For the first time in life, I got a tiny glimpse of what it might be like to be a woman. I was gripped with fear and uneasiness.
As India’s #MeToo movement gained momentum over the past two weeks, I watched a lot of supposedly woke men get called out – for sending unsolicited texts and dick pics, predatory behaviour, and outright sexual harassment. I followed some of these people on Twitter, I have enjoyed some of their work – their films, their writing. These were not those “other” dastardly men who rape women and brazenly skirt the law. These were not those men who make it to front pages of newspapers, men who’ve made you think, “Who are these monsters?” But as the past few days have taught us, these men belong to a different breed of monsters – they are one among us, or rather we are the monsters.
We are on the news now. Our behaviour has been unacceptable and downright shameful. We the regular people who have had a decent education and enjoy privilege, who are expected to know where to draw the line. Utsav Chakraborty was a “woke comedian”, Vikas Bahl, a “liberal filmmaker”, MJ Akbar, an “informed journalist”. Many of them claimed to be champions of women’s rights. Each one of them turned out to be hypocrites.
As more and more bros were named and shamed, I did what anyone who feels some level of guilt does – maintain absolute silence. For someone who has an opinion on everything from the petrol price hike to the Rafale deal, I was uncomfortably mum as the most significant social movement in my lifetime unfolded.
The silence came from a place of fear. Unfortunately, the source of that fear was misplaced. I was worried about being labelled a transgressor and the shame that came with it. I started going through screenshots and chats to figure out if I had indeed misbehaved – sent an unwanted text, made anyone uncomfortable, offended a woman. It was only a few days later, as I overheard conversations of female friends and colleagues, did I realise that what I should be worried about was whether I had hurt someone and how I can correct my behaviour.
The way we rationalise our fear is by trying to defend it. On “boys only” WhatsApp groups,discussions were rife about how “#MeToo was going too far”: “Yaar ab haath pakadna bhi sexual harassment hai kya?” “Joke bhi nahi maar sakte kya ab?” “This is just a relationship gone bad, yaar.” “Why did she not speak for 20 years?” “Aren’t people innocent until proven guilty?” These were thoughts that crossed my mind and that of a handful of other men I interacted with. But we’d dare not say it out loud. Because wokeness is our brand.
Instead of looking at the positives of the movement, like how the law would never have been able to catch up with offenders such as Nana Patekar, Vikas Bahl, or Sajid Khan, I actively tried to pinpoint the imperfections of #MeToo. By focussing on legal loopholes or that one woman who made a false accusation on Twitter. I started finding reasons to convince myself that there was something wrong with the movement. But why was I making excuses?
A report titled “Why Men Still Defend Sexual Predators and Fight the #MeToo Movement,” quotes Psychologist John D Moore, “…not all men who come to the defense of someone accused of sexual crimes are themselves guilty of anything. These sympathetic men may just be uneasy about having a more tenuous position in society — about being held accountable. For these men, seeing a preferred comedian or politician face charges represents a loss of power by association.”
Truth be told, it is rare to find a man who is not guilty of having said something sexually inappropriate – intentionally or unintentionally. For the first time in centuries, we cannot dismiss our crass behaviour as locker-room talk or by simply saying “boys will be boys”. For the first time ever, women are not expected to forgive men. And hence we are more afraid than ever.
Men have been a problem and there is no better time to review and reflect than now.
If half the population cannot leave the house without being worried about its safety to some degree, it is a matter of shame for all of us. It’s not merely about the Bollywood actress who spoke up or the lone woman partner in a corporate firm who had to deal with sexual harassment, it extends to our mothers, sisters, friends and colleagues as we all know now. It extends to daily life, like travelling in the train, attending business meetings, or partying at a bar – things we men indulge in without giving any thought.
As men, we have been either explicitly or implicitly responsible for the suffocating atmosphere that exists around us. Every man believes he has never harassed a woman and yet one can’t find a woman who hasn’t been harassed. The two things don’t add up.
A few parallels can be drawn between the #MeToo movement and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Cleanliness looks like a ridiculously complex issue to solve, and yet, all it would take is for everyone to throw trash in the dustbin, resist spitting, and the country would be immediately a lot better. Being a decent human being is a bit like that. We only have to do a series of basic things and suddenly everything would be better.