After journalist Priya Ramani broke the silence, more than a dozen women journalists came forward to accuse veteran editor and minister MJ Akbar of sexual harassment during last year’s #MeToo movement. Akbar’s response was to slap a defamation case on Ramani.
In a keynote address at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival on Thursday, Ramani looked back at the past year and explained why she thinks speaking up is crucial, no matter the risks.
Thank you for inviting me to speak at the best literary festival in India. The curators of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival are probably the only organisers of any such event who read all the books they feature. And here you invariably find stories from the margins – whether it’s the North East, Kashmir, or even Goa.
What does it mean to speak from the margins and about the margins? The last time I spoke the truth on a public platform, a powerful man slapped a criminal defamation case against me. I wonder what will happen today.
I’ve found that speaking up can be addictive, also liberating. I highly recommend it. I believe we don’t speak up enough.
Recently, three women were discussing the impact of #MeToo.
There are so many things I wish I had told my mother before she died, one said.
Like what, someone asked.
All the bad stuff that happened to me as a child, for example, she replied
I still haven’t told my mother about my dad’s friend who abused me. He’s around and in touch with the family, the second said.
I will never tell my parents what happened to me, the third said emphatically. After all these years, I don’t want them to feel bad that they couldn’t keep me safe.
That’s true, the first said. Maybe it’s good I didn’t tell my mother anything. My mother would only have felt sad if I shared. And what would she have done about it anyway?
Think about it, this first woman suddenly said. Despite #MeToo, despite all the stories we’ve heard these past few years across the world, there is still so much women haven’t shared – even with each other.
There are so many stories we still keep hidden.
So when you look at the huge numbers around the #MeToo conversations on social media – a recent report by UN Women, for example, calculated that there had been 36 million tweets across 195 countries using 25 hashtag variants of #MeToo from January 2016 to July 2019 – you must understand that these numbers don’t indicate that women are exaggerating what they’ve experienced. In fact, we are understating. We are just scratching the surface of the horrors of sexual violence and sexual harassment.
As a society we are so inured to violence against women that we now only react to the most heinous stories of rape. From Nirbhaya, the young woman who was training to be a physiotherapist in Delhi to the 27-year-old veterinarian in Hyderabad, the stories were so brutal that they had the power to jolt us even in our bubbles.
Both these crimes happened in big cities, they involved young women who were serious about being in the workforce, they both had multiple perpetrators, horrific mutilation and murder.
Each time, it takes something worse to elicit a reaction from us. Then we demand the death sentence, castration or, as they are doing in Hyderabad presently, mob justice. Even a lawmaker asked for them to be lynched and one television channel promptly polled its viewers: India says lynch rapists, do you endorse the demand?
Think of #MeToo as our latest response to this rape culture. Think about that the next time it so much as crosses your mind that #MeToo is a plot against men by vindictive women. #MeToo has raised pertinent questions about how we should handle sexual misconduct. It puts pressure on courts and workplaces to implement the laws that already exist.
This free pass to treat women as non-sentient beings starts when we bring up our daughters on the ‘Shame-Blame’ diet, and when we repeat that mantra of “less than” – “you are less than this, you are less than that.”
We tell our sons that the world and everything in it – women included – belong to them to use as they please. I’ll add two riders here: This is an unsafe country for all children, no matter what their gender and often, it is women who transmit these patriarchal messages to their children.
Here’s another way to think about #MeToo. All the stories you heard – and didn’t hear – about sexual harassment in the workplace are one big reason why so many women opt out of the workforce. It’s not safe. Rampant sexual harassment exists even in garment factories which are powered by women workers.
Only nine countries have a lesser proportion of working women than India – and many of them are countries at war. Women are relinquishing public spaces and opting to stay at home. Families have a readymade excuse to refuse to let their daughters step out of the home.
You should support #MeToo because it is not just some unnecessary drama by a bunch of privileged women about how men behave. It’s our latest attempt to make you respond to a national crisis that must be addressed. No country can be a superpower if half its potential workforce feels unsafe at work.
When I began working, there were no rules against sexual harassment in the workplace. We didn’t even have the language to describe sexual harassment. We were fighting other battles – the right to be on the table, the fear of arranged marriages – and we were certainly not encouraged to speak out. We only shared our stories with each other, often as a way to warn each other. It was only in 1997 that we got the Vishaka Guidelines and then, in 2013, Nirbhaya’s rape resulted in the sexual harassment law.
The biggest trial after this new law is unfolding in your state with all the usual elements of victim-shaming, delays and intimidation. I hope you are backing the woman who was brave enough to speak up so many years before we got together and found the courage to say #MeToo.
Our normality is built on histories of inequality and injustice that we are typically reluctant to disturb or scrutinise too closely. Which is why so many of us – when forced to see – find it easier to disbelieve or dismiss everyday violence. Don’t do that. Instead, when someone screws up the courage to say #MeToo, feed off that courage to question that which you have learned to see as normal.
How many women do you think spoke up as part of #MeToo? Thousands? Hundreds? Actually it was 159. My favourite feminist organisation Blank Noise – please look up their work – tracked the #MeToo movement in India. Until July 2019, 124 women had spoken up and an additional 35 women anonymously said #MeToo. Together we called out 90 people. Only the tip of the iceberg, as I said.
Yet these 159 people – who spoke up at great personal cost to themselves – managed to generate so much conversation around consent, workplace behaviour and restorative justice – conversations we had never had before at this scale. It helped that the world was having the same conversations.
