When misogyny reared its ugly head at a press meet

How a few women dealt with a bunch of angry, mostly male reporters

Published - October 23, 2018 12:15 am IST

KOCHI, 05/10/2012: Filmmaker and Poet  Leena Manimekalai at Kochi on friday. Photo : Thulasi Kakkat

KOCHI, 05/10/2012: Filmmaker and Poet Leena Manimekalai at Kochi on friday. Photo : Thulasi Kakkat

Change, as the cliché goes, begins at home. This is what some of us journalists realised at a press meet organised by the South Indian Women’s Film Association last week. Members of the association, including playback singer Chinmayi Sripaada, filmmaker and poet Leena Manimekalai, director and actor Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, and anchor Sriranjani, had gathered to lend their support to women from the Tamil film industry who had shared their accounts of being subject to sexual harassment and misconduct over the years.

That there was a press meet on this gave me hope. Discussions about the #MeToo movement would create awareness about sexual harassment and broaden the discourse in the film industry, I thought.

However, 20 minutes into the event I was squirming in my seat. I was not alone. Distress had turned to shock and shock to anger on the faces of the two women reporters seated next to me.

“The environment wasn’t conducive for us to complain before. We want to make it more conducive. We want to support more women who want to speak up,” Ramakrishnan had said at the beginning. This was forgotten when the women faced a barrage of questions from a bunch of reporters, most of whom were male. “When and where did the incident happen? What kind of torture were you subject to?” one reporter demanded to know of Manimekalai. Even when she expressed discomfort about recounting her experience again (she has shared it more than once before), the reporters would not take no for an answer. They insisted that she share more details.

When Ramakrishnan interjected and requested the media to keep the questions sensitive, a cacophony of objections drowned her voice. Reporters repeatedly asked the women to produce evidence for their allegations and recount their trauma. They demanded to know why the women had not approached the police, the courts, or filed complaints with Internal Complaints Committees, even as the women attempted to explain how institutional mechanisms had failed them over the years.

“Does this mean that you will all throw allegations against any man?” asked a few angry male reporters. “This press meet is coming across to us as an attempt to defame all men,” a reporter shouted.

Seeing the situation spiral out of control, some of us tried to steer the press meet in another direction but we were hopelessly outnumbered. Finally, silence descended on the room, albeit briefly, when Sripaada stood up with folded hands and pleaded with the reporters to be more sensitive. “Some of us have come forward after all this time and it is not to defame all men. There has been harassment and we have stories. We are asking men to stand with us. And we are being told here to shut up,” she said as photos were furiously clicked.

Sitting there, I thought about the many distasteful comments, memes and “jokes” on #MeToo that had been doing the rounds online. I realised that I didn’t have to look too far for the origins of that mindset. When the press meet ended, I apologised to Manimekalai for the questions that members of my fraternity had posed. When I told her that she had handled them well, her wry smile spoke volumes about how it was a battle that had just begun for her and many other women.

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