Acclaimed author Nayantara Sahgal has never been afraid to address controversial subjects. In 2015, she was one of the most prominent faces of the “award wapsi” campaign, returning her Sahitya Akademi award to protest what she and and others believed were rising intolerance levels in India. She is a vocal opponent of the Bharatiya Janata Party government, echoing her position during the Emergency, when she was very critical of Indira Gandhi’s government.
In a telephone conversation with Scroll.in, Sahgal spoke about the #MeToo movement in which several women have accused men of sexual harassment and why she feels there should be a more open debate on the subject.
What views would you like to share on the #MeToo movement?
In a democracy, no citizen is guilty because someone said so. The accusation resting on “say so” would have us condemn the men they name without sharing what the men have to say. The ripple effect of these accusations levelled against a variety of men is having the same effect as propaganda, which operates on the principle that if you repeat something often enough it becomes true. This is not only unacceptable but is making a mockery of the #MeToo movement. I now hear that the movement has demanded that literary festivals should ban any writer who has been named in this “say so” campaign. On my part, I have decided not to accept any invitation to any literary festival that has agreed to this blanket ban.
I do hear the nuances in the argument that you are making. But the #MeToo movement began in India with very serious accusations that had been levelled at the time the crimes were committed but no justice had been meted out to the victim, no one had even taken her seriously. And it worked at both a micro-level – outing offenders (admittedly the offences were of a wide range) – but also at a macro-level, creating a narrative of awareness and a public forum for all these uncomfortable conversations. At least now there is some effort on the part of company managements to address it.
Of course, several of the cases highlighted under #MeToo would be described as “serious crimes” while several might be indicative of a general sexism in the workplace that is finally being talked about. But, essentially, they all point to the same problem in the system. So, in the middle of all this, for somebody of your stature to critique #MeToo as a whole is going to trouble a lot of feminists...
Yes, I hope it riles people up. It is very very important that nobody in this democratic country be called guilty on somebody’s “say so”. That is my very positive, very strong view. I think a lot of mischief has been made. Many of the accusations are frivolous, trivial. And some are bare-faced lies. And in this whole situation, we have not heard the voices of the women who are too afraid to speak. Rural women and even women in the metros, who are being raped in their homes, by husbands or fathers or others. We are not hearing anything from these women who are sufferers, who are too afraid to speak...
I agree that there are a lot of voices that are unheard. But...
The workplace is important. But it is not acceptable to declare people guilty before they are allowed to speak for themselves. In fact, I heard that one company has decided not to employ women at all because they don’t want to face this problem.
Rather than take proper action against offenders! I must confess that I have also heard murmurs of this sort. Obviously, nobody is going to publicly express such a damaging view. But privately I have indeed heard comments of this sort. And, of course, if this happens, then the fruit of decades of women’s movements in the fields of employment opportunities, of gender imbalance in the workplace, and so on will be undermined...But the job of #MeToo was to also attack the culture of casual sexism that prevails in many modern workplaces.
Would you repeat that last part again?
The culture of casual sexism that prevails in many modern workplaces. Which may or may not turn into a more predatory thing. It might start with something “small” like a boss making a lewd comment as though it’s a joke, which may snowball into something far more insidious. I think we must admit that the chief impact of #MeToo has been in the cycle of reforms it has set into motion in the modern workplace. Hopefully, chastened male co-workers are going to, arguably, respect boundaries set by female co-workers. If only because of the fear of #MeToo. Or, I should actually rephrase that, co-workers are going to respect boundaries set by other co-workers.
In this environment, when a woman wants to share an instance of this kind of casual-to-potentially-predatory behaviour, report instances of casual sexism, speak anecdotally based on her own experience in the past or the present, how will one prove it? The matter of proof ends up making the victim responsible. The only thing one can do is talk about it and begin to heal...and the #MeToo cascade allows each discrete story, big or small, to become a small brick in an edifice of a new feminism.
Look, this is becoming a very long question. The point is let us have a definition of molestation. There is no such definition. If somebody puts his arm around you, which is happening all the time now in our much more informal society, especially in literary festivals and places where writers meet and casually embrace and so on, we need to have a definition of what is molestation. I have heard such frivolous and stupid things in some of these cases that it has become a laughing matter. You brought up the topic of feminists. I am a feminist myself. Not my writing alone but my whole life has been an example of that.
Nobody can argue with that.
I have no problem if any feminist wants to take up issue with me, they are most welcome to do so. In my family, there were men who were feminists. And there was a comradeship between the men and women in their walk to freedom, which was very natural and very inspiring. And I don’t go for this aggressive, confrontationist approach that is now being adopted in this #MeToo situation. I also think that #MeToo is a ridiculous name for this! It sounds like a child crying “Me too, me too, me too!” wanting to get in. The movement seems to be becoming like that – trivial and mendacious.
This is a very serious subject, what women have gone through, not today but for centuries. I don’t think it should be allowed to lose its credibility by what is happening today. I want this subject to be brought up front and debated on stage, between men and women. Why can’t some literary fest do that? It’s a subject that needs to be approached from both sides. That’s how you debate. You hear each other’s point of view, and everyone’s stories should come out, women have been suffering not just today but from time immemorial from our patriarchy, which we hear nothing about, it’s all about something that has been done in the workplace...There are lots of women who are suffering but not speaking up because they are afraid. It’s not a matter of class. All classes of women have suffered, and all classes have a right to speak up...but we only get to hear one lot of women who have become vindictive. What we need is a comradeship between men and women.
Feminism itself is no longer monolithic. While equality feminists would possibly agree with you, I think there would be radical feminists who would question this very idea of “comradeship between men and women” and intersectionality feminists who would argue that it is impossible for men to be feminists and that they can, at best, be allies to the feminist or the #MeToo movement. My only submission would be that the angry voices – despite the collateral damage left in their wake, despite the serious and the trivial jostling together in their telling – are also playing a part in correcting the imbalance of centuries.
I take full responsibility for my words and my position. And I would be happy to hear all responses to my position. Let there be a debate. That’s what democracy is about.