Opinion | If not closure, #MeToo movement has given women freedom from fear
There are subtle ways in which gender-based discrimination plays out in the office
For a long time, India has been a patriarchal society and crimes against women have been underreported. Upholders of the law, and often many women too, have consistently demonstrated a strong and unconscious bias in the way they viewed sexual crimes. It was an open secret that sexual harassment was widely prevalent in the film industry, but nobody ever brought it up. Even when someone hesitatingly raised it, it was hushed up. In the corporate world, too, there are companies with a toxic culture. Besides choosing not to work for such a company, there was little else that could be done to bring such companies to book. That was then.
In 2018, there was a national outcry over the street sexual harassment during New Year’s Eve celebrations in places like Bengaluru’s MG Road. Senior government officials and politicians came under severe criticism for implying that western attire and values were the cause. The fact that this could happen in a seemingly liberal city like Bengaluru was shocking. The worrying revelation was how deeply entrenched the patriarchal outlook is, and that it surfaces at the first opportunity.
In India, the #MeToo movement really took off about a year ago when Tanushree Dutta and Vinta Nanda alleged sexual harassment by well-known film personalities. Many other women came out to share similar experiences across industries. And again, as one-time celebrity Chunky Panday has come to the defence of filmmaker Sajid Khan, there is renewed interest in #MeToo—but daily and workplace sexual harassment is not a topic for headlines and sound bytes. We have to be aware of it every day, and watch for the subtle ways in which gender-based discrimination plays out.
In the past few years, awareness about workplace sexual harassment has increased multifold. Laws are in place to provide adequate protection for women at the workplace. The women and child welfare ministry has created a forum and an Internet portal for women to use to make complaints and seek redressal. All this happened because some bold women spoke out, and refused to be silenced no matter how much they were trolled.
One of the concerns about the #MeToo movement is that often there is no evidence, and that an allegation could tarnish a man’s reputation and career. Those who say this further argue that women who want to settle scores could misuse this. Isn’t that true of any crime where there is no evidence? Isn’t it the role of an investigating agency to inquire into a complaint and gather evidence? Why is it that many of those whose names have come up in the #MeToo movement have been accused by multiple women? It just can’t be a case of women ganging up to defame a man. As in any other civil or criminal case, an accused has the right to defend and redeem him or herself.
I often hear people ask, “But what has changed after the #MeToo movement." First of all, it has created a strong deterrent for those who thought they could get away with lewd behaviour or sexual harassment at the workplace. This is no mean achievement. I have seen some individuals speculating that going forward men may be reluctant to hire women in their teams. I think it is the duty of companies to educate employees and dispel any such unfounded fear. Changing deep-rooted practices, whether in companies or in society, need some extraordinary measures. In the interest of the larger good, let’s stop nitpicking on the imagined damage it could cause to a few individuals, or trivializing it by saying that some men are victims too.
One of the other things that the #MeToo movement changed is that it has given women the much needed courage to raise their voices immediately and not wait for months or years by when the leads and evidence go cold. It is much easier to investigate a complaint and nail down an offender if the time gap between a crime and the complaint is short. The fear of not being believed, the fear of being under pressure to withhold or withdraw complaints, the fear of what others will think—these have all been diminished by the outpouring of stories and solidarity, and freedom from fear is always a game changer.
T.N. Hari is head of human resources at Bigbasket.com and adviser to several venture capital firms and startups. He is the co-author of Saying No To Jugaad: The Making Of Bigbasket.