most sensible thing to do and it wasn’t a bad thing entirely. But the point is that this is nowhere near enough.
It has dawned on me subsequently, as I am sure it has on hundreds of women writers, that years of quiet practice can only get you so far. There are so many things that you have to battle if you want to get your foot in the door and some of these things happen to lie within and not outside of you.
~ The fact that you are a “careful” woman.
~ The fact that as a woman writer you have been schooled not to draw undue attention to yourself.
~ The fact that you are schooled to defer to the “superior” intellect of male writers who somehow give the appearance of being in the know of things and whose work is routinely praised by critics for being clever and experimental.
~ The fact that as a woman it is that much harder to lead a writing life, given the relentless demands of domesticity and the brutally patriarchal nature of work spaces.
~ The fact that to be a woman and a writer is often to live a life of perpetual exhaustion.
~ The fact that no one gives a damn about the exhaustion and you still show up at your desk every day since showing up is the only thing you have going for you.
~ The fact that as a woman you naturally gravitate towards writing the stuff of your everyday life – the “domestic”, the “familial”.
~ The fact that this kind of writing does not appeal to editors and many mainstream publishers. It doesn’t quite cut it somehow – to write about motherhood and children and the complex politics of the personal and the familial. These things “don’t matter”.
What lies beneath
So no, it is not an even playing field, not by a long shot, and the “casting couch” syndrome that the #MeToo movement has taken on is but the tip of a very inequitable iceberg. It is connected to things that are far more nebulous, but equally deserving of our attention.
What is being called out is what can be called out – but what about the stuff that lies beneath it all? The violence that is deep, subtle, insidious and pervasive. This needs to be called out as well and it is important to find the words for that.
Yes, the #me too movement may have its blind spots. Yes, it definitely needs to be more inclusive and accommodative of other voices. Yes, it should not remain trapped in a social media bubble. Yes, it hurts to see some idols come crashing down. Yes, there’s always the possibility that some have been or will be unfairly accused. Yes, perhaps the movement could do with some more careful thinking through which is not always possible amidst the cacophony of social media.
But then again, it is not easy to think through years of a many-layered mess and I am willing to cut it some slack. Right now, this is what we have. This imperfect, young, brash creature. The thing to do is to get out of the way and see where it takes us. Not #BeCareful. Not #BuryTheUnpleasant. But #MeToo.
K Srilata is a poet and professor of English at IIT Madras.