• India’s #MeToo, Misogyny and Gender Inequality

    Sanjukta Dasgupta

    October 31, 2018

    Shouting by Danielle Siegelbaum, 2013

    In the play Chandragupta by the celebrated playwright Dwijendralal Roy, Greek emperor, Alexander the Great, remarks about the phantasmagorical complexities of the Indian sub-continent to his trusted general Seleucus: “Truly Seleucus, what a strange country this is!”

    “Strange”, really,  is an understatement. Our country is celebrated for its cultural pluralism. Its Constitution defines it as a socialist, secular, democratic republic. However, our nation’s remarkable ability to generate a sense of ceaseless shock and awe, and roller-coaster political post-truth acrobatics, is truly astounding. In the public domain this causes outrage and disillusionment. Most educated citizens of our country are left wondering whether we are riding the bullet train of progress or a descending escalator that is determinedly diving into the squalor and cesspool of lies, deceit, treachery, double standards, double speak, greed, violence and narcissism.

    As the festive season commences, the worship of female divine icons, such as Durga, Kali, Lakshmi and various others will lead to grandiose celebrations and unbridled revelry. Faith, we are told, is not about critique; it is about complete submission to practices that have been followed through centuries.  We are also warned that to be critically informed and to interrogate lines of control are the pernicious propensity of secular pests. Rational individuals are systematically warned that any assertive intervention against normative (mal)practices implies that the interrogators are against the nation, against society, and against the people.

    Despite such a claustrophobic cultural environment, the widely cited 1974 Towards Equality status report turned the tables and made the patriarchal parliament sit up and take notice of the grossly neglected female citizens of India. Soon after, Women’s Studies research centres were established in many state aided universities and central universities with the support of the University Grants Commission. This was unique in our country but then such a process fell in line with the initiation of Women’s studies, Feminist studies and Gender studies centres and courses in the universities of the Global North. The result was the emergence of brilliant research and publications on women’s studies by mostly women academicians. Yet, it is ironic that in many instances, most of the women critics, theorists and scholars were not known to practice what they professed in classrooms, seminars and research articles.

    The result of such systemic and selective eliding of gender issues in our society has led to victims of sexual assault having to opt for sit-in demonstrations. They contact the media and even begin hunger-strikes to focus attention on their pitiable plight. The patriarchal system  invariably accuses women of subversion, transgression and indiscipline which, it says, lead to such misery.

    The nurturing of the male child in our patriarchal families lies at the root of misogyny and gender-related violence on women.  A Punjabi short story gives a moving graphic account of how young pre-pubescent brothers and cousins tore off the clothes of their sister’s doll, slashed the private parts, and rode on the doll, yelling obscenities with shameless abandon. The relatives and parents of the children found such a use of the doll as a sex toy a matter of giggly gossip. The distress of the traumatised girl over such a violent destruction of her doll was regarded as overreaction and hysteric.

    Women and the Sabrimala Verdict

    Religious doctrines, mostly male-authored, have invariably emphasised that women should be self-effacing, self-sacrificing, selfless, silent bodies whose minds and bodies were not theirs. They can, as a result, be used without any inhibition by male members of the society. Along with denial of education, employment and health facilities women have been brain-washed into believing that they are angels in the house, where they are disembodied unless they are needed for round the clock domestic work, reproductive labour and sexual entertainment.

    Such a rooted social conditioning through centuries and generations along with total economic dependence on fathers or husbands have led women to believe as sacrosanct whatever has been preached to them in the name of tradition and religion.

    It is obvious that I am targeting the fallout of the outstanding Supreme Court verdict on the Sabarimala temple case.

    Women between the ages of 10 and 50 were so long debarred from entering the temple premises as they were considered defiled untouchables because they were menstruating women. In a recent path-breaking verdict, the Supreme Court recognised the crying need for gender equality in our patriarchal system as it did in the Triple Talaq judgement. The Kerala high Court’s decision in the nun rape case has led to the judicial custody of the alleged rapist Bishop of Jullundur. This is also a case that deserves to be cited.

    The feminists of our nation include both the enlightened, liberated, educated men as well as the women of India.  Rammohan Roy, Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore, Rokeya Sultan, Amartya Sen, Nabaneeta Dev Sen are just a few names among many others that one can readily mention belonging to the feminist group.

    And who are the misogynists? Unfortunately, women in our country are as misogynist as men . Around 4000 women of Kerala have been known to have protested against the Supreme Court verdict. Review petitions are being filed. Threats have been issued. The review petitioner Shylaja Vijayan (needless to say, a woman, another brilliant tokenism) stated that the Supreme Court verdict affects the fundamental rights of millions of devotees of Ayyappa. The petition declared with indignation, “The petitioners believe that no legal luminary, not even the greatest of jurists or a judge, can be a match to the common sense and wisdom of the masses. No judicial pronouncement, even of the highest judicial tribunal in this country…can be a match for the voice of the people.”

