Guest Editor's Choice//

Sonam K Ahuja on #MeToo: We Shouldn’t Be Quiet Because We Fear Hurting Someone

Don’t diss the movement. Join it, writes our guest editor. Change is coming and it is, in fact, really simple to be on the right side of history

Photo courtesy: The House of Pixels
Photo courtesy: The House of Pixels

The women in my family have been trailblazers. They are empowered, vocal and undismissible. It’s perhaps why my mother recently shared the following quote with me: When you have a lot, instead of building higher walls, build a bigger table.

I am privileged that I did not grow up with relatives for whom off-handed sexist remarks were the dinner table norm. Or where women were asked to shut up and look down.

That safety net, this spotlight and a stage for my opinion has always encouraged me to have a voice. However, the first time I used it, as a 17-year-old young woman, I was taken aback by the crudeness of the real world. When I called myself a feminist in an interview, I was told that I mustn’t. That it makes me look unfeminine.

Fortunately, it’s now cool to have an opinion and call yourself a feminist. It’s probably why the joy and misery of the past few months is limitless. The #MeToo movement has been as eye-opening and devastating as it has been exhilarating. It has and must continue to galvanise us into action and into a redemption of rights long awaited for the disempowered.

The how of it is complex. But also really simple.

#1 Believe The Survivors

Recently, in response to the news of an actor accused of harassment, I heard a woman say, “Woh toh bohot handsome ladka hai, usko kyu karna padega? (He is a handsome guy why did he need to do this?)”

This, sadly, reflects the attitude triumphing in our society over and above believing the survivor. Yes, a person is innocent until proven guilty but must it come at the cost of rejecting a survivor’s account? Defenders of the status quo will try their utmost to discredit women’s stories and undermine this movement. Misogynists will blame the victims, powerful men will deploy powerful legal teams to intimidate their accusers, and some will use this movement for their own gains with false claims. While people must be treated as innocent until proven guilty, we need to remember that women are taking on incredible personal risk and trauma to tell their stories. We owe them, at the least, our trust and support.

#2 Aim for a Near Total Mental Reboot

#Metoo is not only happening in cities: It’s happening around the country—in small towns and villages—which is a hotbed for entitled men. After the Shakti Mills rape case (in 2013 in Mumbai), a journalist asked me how we could make the country safer for women. I told her what I still stand by: Mothers must stop treating their sons like they’re precious gifts from God. We have powerful people in our country who are women but our mentality continues to be that menstruating women—or women at large—shouldn’t enter temples.

Men and women, wealthy and less fortunate, megacities or tier three, educated or not–everyone is complicit in not just tolerating but prolonging and immortalising patriarchy.

Awareness, in such a scenario, is not about literacy or going to school. I’ve met some of the richest and most educated people in our country who are unapologetically sexist.

What we need is an entire mental reboot. A shift in mindset which acknowledges that sons and daughters should not be treated differently. That you don’t have to give your daughter away. Most likely, she’ll walk the road herself and will, more often than not, turn around to come AND care for you when you’re old.

#3 Ditch The Entitlement. Understand Consent

Consent can never be silent. Any person must seek permission before touching another person. If it’s a no, then it’s an unequivocal no. If it’s a maybe, then it’s still a no. Only if it’s a resounding, enthusiastic yes, is it a yes. When a situation involves a boss and a subordinate or a person with more power—literally and metaphorically—than the other, it’s the person with power who has the responsibility to be extra cautious.

#4 Clean Your Own Mess And Take Sides

Let’s call out all the men and women in our lives who we know have erred. We shouldn’t be quiet because we fear hurting someone.

I believe that people in every industry—not just Bollywood—need to speak up. People in positions like mine should speak up. While I understand that it’s not everyone’s job to preach change, it’s pivotal that you do. Your fame has earned you this platform and you cannot wash your hands off the responsibility that comes with it. If you are silent and don’t take sides then you are, I am afraid, on the side of the person who is wrong. Always take sides.

#5 Own Up When You Haven’t And Spill The Secrets

I’ve been part of movies which I know are a part of the problem. I own up to them now. I admit that I have been part of the problem. Often we do things unknowingly, but when we know better, we should own up to it. That’s how we grow from it.

There’s also fear of losing assignments and jobs you’ve worked hard to get, but today, after the courage Tanushree Dutta has exhibited, let there not be any open secrets in any industry anymore. I pledge to never endorse or work with individuals proven to be predatory and guilty.

#6 Stop The Sexist Jokes

As Indians, we tend to laugh at inappropriate jokes out of politeness. It’s not funny, it has never been funny. Roasts, for example, are not funny. It’s not okay to make sexist, homophobic, racist jokes in an environment which is rife with sexism and discrimination.

#7 End The Labelling

Of course, Bollywood movies and item songs help perpetuate objectification of women and a behaviour that is unpardonable. But the problem is also with the ‘labels’. There’s nothing wrong with doing sexy songs; what is wrong is to label them ‘item numbers’. I grew up on songs like “Piya tu…”. I love “Chikni chameli”’. They are hot and it is fu*k*ng awesome that someone is owning up to their sexuality. But the labels are wrong. The sexist propaganda is wrong.

A friend of mine didn’t want to speak about her experience because she was concerned about how people would label her. “I’ll be labelled a victim or a survivor for the rest of my life,” she told me. “Every interview I’ll ever do will be about what I faced and I don’t want that.” I respect that she has made that choice but there’s a lesson lurking here for all of us: We need to move away from labels.

#8 Empower and Hire More Women

Numerous companies employ women but few get the opportunities and the environment necessary to rise up to managerial roles or work at the helm. If you don’t have women running a company but you employ mostly women, how is it going to work? Women shouldn’t be hired for tokenism but be empowered to take up key roles where they make decisions. It is, however, reflective of our society that despite having women leaders (and, of course, the Goddesses whom we pray to) our women are discriminated against, have neither equal opportunities or rights, and are mutilated, sexually harassed, raped and killed.

#9 Reject The Perpetrators

It’s our duty as a society to stand up for and with survivors who have spoken out. This means not only believing them, but also working to seek justice for them in any way they choose. This can mean boycotting the work of men who have been proven guilty, mounting pressure to investigate all claims through due process, ensuring private reparations to women who ask for it, or punishing men who have demonstrable patterns of sexually exploiting others. There are many paths toward justice, and it’s up to us to keep pushing forward on them.

Finally, a word of caution: Each one of us, as a supporter of the #MeToo movement, must be with survivors regardless of their gender. It’s the bracketing of this movement as men v/s women that can weaken the powerful punches survivors have landed on our superficially inclusive workplaces. In a society where women are complicit in perpetuating misogyny, it shouldn’t be about women v/s men.

It should be about survivors and perpetrators, about making the society less misogynist, entitled and changing how we think.

About having a moral compass that is relevant and progressive.

About compassion.

And, mostly, about empathy. It’s time to transform the naysayers into supporters, to join the movement in full force and oppose every act—even a suggestion—of abuse and discrimination.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- Marcus Aurelius

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