The MeToo movement’s demand: A new deal at work
It’s tempting to look back in pessimism at India’s extraordinary MeToo movement that kicked off early in October three years ago. What did women gain? An editor, accused of sexual harassment by 22 women filed a criminal defamation case against one, lost in court and has exercised his legal right to appeal the decision in a higher court. His career prospects are bright.
A junior court assistant, whose accusations against the sitting Chief Justice of India (CJI), led to an in-house enquiry and speedy exoneration by his peers has been reinstated in her job. The former CJI finds himself in Parliament’s Upper House.
A Mumbai sessions court dismissed charges of rape against a so-called sanskari (cultured) film actor, saying that the possibility that he had been “falsely accused” could not be ruled out.
Who would have thought breaking the silence would come at such a high cost?
“Not every accusation has led to justice or even closure,” Justice Sujata V Manohar, one of the three Supreme Court judges who wrote the landmark Vishaka judgment that led to our laws against workplace sexual harassment, told me in an interview in 2019. But, the movement showed, she said, that it is “at least possible for women to complain of what they could not in the past”.
Was the movement flawed? Indeed, it was. In a country where over 90% of employed women work in the informal sector, where were the voices of the factory workers, caregivers, farm labour, women on construction sites and brick kilns? Where were the LGBTQ+ voices? The Dalit voices? Moreover, despite #BelieveAllWomen, not every accusation fell under the rubric of workplace harassment.
But the movement’s success lay not so much in calling out individual male bosses, but in its most basic demand of a new deal at work. By speaking up, women, albeit women of privilege, were signaling that it could no longer be business as usual. A male-designed workplace where women must “lean in” and never complain lest they are branded “whiny”, not show ambition for fear of being called “aggressive” (and worse), not ask for a raise without being labelled “pushy” was untenable. For me, this is the MeToo movement’s most radical idea.
Smarter workplaces recognised this and embarked on a course correction. Some scrambled to ensure legal compliance (maternity leave, internal complaints committees). Others went a step further, conducting gender sensitisation trainings and ensuring greater representation. It still leaves the vast majority of employed women out, but it’s a start.
MeToo has a powerful message for women too, that of solidarity and a continuum. Feminist organising goes back to the reform movements of the 19th century. It has not always been united but we have seen its effectiveness through the anti-rape and anti-dowry movements of the 1970s and 1980s to the anti-rape upsurge in 2012. We know that we are linked with the past. We know that we are not alone.
Namita Bhandare writes on genderThe views expressed are personal