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The #MeToo revolution: It will come to nothing unless our society begins to bring up boys differently
By Wolfmann [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
At the very moment when great threats are facing economic globalisation, quite an opposite trend has surfaced in the world of emotion and culture. The extraordinary speed with which the #MeToo movement has spread is a tribute to globalisation. Within a year, societies around the world have become astonishingly comfortable in discussing social and emotional issues which earlier they had swept under a carpet.
In India it has led to the resignation of a minister, the loss of jobs and reputations of many powerful persons. There is a palpable change in the way women are beginning to perceive themselves. Surely, this is a milestone in our country’s history. The question is, how do we sustain this revolution?
Indian women have to thank Donald Trump who embraced a sexual swagger and his red-blooded masculinity alienated enough women in America to start the #MeToo movement. It has now raced to our shores, giving voice to dozens of Indian women, who were routinely groped and belittled. This has unleashed a wave of revulsion against a patriarchal vision of manhood. Some firms have already responded and asked women employees to come forward and speak up.
Yes, a few heads will roll; yes, a few innocent men will become victims in the crossfire; but this movement will come to nothing unless our society begins to learn to bring up boys differently. They will have to learn a different meaning of masculinity and a true understanding of ‘consent’.
Not long ago the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, outraged the nation with his cynical reaction to rape: “Boys will be boys!” he said. To his mind, boys earn their manhood by growing up to became warriors, traders and priests and compete for wealth and power. What matters is to be tough and successful. It did not occur to him that these masculine ambitions were grounded in a secure emotional life with a woman.
It will not be easy to undo patriarchal hierarchy and inequality which is nourished by Manusmriti with a deeply negative view of women’s strisvabhava, ‘biological nature’, that has to be tamed by stridharma, ‘duty to her family and society’. Manu believed that a woman is fickle and innately addicted to sensual enjoyment; so, she must be married off early and guarded closely. Since no man can guard a woman all the time, she must learn to guard herself by controlling her thoughts, feelings and acts. This is why inspiring stories of Sita and Savitri teach her stridharma and condition her to accept a subordinate place in a patriarchal society.
India’s public reckoning with sexual harassment is based on events that occurred a decade ago. Our minister of state, Pon Radhakrishnan, contemptuously called #MeToo a product of perverted minds and asked, “Why should we worry what we did in class 5?” The answer is that time is neither linear, nor clocklike; it’s not a measure of unchangeable and fixed moments. Marcel Proust, the French writer, explains that the memory of an event can be more real and powerful than the original, confused event. Remembrance takes us back to wellsprings of our being as past memories flow out, triggered by something in the present moment. They are more real than the toast we ate at breakfast this morning.
This is why we must not devalue the stories of women in the #MeToo movement just because the events happened years ago. It is for this reason that Justice Manohar, one of the authors of the landmark judgment governing behaviour in the workplace, has said that the Vishakha guidelines must incorporate incidents from the past.
#MeToo is not a men vs women issue. The last US election showed that women are not a monolith. More than half of white women voted for Donald Trump. By contrast more than 90% of black women, more than two-thirds of Hispanic women, and most Asian American women voted for Hillary Clinton. The lesson from America is for India’s young women to get politically involved. In America, the Pew Report states that a third of women have attended a political event or protest since the 2016 election. A record number of women (476) have filed to run for the House of Representatives. The more politics is infused with visible female role models in India, the more adolescent girls will display a sense of moral clarity.
We are just emerging from the nine day Navaratra festival, where the goddess Durga ultimately kills Mahishasura, who symbolises the forces of ignorance. As Ira Trivedi reminds us, #MeToo is also symbolic of that victory. The battle for justice for women is just beginning and there is a long road ahead. It is to Narendra Modi’s credit that he understood that the root cause of the problem lay in the way we bring up boys. In his Independence Day address a few years ago, he asked parents, why do we worry only about our daughters coming home late at night and not our sons?
Boys need to be taught many things early, including the boundary around a woman’s personal space that cannot be violated without permission. This will go a long way to create a better, safer working environment for women, which in turn will help our economy by improving one of the lowest women: men ratios in the world workplace. Meanwhile, let us salute both the women who have courageously come forward and the Supreme Court for its recent landmark judgments on privacy, triple talaq, decriminalising homosexuality and adultery – all these together constitute India’s age of enlightenment.
Gurcharan Das, November 2nd 2018