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Nearly two decades ago, when I was a young freelancer, an influential Indian official called me to his home one weekend afternoon, ostensibly to give me a report that I wanted. On arrival, I was ushered into the living room. Then he came in, and lay down on his side on a sofa opposite me — like a modern-day Roman emperor — with his head propped up in his hand.
He may have been comfortable, but I was not. I sat primly on the edge of my chair, back straight — thankful for the coffee table between us — as I listened to him banter about his American girlfriends of yore. After a while, I asked for the report. Then I bolted, reeling from the oddity and ambiguity of the encounter.
That memory has returned to me in the past weeks, as India has been rocked by its own dramatic and long-overdue #MeToo moment. In a patriarchal society where sexual assault victims are still routinely blamed, Indian women have taken to social media to share detailed accounts of male entitlement, casual misogyny, sexual harassment and alleged molestation by former bosses and colleagues at work.
The outpouring has echoes of the aftermath of the rape and murder of a young woman on a Delhi bus in 2012, when Indian women surged on to the streets to express their rage, both at the crime and their own feelings of physical insecurity in public spaces.
Yet today’s online outburst reveals that India’s private spaces — offices, newsrooms, film sets, universities, advertising agencies, artist’s studios and other workplaces — have been as treacherous for women to navigate as the crowded sidewalks and packed buses and trains of Indian cities.
Some have alleged outright physical molestation — unwanted touching, groping, forced kisses and tongues shoved in their mouth. Other allegations are more ambiguous but nonetheless creepy: female job candidates being interviewed over drinks in a hotel room at night, or an employee being summoned to a hotel for a meeting to be received by a male boss in nothing but his underwear.
By coming out to share these humiliating, painful stories, women are shattering a culture of silence and shame that has granted powerful men a climate of utter impunity.
So far, the highest-profile accused has been MJ Akbar, who resigned as minister of state of external affairs last week after a torrent of allegations of predatory workplace behaviour back when he was still a revered newspaper editor. He has denied wrongdoing, and filed a criminal defamation case against the first of his 16 accusers.
But Mr Akbar is not the only man who now faces a reckoning. Bollywood has been shaken by allegations of misconduct by two influential directors and an actor. Another senior editor at a newspaper has resigned. Powerful advertising executives have been removed from the helm of the agency they founded.
Some are concerned that India’s #MeToo movement is “naming and shaming” high-profile men, damaging their careers and reputations without due process in a court of law. But few women have faith that India’s overloaded, sluggish court system can deliver justice.
A criminal case against Tarun Tejpal, a magazine editor accused of sexually assaulting a reporter in an elevator in 2013, is still yet to come to trial. And a sexual harassment case against climate scientist RK Pachauri filed in 2015 is also still winding its way through pre-trial proceedings.
But that is what makes this a seminal moment in India. Until now, young women at the start of their careers have hesitated to take on those with power, fearing that they, rather than their tormentors, would come under greater scrutiny and pay a higher price. That silence has remained prevalent, despite a 2013 law requiring employers to establish internal complaints committees, where grievances over sexual harassment can be lodged and heard.
But this #MeToo turning point suggests the burden of shame is finally being shifted away from women in India. It is likely to embolden more women to report incidents of harassment, and should prod employers to ensure their grievance committees are ready to listen. Most importantly, it should be a warning to those Indian men who have long been accustomed to a culture of privilege and impunity.
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