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'Gaslighting', 'Ally' and 'Sham-apology': Decoding the Language Behind the #MeToo Movement In India

The words of dissent.

Rakhi Bose | News18.com@theotherbose

Updated:October 13, 2018, 3:43 PM IST
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'Gaslighting', 'Ally' and 'Sham-apology': Decoding the Language Behind the #MeToo Movement In India
Hundreds of people marched in the heart of Hollywood to support victims of sexual assault and harassment, inspired by a social media campaign that has portrayed such abuse as a pervasive feature of American life. (Image: Reuters)
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In the past week, India has seen an unprecedented phenomenon which has brought multitudes of women to come out about their stories of sexual harassment.

India's #MeToo, which started after the likes of actor Nana Patekar and stand up comedian Utsav Chakraborty were accused of harassment, quickly snowballed into a movement much larger than could have been predicted. Women from all walks of life came forth and shared stories of abuse, harassment and worse, on social media.

While the sheer scale of the movement was something unprecedented in India, it also introduced to Indians a new set of jargon - words and terms that have specific connotations pertinent to the context. Since the movement played out largely on social media, it is important to understand the specific meanings attached to each of these terms that entered India's lexicon with #MeToo.

For starters, harassment, the major keyword. While the word itself was familiar to Indians, the #MeToo movement made it a deeper, more layered term. Many victims came out with accounts of sexual harassment, abuse and incidents where they were made to feel uncomfortable by their seniors or colleagues. As the accounts all different in details and degree of damage, many have raised questions about what constitutes sexual harassment.


The Supreme Court of India defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favours; sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography; any other unwelcome physical verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature. These were spelt out in 1997 under the Vishakha Guidelines that were superceded by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013. Many of the victim's accounts of sexual harassment did not pertain to physical harassment but to mental harassment or manipulation, things that many in India did not consider harassment at all. With #MeToo, sexual harassment now includes even sending unsolicited pictures of genitalia. In fact, any kind of behaviour that has sexual undertones, seeking sexual favours from employees, giving undue attention on social media, all constitute sexual harassment.

Triggered.  A trigger is something that sets off a reaction. In case of sexual harassment and #MeToo, various things can act as a trigger - a photo of one's abuser, citations of the accused in respectable journals and columns, similar stories of other victims. Often, those who have faced abuse or otherwise can get emotionally and mentally triggered by content that is available in public, especially social media. Reading accounts of harassment and abuse can be harrowing and cathartic. This triggering effect of #MeToo is one of the most important reasons for the widespread success of the movement. Almost all the accounts have acted as triggers to victims that have led to more victims revealing their own stories.

Gaslighting. This is also a term that has become part of every Indian's dictionary now after #MeToo. The Oxford dictionary defines gaslighting as the act of psychologically manipulating someone to the point that they start doubting their own sanity. In cases of sexual abuse and harassment, this technique is used especially by the accused who try to get out of allegations by claiming that the harassment was actually a victim's misunderstanding. An example of gaslighting would be a victim alleging someone of harassment and the accused responding by saying they were just trying to be friendly/polite and that instead, it was the victim who 'misread' the act. Or they may try to dismiss the harassment by saying that it never happened and that the victim may have misremembered or imagines. The technique is powerful and dangerous as it allows the accused to exercise mental control over the victim and can often be seen in unhealthy relationships. For example, when a partner says they feel left out and neglected and the other partner responds by saying it's because of their own underconfidence.

Victim-shaming. This word is important today when victims are coming out by the score to talk about their experiences. Victim shaming is when a victim is shamed for coming out with their account and accusation. For example, when a victim says she was raped in college, a victim-shaming response would be to say that the rape was because of the way she dressed then. Or to say that the rape was because the victim had been friends with her abuser from before, thus encouraging the act. Mainly, victim-shaming revolves around discrediting a victim and their account by diverting the focus from the crime to the possible or probable faults in the victim that could have led to the crime. It is actively used by abusers and harassers to dehumanise the victim. When Tanushree Dutta came out with accusations of sexual harassment against Nana Patekar, she was victim-shamed for being a 'B-grade' and 'sexy' actress who was okay doing nude scenes and now wanted to cry foul about past harassment to get media traction. The latter kind of victim-shaming is usually referred to as 'slut-shaming'.

Sham-apologies. While a lot of people accused in #MeToo came up with statements and apologies in response to certain allegations, not all the apologies that have come forth have been sincere ones. A sham-apology is when an accused seemingly 'apologises', but not really. The wording of the apology is manipulative and aimed at discrediting the victim. These are skillfully articulated statements abusers often come up with in order to look like they are taking the higher ground and wanting to end the mess. These sham apologies, instead, are scathing justifications of their acts and often involve elements of gaslighting and victim shaming. For example, when writer Chetan Bhagat was accused of sexual harassment recently, he claimed that he was genuinely interested in the victim and that his acts were not with malicious intent.

Sexual predator. This is a person who has regularly and systematically harassed a number of victims. Many of the #MeToo stories from the media sector refer to accusers who have repeatedly meted out similar harassment to a number of women. A sexual predator typically chooses victims with similar characteristics and usually has a modus operandi. The fact that they can commit crimes with impunity against a number of women makes them all the more dangerous.

Ally. The word means what it always meant - a friend. But in #MeToo, an Ally is a male who is 'woke' to the cause of feminism, equality and equal rights. An Ally is a man who understands and supports feminism and supports feminist movements like #MeToo that focus on women's rights without trying to negativel influence the outcomes of the movement.

These words are more than just #MeToo jargon. They have existed before and have also been used time and again but with #MeToo, they have been given a new life and context. The fact that victims of sexual abuse have started to own these words and make them relevant in the world of 21st-century social media could be indicative of the fact that victims, especially women, who have always been aware of the injustices meted out to them, have finally decided to stop taking the abuse. They have started to use the tools and the words available to them to fight an age-old battle and this time, they unequivocally demand to be heard.
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