It’s impossible to write this without feeling some residual anger from five soul-crushing months of watching men meltdown in public because the ‘girls are coming out of the woods’ (thank you, Tishani Doshi for your fury). These have been months also of hearing the voices from oppressed communities for whom this has been an old fight minus the attention, empathy and institutional support that cishet upper caste women get when they speak about sexual violence.
For me, the common thread running through all of this has been of anger — whether through the resistance in the words of Dalit and Muslim writers, the outing of sexual predators by women on public platforms, the anonymously shared stories of abuse, the cautious columns in newspapers about the ethics of a call-out culture, or the drawing room conversations of men worried about having to navigate a new world where women’s silences can no longer be used as a tool of exploitation.
When the second wave of the #MeToo movement began, exactly a year after Raya Sarkar published a list of alleged sexual harassers in academia, there was infectious hope in the air — a heightened sense of the calm before the storm. As women, we are taught the repercussions of challenging men before we even learn how to write in cursive. There were very few who didn’t understand the terrible backlash they’d face if men are named as harassers. We were certain we’ll be asked for evidence and voyeuristic details of harassment porn for those who would want every single detail repeated a thousand times before they were satisfied we weren’t lying.
Most women who outed their harassers were prepared for this pushback, but they did it anyway because of the relative safety in numbers. Many who did, understood the constraints of those who were unable to. The women who spoke of their abuse in general terms hoped that the common narrative will protect them from being singled out. Women from oppressed and marginalised communities spoke about their exclusion. Many spoke of the swathes of India the movement is not reaching. A few criticised the shallowness of Internet activism and abandonment of survivors once the wave washes over. Panel after panel of women spoke about lived experiences and the need to address every aspect of the movement, including involvement of men as allies.
But what everyone hoped for, despite themselves, despite their deep reservations and personal bias, was tangible change that will make these exhilarating and exhausting months bearable.
Change does not happen in a few months. It happens over years of struggles built on the backs of women such as Bhanwari Devi and Rupan Deol Bajaj. And to make a dent in the ancient armour of Indian patriarchy, there have to collective processes that let women collaborate, unionize and set up structures that are inclusive. In our different kinds of feminisms, we seek solidarities that will last. Over the months following the second wave of the movement, many women who were eager to share their stories and were on the fence, fell silent seeing the abysmal response of public institutions to the movement.
And that makes me angrier.
There was silence from the political class, a dragging of feet from public organisations tasked with ensuring women’s safety, and a parallel narrative being endorsed and supported by both men and women about the movement’s effect on men’s reputation and mental health.
Today my inbox is awash with pink, confetti-filled, cosmetic celebration of women’s rights as brands prepare to co-opt the day with small, easy-to-swallow, woke bites of feminism for urban women, blind absolutely to caste and gender and the demands for real, on-ground changes that will make workplaces safer, allow women to step out or stay in, get paid, work and take days off from work, and enable them to follow due process without revictimization.
What meaning does Women’s Day have when women who are exposed and abandoned are unable to find safe spaces to talk about their harassment? This country’s resolute patriarchy and institutional apathy have failed the survivors who spoke up. A single day that celebrates women, especially in post-MeToo India, is a mockery of women’s struggles. Organisations that aren’t using the day to ask tough questions of policymakers, and pledging their commitment in making their premises safe and inclusive are simply encashing the movement.