What made India’s #MeToo possible

In Foreign Policy, I write on workplace sexual harassment from Bhanwari Devi to the resignation of M.J. Akbar, what’s changed over the years and which way India’s  #MeToo movement is likely to go. 

For close to two weeks now, many of India’s women, particularly in the English-language media and entertainment businesses, have taken to social media to call out sexual predators: bosses who had demanded sexual favors, men who had sent unsolicited explicit photographs, and stars who had interacted inappropriately with underage fans. Among those caught up in the torrent of accusations have been editors, directors, actors, writers, stand-up comedians, an image consultant, and a minister in the current government.

In some ways, the groundwork for this movement was laid in the 1990s. Early that decade, the state government of Rajasthan hired Bhanwari Devi, a social activist, to join an ongoing campaign against child marriage. Some locals, however, were not happy. In 1992, as “punishment” for her vocal condemnation of the marriage of a 9-month-old girl to a child from the same village, Devi says that she was raped by two men while three others held her down. The men denied the charges.

When the case came up for trial in a lower court in 1995, a judge ruled that “since the offenders were upper-caste men and included a Brahmin, the rape could not have taken place.” Devi, you see, was from a lower caste. The judge’s implication was that no upper caste man would “defile” himself by touching a lower-caste woman.

Weeks of marches and protests followed. And soon, a group of nonprofits came together under the name Vishakha. They petitioned the Supreme Court to create a legal framework for justice for women who had been sexually assaulted in the course of their work. In 1997, India’s highest court set specific guidelines that, for the first time, defined sexual harassment. The definition included not just physical contact but also sexually loaded remarks and comments.

Despite those guidelines, it still took until April 2013—many years later—for the Indian Parliament to actually pass a law defining and prohibiting workplace sexual harassment. The immediate impetus was the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of a young medical student in December 2012 that had led to a nationwide uproar.

Among the earliest cases filed under the law was a 2015 suit against R.K. Pachauri, who headed The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) for years and, as co-chair of the intergovernmental panel on climate change, won a Nobel Peace Prize alongside former U.S. Vice President Al Gore in 2007. The complaint against Pachauri, then 74, was made by a 29-year-old researcher who said he had subjected her to prolonged sexual harassment. He denied the allegations.

Under the terms of the new law, Pachauri’s alleged behavior was examined by TERI’s internal complaints committee, which found merit in the woman’s accusation. Instead of acting on the report, though, TERI’s governing council, comprised of captains of Indian industry, did nothing. In the meantime, Pachauri obtained a court order against the publishing of the report.

Pachauri, facing a sustained media campaign, eventually left TERI. Charges against him were finally brought last month, over three years after the initial complaint. It is unclear when his trial will begin. He continues to deny the charges.

So far, the biggest name to have been called out in the latest round of protests is M.J. Akbar, a former editor and author who was serving as junior minister for external affairs in the Narendra Modi government. As of this writing, 20 female journalists have shared details of their encounters with him. They range from awkward interviews in his hotel room to alleged sexual assault.

For his part, Akbar has denied wrongdoing but resigned on Oct. 17, saying, “I deem it appropriate to step down from office and challenge false accusations levied against me, also in a personal capacity.” He has also filed a criminal defamation case against the first of his accusers, the journalist Priya Ramani, who in 2017 published an open letter in Vogue India aimed at “the Harvey Weinsteins of the world” and addressed to an unnamed male boss. In the letter, she described a job interview in his hotel room that was “more date, less interview.” On Oct. 8, Ramani named the editor as M.J. Akbar and urged other women to share their own stories about him.

Among those who did is Ghazala Wahab, who interned with Akbar in 1994. In a recent article in The Wire, she captured the angst of an older generation of women journalists. In the 1990s, she notes, it was a fight to just get a foot into the newsroom while resisting family pressure to have an arranged marriage. “Women in my family only studied but never worked. In small town business families, girls always settled for arranged marriages.”

“Women in my family only studied but never worked. In small town business families, girls always settled for arranged marriages.”

So, when she was faced with harassment, Wahab felt that she had no option: “I just couldn’t quit and go back home as a loser.”

Younger women have dealt with slightly different problems. Madhu Trehan, who launched the news magazine India Today in the 1970s and went on to found and edit the media website Newslaundry, noted that “this generation doesn’t have to fight to get into the workforce, or fight for separate toilets, but they have newer and difficult challenges. The struggle just moves onto the next level.” Indeed, “what was passable a few years ago in a male-dominated environment,” independent journalist Rituparna Chatterjee told me, “is now an area of zero tolerance for younger women.”

