It’s been a while since the last On Topic post, and a lot has happened. The #MeToo movement has spread to the world of literature, the Hindi film and music industries, university spaces, religious and cult figures, and, overseas, has resulted in the Time’s Up initiative, a means to provide legal recourse for victims of sexual harassment in Hollywood. Back home, the Kathua and Unnao rape cases shook the country, with protests being organised in multiple cities, and dialogue focussing on rape as a political tool of power, and State impunity. We review all of this (and more) beginning from the start of the year till April.
January began with many deliberating the future of the #MeToo movement (founded by civil rights activist Tarana Burke after a conversation with a 13-year-old girl about the sexual violence she had experienced). In October 2017, the hashtag was picked up on Twitter, initially without knowledge of its origins, by the Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano who asked for survivors of sexual harassment or assault to reply to her tweet with ‘#MeToo’. From then, it became a global sensation with the movement’s slogan of “empowerment through empathy” extending from Hollywood to academic spaces, where a list of sexual predators in Indian academia was published by Raya Sarkar, a law student at University of California at Davis, creating a storm of debate within feminist circles in the country. Ever since Sarkar’s list, incidents of harassment have been reported, and heavily protested against, in university spaces. In March 2018 Atul Kumar Johri, a professor at the School of Life Sciences in Jawaharlal Nehru University, was accused of harassing eight female students who lodged an FIR against him. Johri denied the charges, arguing that the allegations emerged after he sent mails of compulsory attendance to these students who were not coming regularly to the department lab.
News reports on incidents of sexual assault against women have been pouring in, with some receiving a lot of public attention. The abduction, rape, and murder of an 8-year-old girl1 in a temple in Kathua, a district in Jammu and Kashmir, with the intention to threaten the Bakarwal community, a Muslim minority in a Hindu dominated Kathua region, brought up debates around rape as a political weapon. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when addressing the incidents, chose to flatten and depoliticise the narrative. The fact that this incident, which happened in January, only came to public eye in April reflected the communal tensions, initially ignored, which were at the heart of the incident. Also in April, the 18 year old woman who was raped by BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar in his house in Unnao in 2017 (at which time she was a minor) tried to immolate herself, despairing at the lack of justice, in front of the UP’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s house. The two cases spurred protests all over the country over the State’s support of the perpetrators and the consequent disinterest in meting out justice.
What counts as sexual harassment and assault is an issue that hovered over even the victims of the #MeToo movement, an example of which was observed in filmmaker Mahmood Farooqui’s case. Farooqui was convicted of rape and sentenced a seven-year jail term in August 2016. However, the Supreme Court, in January, rejected the Special Leave Petition (SLP) made by the victim and acquitted Farooqui, the reasons for which were that the accused and accuser were known to each other, and that the victim’s ‘feeble no’ might have meant a ‘yes’. Urvashi Butalia spoke to the victim, Christine Marrewa Karwoski2 about her struggles after the acquittal. In April, self-proclaimed godman Asaram Bapu was sentenced with life imprisonment till death by the Jodhpur Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe court for the rape of a 16-year-old Dalit girl. The other two accused received 20-year jail terms each.
The #MeToo movement brought out the rampant harassment in the world of literature too. Junot Diaz, a Pulitzer prize-winning author and creative writing professor at MIT, was recently accused of harassment by a community of women writers and has now been suspended from his position as a chairperson of the Pulitzer board. Diaz penned an article for the New Yorker, detailing his experience of sexual abuse as a child, days before the allegations against him made rounds. The Indian poetry community, in the wake of the movement and the list created by Sarkar, created a list of sexual predators in the community post allegations of harassment against Shamir Reuben, a renowned spoken word poet and head of content at Kommune, a Mumbai based arts collective.
The Time’s Up campaign, inspired by the #MeToo movement, and which marked the beginning of 2018, started as an initiative to provide a more concrete corollary to the social media movement. Hollywood actors like Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, and Emma Watson, and activists like Rosa Clemente, Calina Lawrence, and Saru Jayarama, who are all part of this campaign that provides legal recourse to victims of sexual harassment in Hollywood and blue-collar workplaces, wore black at the 75th Golden Globes Award this January as a way to spread awareness. Tarana Burke, who accompanied Michelle Williams at the award show, wrote during the same time about the consequences of a movement like #MeToo, and her concerns that the conversation generated shouldn’t be limited to the hashtag, but also extend to what happens afterwards.
