One year ago, on the night of October 16, 2017, Alyssa Milano sent out a tweet with a simple message: If you’ve ever been sexually assaulted, reply to this message with the words MeToo. She woke up the next morning to fifty-five thousand replies.
#MeToo took on a life of its own, yet it had its share of sceptics — sceptics who were proved wrong when Bill Cosby walked out of the courtroom in handcuffs. It took sixty women to come forward and say MeToo, before one affluent, powerful and famous man could finally be convicted for his crimes.
No wonder then that Tanushree Dutta has her work cut out. Thankfully, she is gradually finding a growing number of supporters in Bollywood as India faces its own #Metoo reckoning. But will she find enough support in India, where slut-shaming and victim-blaming are so rampant?
I remember an incident that took place decades ago in Goa. As four of us friends walked towards our hotel room at night, we noticed that we were being followed by a small cohort of loud, drunken men. We hurriedly shut our door, locked it, and exhaled in relief when their laughter died down. And then, 15 minutes later, someone knocked.
“Who is it?” one of us asked, and received no reply. Instead, the knocking grew in intensity, becoming louder and louder, and soon it turned into banging, by which time we were in a state of panic. The telephone in our room was not working, so we couldn’t call our friends who were in other rooms, or anyone else. We didn’t have mobile phones either. The year was 1994, and none of us had even seen one outside of Star Trek!
Eventually, the banging stopped.
The next morning we complained to the hotel manager. A guest seated at the reception who overheard our conversation, declared that he was a police detective and fished out his badge. I was suitably impressed, until he asked us this question:
“What were you wearing?”
He went on to tell us that he had observed our group last night, and remarked that we had been in ‘inviting’ clothing and had been dancing in compromising positions.
We had complained because we wanted a phone in our hotel room, so should this happen again we could use it! How did the matter of our clothing figure in this? And what was all this talk about compromising positions?
Before we could launch a scathing attack on the detective, some boys in our group confessed to being the culprits. They had donned a mask and had been planning to give us a scare. It was meant to be a harmless prank, and when they realised how frightened we had been, they apologised profusely.
The manager immediately agreed to shift us to another room — this time with a phone that worked — and we walked off, rolling our eyes at the sheepish detective with his bogus theories.
Victim-blaming or slut-shaming is nothing new. Although arguments in the perpetrators’ favour defy logic, they just don’t go away and we hear them repeated, over and over. We know that women in salwar-kameezes, saris or burkhas get assaulted, children and babies get assaulted! When will we realise that it doesn’t matter what she wore or where she was. She was at the right place at the right time, wearing the right clothes. She just came across the wrong person.
After Tanushree Dutta spoke out about the harassment she had faced, she was immediately trolled for wearing ‘provocative clothing’ and performing ‘obscene’ dance moves. Why, she had it coming! The message is clear: if she can wear such clothes and perform intimate scenes with one man, she should be okay doing the same with anyone and everyone, anywhere and at anytime.
When we were teenagers, a friend was assaulted by the lift-man in our building. When questioned, the lift-man said he had seen her with her boyfriend. He figured she wouldn’t mind if he tried to get fresh with her. The thought-process seems startlingly familiar. ‘If she can do it with him, why not with me?’ For any woman not with her husband is deemed to be a vamp, and thus, fair game.
Perhaps the problem lies with Bollywood, where only two kinds of women are portrayed: the vamp and the virtuous, and nothing in between. An entire generation of men grow up believing that a woman falls into one of these two categories, depending on her behaviour or clothing. They also believe that they can get anyone they want, for Bollywood teaches them that the way to a woman’s heart or body is simply chasing her into submission.
Really, it’s not.
I’m waiting for a movie to come out where a woman turns down a man, and he accepts it without taking it as a personal challenge or an insult. A movie where, when she says no, he hears it.
Until then, if you’re confused between real and reel life, think back to the dismissive statement made by an actor loved by millions by virtue of his larger-than-life idealistic roles. The fact that he could mock this burning issue without a second thought is proof enough as to how big a lie all of it is.
(This article was published in The Hindu, Open Page, on the 7th Oct, 2018.)