The #MeToo movement is more than just outing powerful
men, it is about shifting the balance of power between men and women,
transferring the punitive aspects shame, denial of work opportunities from
the victim to the perpetrator.
It is about ending impunity embedded in our social
construct by shaping new social mores.
This is and has to be a collective effort, and it is
important for the #MeToo movement to have these discussions.
There are two broad questions which require discussion.
First, what should constitute sexual harassment?
Second, when and how should the state and other
institutional mechanisms come into play?
There is no ambiguity that any form of coercion is wrong
and should engender exemplary punitive consequences. But what about social
What about behavioural conflicts arising out of
differential expectations in societies in transition? Staring, telling risqué
jokes, crude propositioning can be as much about social awkwardness as abuse of
power. It’s not that such behaviour is not inappropriate or wrong, but we should
pause and think about the consequences of bringing in state or institutional
power to penalise transitional behaviours in personal interactions.
India as a society is transitioning rapidly, and people
with widely different understandings of acceptable social mores coexist without
having had time to acclimatise.
In a study on sexual harassment by the National Students’
Union of India (NSUI) in Delhi University, we found that one in four girls
reported sexual harassment. In this, by far most instances related to staring,
crude comments, etc.
One conversation with two very articulate and urbane
female students went quickly from young men staring and making women
uncomfortable to an anti-reservation tirade for allowing university spaces to be
allegedly overtaken by crude lower-caste rural men.
As a society we can frame this situation as
gender/caste/class antagonism or of managing inevitable conflicts in
The institutional response in the former conception will
be regulatory and punitive, the latter will be more about defining mores of
acceptable behaviour and education.
Institutionally too, it is important to expand the
discourse to talk about the measures required to create more gender-neutral
spaces while retaining room for graduated levels of punishment.
Censure, delayed or reduced work opportunities, suspension
and firing are all forms of regulating inappropriate behavior.
Impunity exists in a social construct.
Till now, due process did not work because the social
context was skewed in favour of marauding men.
However, the long battle waged by generations of strong
women before and the courage of many women today together is forcing the social
context to change.
It is important to use this moment to institutionalise and
craft a new, more effective due process.
That should be #MeToo’s lasting legacy.