The usage of public platforms like the Golden Globes award function by the Time’s Up activists stands in contrast with Bollywood’s (non)treatment of the misogyny, sexism, nepotism, ‘casting couch’, or even the normalized ridiculing of gender identities through cross-dressing. The Malayalam film industry isn’t far off either, illustrated by the outrage received by the actress Parvathy for speaking about sexism in the industry.
Incidents of harassment and assault against women are glossed over not just through humour or non-addressal in Bollywood but also by invoking damaging images of ‘honorable’ women, like in the case of the film Padmaavat, who would choose (a ‘heroic’) death over the spectre of sexual assault by the Muslim ‘other’. The portrayal of this necessarily evil Muslim ‘other’ and the invisibilisation of caste (where are the Dalit women?) rings synonymous with the present state’s treatment of these issues and the vision it carries for the ‘nation’. Contrasting with the protests around the ‘incorrect’ representation of an honourable Rajput woman that preceded the release of the film, was the February release of Marvel’s Black Panther, whose strong female cast of characters smashed mainstream (white) stereotypes of black female characters. The film’s screenwriters were also accused of straight-washing the character of Okoye played by Danai Gurira, who in an early clip from the film was seen flirting with a queer character, Ayo played by Florence Kasumba. It is not just women characters but the increasing number of female directors and screenwriters who are changing the way sci-fi and comics, so often mistakenly considered and written solely for male interest (and gaze), are written.
The year so far has been littered with the loss of iconic people across the world who, through their lives and work, contributed immensely to the conversations around feminism and gender. In February Bollywood lost one such actor, Sridevi, who was considered a feminist trailblazer and inspired many for the kind of roles she did, for leading films without male co-stars, and demanding equal pay at a time when it was rare in Indian cinema. Naomi Parker Fraley, the woman that inspired the iconic 1940s image of Rosie the Riveter (but who for most of her life wasn’t regarded as the icon’s original inspiration) died in January, aged 97. Rajni Tilak, a Dalit rights activist and leading feminist academic who published path-breaking books like Padchaap (Marching Steps) and Hawa si Bechain Yuvtiya (Restless Women), and who advocated for the inclusion of Dalit women’s work in literary canon, died on 30th March, aged 59.
In the wake of awareness generated by social media movements and metro city pride walks comes an incident of homophobia from Kolkata, where ten students in the 9th standard at Kamala Girls High School were made to sign a written admission for allegedly “indulging in homosexuality”, in March. The L in the LGBTQIA+ community is often misrepresented through hyper-sexualization and stigmatised through incidents like the above, but the #LforLove photo project is trying to bust myths by documenting the daily lives of lesbian couples, presenting the many sides of each relationship. If you want to read more about the community and are wondering where to go, the Agents of Ishq have you covered with these excellent book recommendations. Or you could check out what some of us have been reading: Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, the Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor, Caliban and the Witch: Virtual Work in a Real World by Ursula Huws and Colin Leys, Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science… and The World by Rachel Swaby, or Women Contesting Culture: Changing Frames of Gender Politics in India by Paromita Chakravarti and Kavita Panjabi (eds). The Zubaan book club recommends Erotic Stories for Punjabi Women by Balli Kaur Jaswal.
1. Section 23 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) law lays down the procedure for the media to report cases of sexual offences against child victims and Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) deals with disclosure of identity of victims of such offences. The penal law provides for jail term of two years with a fine. The identity of the victim of the Kathua rape case was disclosed by media houses despite the law because of their ignorance and misconception that they could name her because she was dead. The Delhi High Court directed the media houses found guilty to pay a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the Jammu and Kashmir Victim Compensation Fund.
2. In the interview with Urvashi Butalia Christine Marrewa Karwoski reveals her decision to make her identity public because she feels she hasn’t done any wrong or shameful and so hiding her name is not an option for her.