When Sonali Kokra decided to call out an acquaintance for sending her lewd photographs of himself on Twitter, her post was flooded with comments. In a matter of hours, her testimony had received over 500 retweets and her phone kept buzzing incessantly.
“Once you put something out there, you can’t really remove yourself. It got extremely overwhelming. So much so, that it began taking a toll on my mental health,” she said.
Kokra, who is a journalist, received an outpouring of support but a few toxic messages managed to creep into her timeline.
“The movement has given a lot of women the power to shut down men trying to tell us what sexual harassment is and is not. But for every ten messages of solidarity, you also receive three messages of abuse.”
The abuse, Kokra says, can stick with someone for a long time.
The MeToo movement gripped India after scores of women recounted their harrowing experiences of sexual harassment at the workplace and personal life. Threads, statuses and screenshots of women narrating their ordeal were shared on social media, with many offering support and solidarity to the survivors. But while the movement has been liberating for the survivors, the backlash and trolling can make it a mentally draining process.
Kokra recalls how trolls would lunge at her with abuses about her being a 'feminazi' or trying to bring down men.
“I experienced a crippling sense of guilt for no good reason. I knew that he had sent obscene photographs to more women. But despite knowing at an intellectual level that I was not wrong, I still kept feeling extremely guilty.”
Journalist Anushree Majumdar, who called out a popular writer for making her feel uncomfortable during an interview, was quite surprised when she was not trolled.
In a detailed post, she had alleged that the writer stopped half-way through the interview and asked her to send a photo of herself.
“I wouldn't call the one or two odd snarky comments backlash or trolling; my account of my experience of interviewing him was believed to a greater extent than I had imagined,” Majumdar said.
However, she feels that for women, speaking out comes at a cost. The biggest among them is the fear of losing one’s job or being slapped with a lawsuit.
“Most of the people being called out occupy or have occupied a position of power; whether it's a senior colleague, a boss, a famous author or filmmaker - anybody who has a direct or indirect impact on your career and life,” she said. Majumdar adds that one is constantly afraid of being discredited by these people in power and having their social media misrepresented by their supporters.
Writer Aparna Hajirnis is among the many women who opened up her inbox and offered a safe space for women who wanted to call out their accusers anonymously.
She says women who've been vocal during the MeToo movement have been accused of plotting to bring down men, to get attention and to stay relevant. She adds that many women remain anonymous because they fear being slut-shamed or even run the risk of being physically threatened.
"I have gotten used to the backlash and the trolling. Men will continue with their frat boy clubs and intimidating tactics but we must now be united more than ever," she added.
Besides trolling, mental health of the survivors goes for a toss when they read painful details of harassment and violence leaving them feeling ‘triggered’. Trauma psychologist Ruchita Chandrashekar explains that though the MeToo movement has been liberating for women, it doesn't erase the traumatic experiences they've been through.
“A large number of these women are reliving their own traumas and the ones that aren't triggered by their own trauma, are experiencing vicarious trauma because of the overload of stories,” she said.
Talking about how trolling can exacerbate the situation, Chandrashekar says that it is like adding more jabs to someone who has already been stabbed. “It's textbook bullying and bullying is psychological abuse. There is gaslighting, verbal harassment, abusive language and no regard for human condition.”
She points out how India’s MeToo movement has largely been elite and heteronormative and says that things get worse for the marginalised voices.
“The integration of intersectionality has been poor and that is a failure on our part. Dalit women are further marginalised by the movement itself, because we haven't made space for their stories, we haven't done the same for the LGBTQ+ community as well,” she said.
Given the mental and emotional trauma endured by the survivors, the recent Google Trends Map showing the MeToo wave touching all corners of the country calls not for a celebratory cheer but instead a studied introspection of the match that started the fire.