In what has been called India’s MeToo moment, the social media is thick with women coming forth with stories of sexual harassment. In the quick aftermath of actor Tanushree Dutta’s allegations , in an interview in end-September, of harassment at the hands of actor Nana Patekar on a film set a decade ago, women have been speaking of their experiences and the trauma, mostly on Twitter and Facebook. The testimonies so far have mostly concerned the film world and the mainstream media, and cover both the workplace and private spaces. They range from stories of assault to propositioning, suggestiveness to stalking. In the vast majority of cases, the naming is a result of the failure to receive a just response from the system, a signal that it is no longer possible for such behaviour to be breezily dismissed or excused because boys, after all, will be boys. The MeToo hashtag gained currency a year ago in the U.S. when women came out one after another to first corroborate allegations of sexual assault against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, with each further account making clear that there was a systemic pattern of abuse and silence. In the outpourings in India too, a year on, a disturbing picture is emerging. It is not only that many of the allegations are extremely grave — for instance, against M.J. Akbar, a star editor who left journalism for government, to become a Minister of State for External Affairs. What is perhaps of even greater disquiet is that for so very long an official silence was kept around what were, in many instances, open secrets.
Now that women are speaking up — picking up the stories where others have left them, making public suppressed memories, breaking free from the helplessness or a false sense of humiliation that kept them quiet for so long — there can be no looking away. It is important to identify the exact transgression in the various cases that are being outed, and to ensure that action is taken with due process. No one can be deemed guilty only because he had been named and any punishment must be proportionate to the misdemeanour. But the larger issue perhaps is the message sent out by the outpouring — namely, that there has been a systemic disregard for making workplaces and common spaces free of harassment. It must disturb us that a thread that binds so many allegations now coming out is that many women thought that their words and feelings would be dismissed, their careers would suffer, or their families would pull them back into the safety of home. This fear of making a complaint needs to be overcome in all workspaces, not only the media and the film industry. All of society needs to internalise a new normal that protects a woman’s autonomy and her freedom from discrimination at the workplace.