The degree and extent of the revelations over the last fortnight have revealed an ugly, festering side to our society. The long, arduous and often invisible history of women’s struggle needed this spectacular release valve. And it’s historically appropriate that social media became the multiplier and aggregator of voices. For too long, men got away because women were isolated, but social media has provided the scaffolding for an interlinked sorority that would have been hard to imagine even a few years ago.
Living in fear
It feels like the slow burn that blazed during Nirbhaya has been reignited again. Over and over, women are raging about how they thought they were lone victims, how they could not speak up for fear of inflicting familial ‘shame’, how they feared benevolent ‘protection’ would mean confinement at home or being married off. Losing a job, losing independence, losing face — these are not small fears. Women are revealing how seniors and officials they complained to, reinforced these fears. Of how they abandoned jobs and cities because they would not provide what the late journalist Vinod Mehta, with stunning insouciance, referred to as “non-consensual carnal favours” in his book.
To have been subjected to humiliation and harassment and to have stayed silent when it happened is to bear a crushing burden of fury and self-loathing. This public outburst, warts and all, is a watershed for women’s empowerment and has to be seen as such. Yes, it is outside due process. But without this massive collation of narratives, single episodes would have remained isolated transgressions that could be defused. The realisation that toxic masculinity at the workplace is a raging epidemic needed to be brought home forcefully for it to be taken seriously.
Some of the fallout is not great. Already, first-person accounts are dissolving into unverified lists. Fakes are jumping onto the bandwagon. People are urging disclosures, offering up their timelines almost like a panacea or certificate of courage. This is unwise because vulnerable women might be pressured to think it could be just that. While being cathartic, disclosures might not always help in either healing or closure, especially in low-profile cases. And creating a scramble of stories draws the fire away.
Collateral damage might be inevitable, but it is never correct. Individual lives matter; and they must continue to matter as this campaign unravels. Anger might be good, even desirable, at this stage, but at some point it will be spent and lasting solutions must be sought. That process has begun.
After this explosion, not just workplaces but men and women will have to go back to the drawing board. For instance, how will we navigate desire? We are sexual beings, and desire is an undercurrent rippling beneath many of our encounters. And desire cannot be moral-policed and judged by age, sex or marital status. Do we want the excision of all expression of sexual interest at workplaces? Or is it possible we will learn a language of trust where desire can be expressed and rejected/accepted without repercussions. For men, it means subordinating desire to respect and learning that reciprocation is not a divine right. For women, it means learning to reject with confidence, learning how to deploy power.
The phrase ‘sexual freedom’ has been thrown about freely. For early feminists, ‘sexual freedom’ was a hard-won victory. They fought to reify female sexuality, for women to not be recipients but participants in the sexual act, for sex to exist outside patriarchal constructs of marriage. Unfortunately, ‘sexual freedom’ has been appropriated and subverted by men to imply ‘sexual availability’. They use it not so much for relationships of equal power and dignity but to perpetuate misogyny. Drinking, staying single, using a dating app, everything is interpreted as an invitation. Men have used the ‘sexual freedom’ trope to create a sub-culture where a woman rejecting demands for one-night stands or nude photos is deemed ‘uncool’; a milieu that puts immense pressure on women to acquiesce.
Women cannot buy into this. It is disconcerting to read of misbehaviour by colleagues or classmates going unchallenged; an implicit acceptance that these males are more powerful than their female counterparts. In situations of power parity, women cannot cede away agency. Yes, it’s hard to say no, to lose friendships, or to snub ‘popular’ men. But women have to slay these demons rather than seek redress in victimhood. For starters, it is terrific that women have subverted ‘humiliation,’ the weapon used to silence them, and turned it on men.
In the melee, words like ‘rape’, ‘assault’, ‘harassment’ have been used loosely. But every incident has to be regarded separately, and there must be proportionality in how we respond to each. If an advance, whether unwelcome or impulsive, has been deflected easily, it is neither criminal nor harassment. A direct or indirect sexual proposition needn’t be read as assault as long as the right to reject is respected. This defines freedom.
Once the dust settles, substantial solutions are needed. Institutional responses must become quicker, wiser, and more robust, but behavioural changes are even more urgent. The problem is fundamentally one of socialisation. Men have to unlearn a lifetime of imbibed contempt for women. It can only be addressed by familial and social sensitisation that begins from infancy, creating a society that grants women equality and dignity by default. If today’s anger can begin that process, it will have been a success.
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