The latest wave in the movement has seen women out several men from seemingly liberal spaces, and we must learn to separate the space from the discourse it preaches.

The myth of safe spaces and woke men What we can learn from the Me Too movement
news #MeToo Saturday, October 06, 2018 - 11:10

“Everything that has been happening around me has been triggering me,” says Shruthi*, an artist who has a studio in Delhi. “The whole Tanushree controversy, all these women who have been coming out with their stories. I’m just really sad.” She breaks down. Between sobs, she says, “I have two Masters degrees in fine arts, and to think all my talent and passion can be brushed away if I speak up.”

“It just breaks my heart that this is how women are silenced and kept out. It’s a vicious cycle – the more women get harassed and are silenced, the more they are compelled to give up, and the fewer women there are in that industry,” she adds.

On Thursday, a Twitter user outed comedian Utsav Chakraborty as an alleged sexual harasser. Many women wrote to her after she told her story, accusing Utsav of sexual misconduct.

Several women from journalism circles have also started naming and shaming alleged sexual harassers – many of them powerful men who had held or presently hold prominent positions in media organisations. Some of the names were Anurag Verma, former trends editor at Huffpost India, Business Standard journalist Mayank Jain, Gautam Adhikari former Editor-in-Chief of DNA Mumbai, novelist Kiran Nagarkar and cultural critic Sadanand Menon. The names and numbers are growing as you read this article.

There is a lot of shock and outrage about powerful, seemingly culturally educated men being predators. What adds insult to injury is that these men are from spaces – comedy, journalism, theatre, art, writing and others – considered ‘safe’ because they have a strong critical discourse on gender and patriarchy. The men in these spaces appear progressive, feminist and ‘woke’. It is no wonder then that when stories like these come out, the sense of betrayal is much stronger too.

There are lessons we must learn from this wave of Indian #MeToo, perhaps beginning with busting the myth of a space being unconditionally safe simply because of the discourse it preaches.  

Discourses may not always translate to reality

Aayushi Jagad, a 26-year-old comic who featured in the video ‘How AIB uses feminism’ along with Sumedh Natu, says that while the comedy circuit is inclusive to an extent, it continues to be a Boys’ Club.

“The problem arises when there is a question of calling out one of their own, which is difficult to do and it’s shoved under the rug rather than deal with it head on. As a female comic, you learn quickly to focus on your own career, support other female artists and call out any problematic behaviour when you see it,” she says.

Geeta Seshu, a senior journalist, also says that liberal spaces such as the ones mentioned do have a more robust discourse on gender violence and discrimination, which is why they are held more accountable. “Thanks to discussions on women’s rights, misogyny and other things, there have been a lot of attempts to make these spaces accountable and to walk the talk, compared to other streams,” she says.

That being said, she warns that this does not mean we get lulled into a false sense of security about these spaces and stop being critical. “We learnt that this kind of misogyny and patriarchal understanding of women is a given, regardless of whether it was in a liberal arts space or in some other space where women were objectified routinely as part of the job, or in Bollywood. To assume that a space is immune to these things isn’t right,” Geeta argues. 

Samyuktha PC, a Chennai-based theatre director, says that theatre too can be considered a more inclusive space compared to other industries. “However, patriarchy is a part of our lives everywhere and theatre is not exempt from this. The girl or woman has to search for spaces that are safe and inclusive, and most of the time it happens out of her own trial and error processes of working with people in this sector.”  

Denial of opportunities to women who speak out

Around the time Shruthi entered the art space – about 15 years ago – she came in touch with a senior, well-respected artist. She was in her 20s, and the man in his 60s. “I was around 20, naïve and really awestruck by him,” Shruthi recounts. They met in Delhi after he came to her college and invited Shruthi to come his studio the next day.

“I thought nothing of it and was eager to see his process and his work. So I went. Once we were there, he took me somewhere, and then started saying things like I was very beautiful, and I was ‘shakti’. He said that I should inspire his art. He commented on my body by way of complimenting me. It was all just really uncomfortable. I remember thinking to myself, how do I get out of this? I have no transport, I am not even from here,” Shruthi narrates.

He brought her back to the studio and then Shruthi left. He would tell her the next day that she should marry him and she didn’t have to live “like this”. “He was married, of course, and had a young child,” Shruthi says. After that incident, she says, she never sought a male mentor.

Over the years, Shruthi has come to the conclusion that the art industry does not exactly live up to its inclusive and liberal reputation. “There is of course a Boy’s Club here as well. Once, a male artist said about a very senior woman artist, “No one would even want to smell her”. None of his male colleagues protested.”

She also feels that it is so difficult for women to speak up, years after abuse, is because many women, along with this Boy’s Club continue to protect their own. “A woman’s work is discredited, saying that she is doing this for attention, because her art or her work could not. It is so insulting and disheartening,” she says, bitterly.  

Are there really ‘woke’ men?

So, why do so many men who appear to be feminists and allies not live up to their claims?

Shruthi argues that because of how patriarchy and male privilege work, those in power also tend to be male. “And they, of course, will protect other men, because they know that they too have been guilty,” she says.

The case is not very different in theatre. “While there is ample space for these issues to be talked on stage, the backstage is still a heavily unsafe space in many encounters. Children and women are known to have been through instances of harassment. The community has only begun to recently speak about the need for support and safety to report and take action against perpetrators,” Samyuktha states. 

Geeta points out that in recent times especially, feminism has become an attractive selling point too. “People tend to market themselves as liberal feminists… It’s the most politically correct and fashionable thing. But how does one live up to those values one professes?” she questions.

Aayushi also thinks that the mismatch between the values one preaches and ends up practising is also we are still learning to implement feminist principles in our lives. “I think the default for everything is male, and privilege is difficult to acknowledge. Feminism came late to us. We weren’t raised in feminist households, so men’s behaviour was allowed to slide. As they grew up, they saw that feminism was the human way to lead life, to treat everyone with the same respect, but practicing what you preach is difficult, implementing these ideas is different from understanding them,” she points out.   

How do we make these spaces safer?

The big question remains – how do we make these spaces as safe as they claim to be?

“There needs to be safe and anonymous spaces that offer support to report harassment and violence,” states Samyuktha.

Aayushi emphasises that there is a need to listen to women and make them feel heard. “We just need to believe women. And let them tell their stories,” she says. “Make it easier for them to talk. Anytime a woman even thinks of coming forward with a story, there are already 10,000 follow up questions. Just let her talk. Aim to create a forum where women can discuss safety, and report any wrong doing.”

Stressing that no survivor should be pressured to speak out, Shruthi says that she does draw strength from the fact that so many women are speaking up. “Maybe one generation of men will not do the wrong things for the fear of being ousted. But maybe the next generation will do the right thing for it’s the right thing to do,” she says. 

*Names changed to protect the privacy of the individual.

Also read: Dear men, if a woman freezes at your unwanted touch, that is NOT consent

Time's Up: Why we need to stop being complicit in protecting sexual harassers

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