In the past one year, more workplaces than ever before are actually getting serious about implementing the law. For years after the Vishaka Guidelines there were no internal complaints committees. So for those journalists who called me on the first anniversary of #MeToo to ask me if the movement had failed to make an impact, the answer is: certainly not.
I haven’t spoken properly to my parents in a year. Every time we speak my mother asks me worriedly: daughter, are you sure you’re okay? She uses her bad news voice, the voice she usually reserves to tell me someone died.
Of course I’m okay, I reply sometimes irritatedly, sometimes cheerily. But the honest answer is, I have no idea if I’m okay. I don’t spend any time thinking about this question. I haven’t really checked what’s going on within me. I am not using this period for self-reflection.
I find it easier to go from court date to court date – 24 in the last one year in case you’re interested, and from here I fly straight to Delhi for my 25th court date. I’m based in Bangalore and it’s exhausting to keep trekking to Delhi, but I stay focused on practical matters. I’m grateful to anyone who offers support. My two girlfriends who’ve come to every single court hearing with me and with whom I stay every time I’m in the capital. My firebrand feminist lawyer and her team, who are all angry about how I’m being made to pay for speaking the truth. My parents and in-laws, who handle my nine-year-old every time we have to go to court. All the women who offered to be witnesses for me. All my friends and colleagues who show up in court. My husband who is my fiercest critic and my biggest fan.
Everyone should speak up. Let’s not make it something special. Something that’s praiseworthy.
I know our nature and our culture don’t encourage us to speak up. Our school system and families value obedience above everything. Early in life, we are taught the virtue of falling in line. Although somehow we still don’t know how to form a line.
But now, more than ever, we need to put aside this reluctance to speak. If we do not speak up against violence, injustice, fake news and hate we will lose this version of India in our lifetime and our children will never know what this country was like.
In Hong Kong, Chile, France and at least a dozen other countries in recent weeks, the middle class is marching on the streets. But here we are mostly silent, except occasionally to protest civic issues.
Last week Rahul Bajaj used a business newspaper’s awards function to ask the home minister questions about lynching, about MP Pragya Thakur praising Nathuram Godse in parliament, and about jailing people for 100 days without convicting them. He said that nobody has the confidence to criticise the government in this atmosphere of fear.
What a furore it caused when one industrialist spoke up. The finance minister said speaking up could hurt national interest. Imagine if 10 more industrialists said they agreed with Rahul Bajaj.
As former IAS officer Kannan Gopinathan said after, “In a democracy, criticising the government shouldn’t feel like a courageous act. It should be a routine one. If one is made to think about consequences before doing so, that’s precisely what’s called an atmosphere of fear.” In case you don’t know him, Kannan Gopinathan was the only bureaucrat in India who quit to protest the writing down of Article 370 in Kashmir.
Stop worrying about the consequences of what will happen even before you speak up. What could possibly happen? Do you think you will be charged with sedition if you sign your name on a letter that condemns mob lynching? Or that you will lose your job as an editor if you try to track hate crimes? You think you will have to face tax terrorism or raids or be detained just for speaking up or because you are in the opposition? Do you think some industrialist will file a defamation case against you for reporting on a defence deal? Do you think they will question your motives for speaking up and your timing for speaking up. Do you think they will analyse the words you used when you spoke up? Do you think they will slut shame you for speaking up? Do you think you’ll get rape threats on Twitter? Do you think you will anger your customers if you make an innocuous statement such as “Food doesn’t have a religion.”
Of course all the things I just said have happened to people and this is precisely why more of us need to speak up.
Don’t let the bullies take over the public discourse; don’t relinquish the sane spaces. In this new, sharply divided India, there’s so much to speak up about. Start with your circle of influence. Don’t forward fake news. Be alert for WhatsApp forwards that attack a particular community or that offer a version of facts for a historical event. Be the resident fact checker. Take on your family bigot.
In recent months, I find myself obsessed with stories of people who have been willing to stand apart from the crowd. Like the Varanasi teenager who gave a speech in his school where he said there was no bigger Hindu than Gandhi. “But the people of other religions didn’t fear his ‘Hey Ram’ because Gandhi was a symbol of secularism in India.” Or the law schools across the country who are helping people excluded from Assam’s National Register of Citizens. Or the Kathak practitioner in Ahmedabad who danced to Jab Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya from Mughal-e-Azam in front of graffiti warning people about Love Jihad. Or the group of like-minded people who launched a helpline to fight hate after 16-year-old Junaid Khan was beaten to death in a crowded train. Or the writers, poets, singers, standup comics, illustrators and artists who use their creativity to keep hammering away at what’s going wrong in India. Or the few journalists and news organisations who continue to hold power to account. Or the retired bureaucrats and military personnel who keep writing anguished letters to the Prime Minister.
I learned a few lessons on speaking up from Harsh Mander – an IAS officer who ensured there were no riots in his area during the 2002 Gujarat riots and who quit soon after in protest – when I signed up for his Karwan-e-Mohabbat two years ago. The group visits victims of hate crimes every month to atone, offer solidarity, record their stories and to provide legal help.
In Jharkhand I met Mariam Khatoon whose husband Alimuddin Ansari was murdered by a mob in broad daylight at a local Saturday bazaar. The family found out through a WhatsApp video. She’s scared for her children but says she won’t rest until she gets justice. She still believes in the plurality of India, though she has witnessed first-hand its dramatic erosion. She speaks up whenever she can – about our right to eat whatever we want, about her MP who garlanded the men accused of murdering her husband, about which political party is complicit in the rise in hate crimes in recent years. If Mariam Khatoon has the courage to speak up, surely we can too?
I spoke because women before me spoke up. I spoke so people after me can speak up.