    The Sabarimala temple opened for public worship on 17 October. Men threatened to lie down on the access route of the temple challenging women to walk over their bodies if they were keen to enter the temple. The media covered another riveting story of how a few daring women were unsuccessful in their bid to enter the temple. Ironically, the country is now awake to the realisation that a little learning is a dangerous thing. High percentage of female literacy does not guarantee liberated minds. It is when literacy leads to higher education that internalises gender sensitisation that social progress and women’s liberation,  as well as men’s liberation, can happen. The appalling irony lies in the fact that women can be coerced, coaxed and even convinced to fight against the possibility of liberating themselves and in claiming gender equality.


    If the Sabarimala case is about the literate and illiterate masses used by patriarchal political parties for their invidious agenda of power and profit, what about the snowballing #MeToo issue, recently triggered by Tanushree Dutta, an English speaking woman actor, belonging to the privileged class? When Amitabh Bachchan was asked about his reaction to Tanushree Dutta’s accusation of sexual harassment against Nana Patekar, he suavely remarked without any embarrassment, “I am neither Tanushree Dutta nor Nana Patekar, so I can’t comment”.

    The #MeToo movement is about exposing the pretentious sexual predators of privilege. As more and more women garner courage to join the the #MeToo movement, we will discover more and more male sexual predators in the garb of Prince Charming who initially can be avuncular, paternal or brotherly, as they start stalking their targeted victim. In fact, the women present at the interview session were just preening and smiling, and one almost clapped uncomprehendingly, as Big B, who is generally cautious and diplomatic, made an unforgivable slip by making, what he had imagined, was a smart statement.  Big B is too intelligent not to realise that he himself cracked his celluloid image by his flippant remark of not being Nana Patekar or Tanushree Dutta! His effort to redeem himself later by making a very stilted declaration about his concern about sexual harassment seemed more pathetic rather than convincing.

    Salman Khan said he was not aware of Tanushree’s accusation so was not in a position to say anything, and the great Aamir Khan, the split-image of integrity, said that such news was “really sad…but I don’t think I can comment”. Et tu brute. However, very recently, in fact as I was drafting this piece, Aamir Khan and his wife Kiran Rao declared unequivocally that they would not work with those who had been accused of sexual harassment. They announced, “As creative people we have been committed to foregrounding and finding solutions to social issues, and at Aamir Khan Productions we have always had a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual misconduct and predatory behaviour of any kind. We strongly condemn any act of sexual harassment, and equally we condemn any and all false accusations in such cases…. We believe that this is an opportunity for the film industry to introspect and take concrete steps towards change. For far too long women have faced the brunt of sexual exploitation. It has to stop. In this regard we are committed to doing any and everything to make our film industry a safe and happy one to work in.” 

    Also we notice that female journalists have recently accused M J Akbar, a junior minister in the Central cabinet of sexual harassment.  When questioned about M J Akbar’s misconduct, Sushma Swaraj, the Foreign Affairs Cabinet Minister, was tight-lipped.  The Women and Child Development Minister Menaka Gandhi and Smriti Irani did express support and concern but somehow such responses seem like mandatory lip-service which rarely leads to any significant result. M J Akbar initially denied the accusations and filed a defamation suit but evidently the case against him is so overwhelmingly strong, that he has stepped down from his ministerial berth.

    The #MeToo movement in India has just started; though belated it should not buckle under pressure from the state and allied institutionalised powers. So far it seems only English speaking India has been an integral part of the #MeToo movement. Let us hope this will cause the trickle and ripple effects for the women of India to rise against sexual harassment and support gender justice and gender equality.

    The situation is not irredeemably bleak yet. Shiny Ahuja’a career was ruined; Tarun Tejpal is still fighting a legal battle; M J Akbar had to step down; and many have been jailed for sexual assault and rape. Sadly though, every day there are more and more reports of brutal sexual attacks on the female sex, from female infants brutalised in their own homes, girl children sexually exploited and women subjected to domestic violence and murder.  This proves that females of all age groups are not safe within their own homes. The world is not a safe domain for women either. Women are raped and harassed in the public domain; they are sexually harassed at their workplaces and are sexually assaulted even when they avail of public transport from taxis to buses and trains.

    As people worship the Goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Kali during the on-going festive season, will they be oblivious of the bizarre circumstances of women protesting against gender equality, the unabashed parading of proud women misogynists, women asking for justice against male predators and sex-related violence against women at home and in the world? Will the passionate pandal-hoppers ponder and pray to the Goddesses to promote gender equality as human beings have not been able to do so even in the 21st century?


    Dr. Sanjukta Dasgupta is a poet, critic and translator. She is currently teaching at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland as a visiting professor and is also the convenor of the English Advisory Board at Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

    Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.