The world was happy to call out sexual harassment, as long as the harassers were “them”, not “us”.
Men could pour out their sympathy and horror, hashtag “Not all men” for as long as their female friends and colleagues were speaking about being groped and stalked and assaulted on the streets, by strangers.
But the moment the allegations hit closer home, the moment the hashtag turned into “Yes all men”, the moment “all men” began to refer not to rogues on the street, but men with posh accents and designer clothes and positions of authority in fields which are considered “intellectual”, the ranks began to close.
It was not just men. It was women too, and it was women who branded themselves “feminists”.
Last year, when Raya Sarkar compiled a list of academics whom women had anonymously accused of sexual harassment – often with screenshots for proof – a collective of women including activists, scholars, and senior journalists like Kavita Krishnan, Ayesha Kidwai, Nivedita Menon, Shohini Ghosh, and Vrinda Grover put out a statement on the website Kafila, saying they were “dismayed” at the “Facebook initiative”, and calling for “due process” rather than naming and shaming.
Part of the problem, they felt, was that the women had stayed anonymous while naming their harassers.
Soon after, another list circulated, naming and shaming poets.
And then another, naming and shaming comedians.
Now, women have begun to name editors, senior journalists and other powerful men in the media, along with authors.
The women did not stay anonymous either. They recounted their harassment in detail on Twitter. Others, who did wish not to be named in public, sent private messages to the women who were leading the charge. Journalist Sheena made a thread of each of these threads, and it is terrifying reading.
Among those named are newsmen K R Sreenivas, CP Surendran, Gautam Adhikari, Mayank Jain, and Manoj Anthikad, author Kiran Nagarkar, culture critic Sadanand Menon, and photographer Pablo Bartholomew.
Conveniently, several of the men accused seem to have developed selective amnesia, and can either not recall the incidents or the accusers themselves. Some have issued conditional apologies – “If I came across as predatory, I’m sorry”.
Others claim they have been investigated by committees and found innocent, or will be investigated by committees and the truth will come out, again by “due process”.
The fact is, there is hardly ever any proof of harassment. What do we do, dust victims for DNA years after the incidents took place? Dust them for DNA immediately? Ask them to carry recorders and secret cameras whenever they step out to business meetings or an office dinner, just in case someone harasses them?
The latest burst of sexual harassment accusations was perhaps started by actress Tanushree Dutta accusing actor Nana Patekar of misdemeanour. Ten years after the incident, and when the men involved were spitting fire at Dutta, footage has emerged of her car being vandalised after she walked out of a shoot.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the reaction to Raya Sarkar’s list last year, Dutta has found support among women, including those from the industry.
Something about this outburst feels different. This time, women are standing up for each other in a way they haven’t before.
Often, it is women who let down other women, sometimes in the course of trying to prove they are not prejudiced after all. Sexual harassment committees in offices are nearly always headed by women, and these women tend to play devil’s advocate – which may be necessary to establish the truth – and also tend to make excuses, which is certainly both unnecessary and offensive.
I have been fortunate never to have had bosses who harassed me, to have been treated with complete respect by my superiors at work, both male and female.
But I have had to deal with my share of creepy older men.
One of the main reasons we don’t speak up right then is that we are not sure we are right. We may feel a line has been crossed, but then we pause and think about the intentions. We wonder whether we were mistaken in interpreting a gesture – a caress, an unsolicited and unwelcome hug, a kiss on the cheek that seems too intense – sexually, when it could be avuncular or paternal.
Sadly, it rarely is.
Sadly, predators who target younger women have so mastered the playbook that they know just how to stray into forbidden territory while giving themselves an “out”. They know the grey areas, and they know the right moments. They choose their victims, and they choose their networks, so that they can stay out of trouble.
For once, women and men are shutting down others who ask, “But what took her so long to speak?”
For once, people are more interested in plausibility than proof.
Perhaps a time of reckoning has finally arrived. Perhaps being sophisticated and respected in one’s industry will no longer be enough to protect predators. More stories will emerge, and for once, we are willing to listen.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Of Swachch Bharat and scavenging
LGBTQIA rights have a long way to go
V S Naipaul: The man the world loved to hate
The legacy of Karunanidhi
"Rapistan": There are no safe places
The "most dangerous country" poll should not make us defensive
The illusion of secularism
When hooliganism is state-sanctioned
Tarun Tejpal case: When the media plays jury
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Tamil Nadu: The land of the lawless
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No Confidence Motion: Why is the BJP nervous?
Do we really have the right to die with dignity?
Democracy has no place for mobs The Sridevi South India lost