BY DEVAPRIYA ROY
#MeToo. The hashtag that took social media by storm this past year, and the words that gave thousands of survivors all across the United States, the strength and solidarity to come forward. Unbeknownst to the Western world, these words also gave a voice to untold numbers in India. Coming forward with one’s story is hard in itself. Doing so in a socially conservative country with a history of widespread political corruption, sexual stigma, and an unjust purity culture, is even more difficult.
In September of 2018, actress Tanushree Dutta’s accusations against famed actor and filmmaker Nana Patek was the catalyst that launched the Me-Too movement in India. Around the same time, journalist Priya Ramani came forward with accusations of sexual harassment against the Minister of State for External Affairs, Mobashar Jawed Akbar. Following in Ramani’s footsteps, twenty women came forward with similar claims against Akbar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, Bharatiya Janata (BJP), remained silent. In fact, Akbar had the audacity to file a defamation suit against Ramani. But soon, twenty rose to a number in the thousands, as Indian women refused to stay silent in the face of government indifference. On Oct. 16, 2018, Akbar stepped down as the Minister of State for External Affairs.
Sexual violence against women in India goes largely unreported. This is due to the existence of an iron clad purity culture, which perpetuates the idea that being sexually assaulted ruins a woman for marriage. It exists most prominently in rural India where women are already treated with disregard and viewed as inferior to men. Additionally, the conviction rate of gender-based crime is an appalling 16 percent, meaning that reporting these crimes leads to little retribution against perpetrators. But over the past several weeks, India has undergone a social media revolution of sorts as women forsake their “honor” for justice. Social media has become a platform for women to share their stories and spread their message to others with similar stories.
As a result of these social changes, Indian politics has taken an unprecedented step as the Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, announced that the government will set up a separate legal body for examining cases filed under sexual harassment in the workplace. In addition, they will audit company methods of dealing with complaints of sexual harassment filed by employees, to ensure it operates under the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act, (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) of 2013.
The changes, social and political, India has undergone in the past several weeks is truly revolutionary, considering its history of gender-based violence and trivialization of sexual harassment. Nonetheless, there is a long road ahead. New developments in policy and legislation come as a result of efforts on the part of educated, urban women who have the will and the means to share their stories and advocate for themselves. On the other hand, rural women continue to suppress their experiences due to cultural barriers, and worry for their futures. They live in an isolated sphere as they typically do not have access to education and the internet, vital factors that have allowed urban women to demand change. The American Me-Too movement lent strength to the thousands of previously voiceless victims in India. Hopefully, the Indian Me-Too movement succeeds in inspiring all women, of all backgrounds, to join the fighting ranks.