Night is lonely in this quiet and I am lonely too Our silent conversation washes the dirt from our hearts Night is moving towards the light and I, too, am brightening
Sulochana Manandhar (Translated from Nepali by Muna Gurung)
#MeToo matters because WE are TALKING about IT. When we set out doing this blog series, we were in agreement about the liberating power of this hashtag. We also knew there are several unanswered questions, uncomfortable positions, silences and ambiguities along with the great enthusiasm that the #MeToo movement has captured for so many people across the world. Mona Lilja’s piece introduces the necessary optimism that #MeToo has discursive power as it has travelled transnationally, and its appeal is hard to ignore. Elizabeth Olsson’s personal account of sexual harassment during fieldwork is a powerful endorsement of #MeToo that makes visible women’s silences around this issue. It takes a lot of courage and often, optimism for women, even those with some privilege to acknowledge the history of abuse and harassment. It is a way also to understand that privilege for women (education, location, class) may not necessarily provide the confidence, opportunity or circumstances to resist or even speak out against sexual harassment and violence. This is further highlighted in Sanna Strand’s insightful commentary on the Swedish military women and their calls to end sexual harassment and abuse in the military. We have had #MeToo revelations from different fields (journalists, academics, actors), but the army, as an arm of the state has been silent on the culture of abuse that is so prevalent. We need to hear more from militaries in other contexts.
However, #MeToo is not an unambiguous space of women’s activism and feminist solidarities. There are fissures in the movement; there are anxieties and frustrations. Maria Clara Medina reminds us that women’s movements in Latin America have addressed gender-based violence for a very long time now and some even considered #MeToo a Western/American imposition and appropriation of a long struggle for justice on the continent. I have in the earlier piece suggested that #MeToo should be seen in continuity with other movements such as One Billion Rising. It is part of the larger struggle against everyday forms of harassment and gender-based violence in many parts of the world. Feminists invested in intersectionality have cautioned us about #MeToo. Who gets to speak, whose voice matters and who is silenced and erased even as someone else gets to speak, are important concerns. Sinduja Raja reminds us that the ability and platform to speak out against gender-based violence that #MeToo has provided is still confined to the privileged few. We need to reflect on the politics of speech and silences that are simultaneously produced.
So, then, how do we make sense of all these complexities (and feminist struggles are complex and have to be nuanced)? The timing of the movement is extremely critical as it has gone global just when intense backlash against women’s rights, against minorities, and against LGBTQ communities is being widely reported. It has upped the ante for a lot of women, who have spoken out against powerful and influential perpetrators. It has enabled women to think about the possibilities of strategies available to them to mobilise against everyday sexual abuse and violence. It has also provided space for men to think about their interactions with women and the prevalent sexism and sexual innuendos at workplaces that make the work environment so abusive and toxic for women. In my view, the biggest contribution of this movement has been the naming of men in powerful positions who have been serial offenders and predators behind the veneer of respectability, influence and their successful professional careers (Harvey Weinstein is just one example). Even as I write this, no less than the Chief Justice of India is under fire for #MeToo charges with prominent women activists demanding an independent inquiry.
However, the nature of justice in #MeToo revelations requires more attention. Most cases have been hard to investigate with lack of evidence etc. and while women brave it to come out against powerful men, the nature of investigations does not seem reassuring at the moment. Consider the case of a well-known Indian film and television actor, Alok Nath. With serious charges of rape and abuse against him, he managed to, ironically, act in a film on #MeToo as a judge! It is possible that the distributors may not buy the film, but it will only be a few years before he is fully rehabilitated. Such has been the fate of several accused powerful men. Immediate consequences (of losing employment or position temporarily) do not result in greater censure, apology, social consequences or even a sustained investigation. We need to ask ourselves what justice should look like and what should the logical outcome of these allegations and investigations be. Are personal revelations, naming and shaming on social media, the only strategies left in this uphill battle? What would it look like in academic spaces like universities and research institutes, for example, to have knowledge of known predators, to be sworn into secrecy by victims and to struggle with our sense of responsibility and need to demand justice? This discussion about justice, ‘due process’ and punitive consequences is required in many different contexts if we are to foster investigations that are transparent, and that can respond to changed circumstances since the incidents of abuse and assault.
Even if the path to justice looks bleak with courts screaming for evidence and witnesses, and the emotional burden and cost of investigations put entirely on women, it cannot be denied that many women have been able to put their experiences out there and call for urgent actions. There is a greater awareness of insecure and violent working conditions for women, some of whom now choose to speak out. As a young conference organizer in a highly masculinized think-tank environment in Delhi several years ago, I was repeatedly harassed by an overseas conference attendee (who later became a powerful diplomat of his country and continues to serve in an important mission abroad). Subsequently, I worked in Singapore where another powerful conference attendee (former diplomat and author of numerous books) wanted a late night coffee and more! These are just two among the several unsettling incidents that I have experienced but could never really articulate, for both the lack of a supportive and gender-sensitive environment at work and for not having an available vocabulary that could make me feel that I was not alone. It was easy to fight harassment from strangers in public spaces, but never from powerful people at work or even at home. I feel comforted, that many (if not all) young women today, in similar situations have both supportive environments and the formidable utterance of #MeToo that enables them to put their stories out there and resist in ways that they can.
Maria Stern started this blog series on #MeToo with an appeal to pause and reflect. That reflection should not only be by women who choose to speak out (and no one should ask ‘why now?’!) but also by those of us who bear witness to the outrage and to our friends, family, and colleagues who are finding their voices. It is foggy and blurry for now, but there is much good that will eventually come out of it. To paraphrase Manandhar,
Night is moving towards the light
and, we, too are brightening.
Buoyed by naming our nightmares.
Strengthened by their acknowledgment
(More) hopeful of the day ahead.