Why the #MeToo Campaign may not be a step forward in India

Written by Sushmita | Published on: October 20, 2017
On October 16, as I was rushing to office I saw a few prominent feminists sharing the following message on Facebook,
Me too. By strangers and acquaintances alike. In public and in spaces where I was supposed to be safe. If all the women/people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote "Me too" as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Copy, paste, and share.

Illustration: Amir Rizvi

At first I thought this was yet another one of those forwards. I got busy with work all day and finally only went back to this when I was casually scrolling through my social media feed on my phone for some distraction while stuck in traffic on my way back home.
My timeline was flooded with women sharing harrowing experiences of sexual assault! I tried, but it was hard to read beyond two lines. But I managed to read the accounts of few of my acquaintances who otherwise would never share a first person account of such an incident. But, I felt lost. I was not getting a sense of what was the essence of the campaign, what was one trying to achieve. And the words being used in the message “we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem” were confusing me even further. I wondered to whom were we trying to ‘give a sense’?
After two days of going through intense internal churning and having mixed feelings, and facing internal dilemmas whether I will sound “anti-survivor” if I raised questions about the way we were doing it, I finally broke down and updated the following status on my Facebook wall in the wee hours of the morning:
“I’ve been trying to articulate my discomfort about me too. But I’ve still not been able to find the right vocabulary. But it seems so traumatic, I'm not sure why everyone should be compelled to remember and relive their scars that they've barely forgotten. I mean it sounds like a good idea of collective expression and all but why on social media? Call me old fashioned, but why can't we just pick up the phone and talk to someone… something less alienating? I mean I'm not seeing any reconciliation happening here of all these feelings. We are talking to either the set of people who are already aware or to complete strangers. Once in a while all of us break down and express our traumas. But what is the collective idea behind victimising ourselves one more time? And btw who is not aware of the magnitude of our problems? Obviously those who go through it are already aware and those who aren't in this day and age will definitely not become aware through a social media campaign of this nature. Or is it just me, the cynic, the survivor, the victim refusing to ask for empathy and appeal to the morality of my oppressors? We can bring change, but I doubt whether this can be it.
Then the video of Tarana Burke surfaced who had started #MeToo campaign much before Alyssa Milano to talk about the sexual violence on the women of colour. Her words moved me:
“Healing is radical. And ‘Me Too’ is a movement to, among other things, radicalise the notion of mass healing. As a community we create a lot of space for fighting and pushing back, but not enough for connecting and healing. It is a long and weary process for everyone and each and every one of us has a different entry point into the journey of healing. But the one thing that we have in common is the ability, that at some point in our journey we reach back and make an entry point for other women.”
--------- Tarana Burke (Women’s Rights Activist and Program Director, Girls for Gender Equity), Philadelphia 2014
Indeed what she said was true. Healing is radical. Women who have faced sexual assault know the importance of healing. But I was not sure that the #MeToo campaign served its own purpose in a country like India.
Firstly, like Tarana Burke herself says in this speech, each and every one of us has a different entry point in this process, and hence, it is also a very lonely process. One cannot force healing on others, and when a group of people do decide for mass healing, they have already first consented to be part of that process. Or at least are over the trauma to some extent. However, what was happening on social media, especially the feed I am part of, which has voices of South Asian men and women of colour but from different caste, class, religious, nationality backgrounds, was an inadequate and triggering process of updates which was ultimately reduced to numbers of “likes” and “loves”.
Why do I call this process inadequate? I believe, in order to truly heal especially when we have signed up for a process of mass healing, it is important to be “heard” in the true sense of the word. It is important to “listen”. I felt that it was not a complete process of healing where you are exposing yourself to a set of friends and a set of strangers with no assurance of reconciliation or even an active listening from either.
Secondly, though many have moved on, for many of us the process of “healing” is somewhat incomplete. Sometimes, we also carry on with our regular lives with a preparation that this may never be complete… because, each incident changes you. At the same time, we don’t want to make the particular incident or person or abuser as the central point of our life. So we move on with other activities that we do want to accomplish. For those of us, seeing such accounts without really consenting for it, may be an extraordinary trigger of not just sexual assault, but also many other unaddressed feelings from our past interactions. It can also give a sense that everything is doomed and everything is wrong with the world, though all we want is a little bit of hope.
And the third, and the most important point that I felt somewhat angry about, was that we are talking about giving people a “sense of magnitude” of the problem. To whom are we trying to give this sense? Our survivors, who already know what it is… or the abusers, who would rape us anyway? In any case, if it is about numbers or magnitude or the number of times sexual assault appears to mainstream news as compared to other forms of gender based violence, then unfortunately or fortunately, sexual assault is something that has some visibility and if after years of anti-rape campaigns, the many changes in sexual assault or rape law, after all of that if we still need to give a “sense of magnitude” of the problem, then I am not sure what did we really do all those years!
What does need simplification, though, is agency and consent, especially in the background of the court’s observation in the Mahmood Farooqui case about the absence of consent being an afterthought. The idea of consent has got to be mainstreamed and drilled like anything. We have registered at least in India that sexual assault happens. But why does it happen? What is at the core of it? What are the other gender based violations that women face that makes it hard for them to approach courts or bodies that may provide justice? Things like sexual assaults by person(s) in uniform, sexual assault as a tool of oppressing and displacing adivasis in areas like Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and more, sexual assault to curb nationality struggle in Kashmir, sexual assault to stop fierce Dalit women from articulating themselves, sexual assault in Gujarat and Muzaffarnagar riots? And most importantly the economic and political rights of women that help them live a life of dignity, are some issues that need wider and deeper analysis and reflection.
This #MeToo left me somewhat unfulfilled. I do believe in healing. But I do not think it is not as simple as saying #MeToo. Healing requires really being there for people. That is why, on 17th October, I updated, “Friends saved me”. And it was true, it was my community of my political and not so political friends who did help me heal from not one, but several traumatic incidents. It was an active process of listening, sharing, listening over and over, writing and a lot more.
And what I found denigrating in this was to appeal to the moral sense of the abuser. I am all for the abuser or even an assaulter to have a space to show compassion. But that, I think, will not happen by simply appealing to his sense of morality. It will happen only through a constant process of struggle, is what I believe. It will happen by initiating a really reformative process for the abusers where their ideas are challenged at the most basic level. It is a slow process, but never-the-less it can happen. Sexual assaults will also not stop simply by demanding more regulations, more laws and more policing, and by implication, through carceral feminism. And that is one of the important discussion that we, as feminists owe ourselves and to the society.
We need to ask ourselves, do we really need this over-simplification of things? Do we really want to become limited to those Nike ads and those narratives of our “Papa saving us” or are we taking this forward? In a digital age, where all our posts and views are controlled by Facebook and other algorithms, should we not be suspicious of how our stories of trauma will be ultimately used to sell yet another shoe and yet another spa to us ? Should we not be suspicious of how global capitalism and imperialist ventures have really subsumed our truly radical cause of a complete feminist liberation?
With inputs from feminist writer Deepti Sriram and human rights activist Priyanka Iyengar.