And those younger women have a strong presence in India’s media. According to a recent report by Roopa Purushothaman, the head of research at Everstone Capital, nearly 50 percent of journalists in newsrooms today are women, up from just 12 percent in 1990. Similarly, the Network of Women in Media, India, a professional body, has analyzed bylines in major Indian newspapers to show that in 2017, an impressive 49.5 percent of all front-page stories in the Hindustan Times were written by women. In the Indian Express, women took 40.9 percent of all page-one bylines. The Times of Indiaclocked in at 31.2 percent.

But the picture at the top of such organizations looks very different. A 2011 report on women in mediaby the International Women’s Media Foundation found that women filled no more than one-fourth of the leadership positions at Indian media companies. Today’s protests have much to do with this lopsided power arrangement, in which a few entitled male bosses prey on a growing number of women on the news floor.

Today’s protests have much to do with this lopsided power arrangement, in which a few entitled male bosses prey on a growing number of women on the news floor.

But these women are far less likely than their predecessors to stay silent. Since 2013, they’ve had the law in their favor—and they have the numbers on their side.

It is not surprising, then, that in a report to the Indian Parliament in 2017, Virendra Kumar, the minister of state for the Ministry of Women and Child Development, noted that there were roughly 370 cases of workplace sexual harassment reported in 2014, compared to more than 530 in 2017. Simply put, today’s generation of women are more likely encouraged to study and get jobs. They are less likely to be compliant.

As women become even more empowered, further accusations will surely come out. Workplace sexual harassment has long been a taboo topic. A survey of more than 6,000 people conducted by the Indian National Bar Association found that, across employment sectors, 70 percent of women who said that they had been harassed said that they didn’t report it. And such statistics don’t even count women who are employed in the informal sector (estimated at about 90 percent of all employed women) where they are, for the most part, on their own. They have legal protections on paper, of course, but those are for the most part unenforceable.

Trehan believes that a changed atmosphere all over the world will enable more of these women to come out. But she warned that accusations should be backed up by full investigations. “Do I believe the women? Yes, I do. But that’s my personal view,” she told me. “A man should not be destroyed with just my opinion. So, we must take the MeToo movement forward and onward so no man dares to misbehave, but we must do it responsibly.”

Some older female journalists have also pointed out that most of those coming forward work in the elite English-language media. The journalist Tavleen Singh, for one, called for a “real Indian MeToo movement for Indian women who do not speak English,” in a tweet. Some other women, particularly those in positions of power, have even tried to shut the protests down. “The most disappointing voices in the current movement,” Chatterjee said, have “been of the women of agency, complicit in upholding and enabling male patriarchy.”

For now, however, such divisions have not set the movement back. One example can be seen in the groundswell of support for Ramani, Akbar’s first accuser. Women and men alike have offered to contribute to her legal defense. The Network of Women in Media has written to India’s prime minister and president to condemn Akbar’s criminal defamation suit as a ploy to “push women back into silent compliance,” and the Indian Women’s Press Corps, the Press Club of India, and the South Asian Women in Media released a joint statement asking for Akbar to step down pending an impartial investigation.

It’s far too early to say what will come of India’s latest movement against workplace sexual harassment. But female journalists are already organizing, setting up informal committees to address harassment, and publishing lists of lawyers and mental health professionals who have offered to provide pro bono counseling to those who need it. On social media, they are calling on other women, not just journalists but also in other sectors, to share their harassment stories. Meanwhile, the Network of Women in Media has asked media organizations and journalism colleges to act on the complaints, display and circulate anti-sexual harassment policies, and to conduct workshops to “promote an atmosphere of gender equality and equity.”

Indeed, for many women journalists, the issue is not taking down one or two or even a dozen predatory men—although that might well be the short-term goal. The ultimate purpose is a shift in workplace culture so that women are no longer belittled by male power structures and they can earn their seat at the table, fair and square.

The film critic Anna M.M. Vetticad, who has been in media since 1994, has called the movement a “huge turning point in Indian feminism—like the anti-rape protests after the Delhi gang rape in 2012 and the Vishakha guidelines after the Bhanwari Devi gang rape in the 1990s.” Let’s hope she’s right. The scores of women entering India’s media sector every year will continue to demand to be heard.

This article was first published in Foreign Policy

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