#MeToo: Accusations against men can’t be construed as guilt; calculus of probability should account for innocence

If the MeToo movement feels the need to call out and castigate women whom it considers enablers of patriarchy and rape culture, one would expect it to come from the women who are part of the movement. There is something incongruous, if not perhaps inappropriate, in a man writing an article that seeks to pronounce judgment on individual women as enablers of patriarchy. But since Shivam Vij has considered fit to do so anyway, one would have expected him to treat the subject with some caution and plenty of circumspection.

Vij not only misrepresents what Mustafa wrote in her article “Whoa#Metoo, Hold your Horses…”, he charges her with enabling a culture of sexual assault based on non-existent evidence. In the process, he manages to dismiss Mustafa’s critique of the Indian MeToo movement, without engaging with it or even understanding it.

Vij claims that Mustafa’s article tries to “delegitimise” MeToo and attempts to defend MJ Akbar. That it does neither should be obvious to the most cursory reader. Mustafa is clear and unambiguous in her opinion of MeToo. She writes: “I am convinced and impressed with the argument of the supporters of MeToo that it has succeeded in placing the onus on the man for acts of sexual harassment; two, it allows women to speak in the security of larger support on social media and three, creates an environment where the victim does not have to suffer from the insecurity of being a victim… MeToo has allowed journalists the space to name and shame predators in their work environment, and ensure action.” Vij dismisses this as mere tokenism, without giving us any reason why.

Several of the women who have called out Akbar spoke about how he would interview them in his hotel room, making them uncomfortable. Vij writes: “What’s the big deal about going into a hotel room, we all did in those days, writes Seema Mustafa in an article titled ‘Whoa #MeToo, Hold Your Horses…”. Except that she does not write anything of that sort. In sketching the atmosphere at The Asian Age under Akbar, Mustafa merely mentions the fact that it was routine for editors to conduct interviews in their hotel rooms at that time and that in itself, no one reported that it made them uncomfortable. Vij is putting words into her mouth here.

 #MeToo: Accusations against men can’t be construed as guilt; calculus of probability should account for innocence

Representational image. Reuters

He also implies that Mustafa’s article ends up apologising for Akbar’s actions. It, in fact, does the exact opposite. It indicts Akbar by narrating the toxic culture of male entitlement and sexual exploitation he created at The Asian Age when Mustafa worked there as the bureau chief. Far from shielding Akbar from his alleged crimes, she condemns them in unequivocal terms and extends solidarity to the survivor. “My full support and solidarity for Ghazala Wahab who had obviously gone through hell, and has come out of it with the courage to share her experience in a sober article out of the movement. In fact her article has given the proof of MJ Akbar’s behaviour for which he needs to lose his job.” It is truly mystifying how any of this can be construed as an apology for Akbar's actions.

Vij again misleads the reader by claiming that Ghazala Wahab accused Mustafa of refusing to help her. This is all Wahab wrote about her conversation with Mustafa. “Seema was the bureau chief then…I went into her cubicle and narrated my story. She heard me. She was not surprised. She said that the call was entirely mine; that I should decide what I wanted to do.” Notice that Wahab does not say a single word about either Mustafa refusing to help her; or about supporting her. Neither does she detail how much of her experience she shared with Mustafa. Mustafa does not recall having the conversation, though she believes Wahab’s account that it occurred. In a statement released after the article was written, Mustafa revealed that at the time mentioned by Wahab (1997), she was not in fact the bureau chief, but held a part-time position in the paper. Neither did she have a cubicle of her own. She joined The Asian Age as the bureau chief at a later date.

It would seem that passage of time has altered certain details of the conversation in Wahab’s memory. From this briefest of snippets, of a conversation recalled imperfectly from over 20 years ago, Vij wants to build a case that Mustafa was an enabler of sexual harassment. Such determined defiance of common sense borders on the absurd.

The pity of all this, of people like Vij playing the person rather than the argument, is that MeToo ends up shutting out and disengaging from outside critiques which are intended to strengthen the movement, not demonise it. While Mustafa rightly acknowledges the achievements of MeToo, she says that she has a problem with the tone and tenor of the movement. This is neither contradictory nor duplicitous. It is perfectly coherent to support a movement while problematising one or several of its aspects. Mustafa writes: “The first problem that I encountered with this movement, and that remains, is its inability to differentiate between the man who is guilty of rape and sexual assault from the man who solicited a woman with a drink, or an unacceptable text message. The movement offers the same ‘punishment’ for all. The same response, and the same reaction.”

This has remained a cardinal challenge for India’s MeToo, which it has not yet succeeded in overcoming. There have been too many cases where everything ranging from flirting, opening moves, clumsy passes, sleazy behavior, disrespecting boundaries, married men expressing sexual interest, all have been clumped together under sexual harassment. Take the case of Prashant Jha, political editor of Hindustan Times who has stepped down from managerial responsibilities after being accused by an ex-employee of hitting on her. She shared the screenshots of their conversation on Twitter. What we can make out of the conversation, is that Jha told the woman that he was attracted to her . She responds by talking about Jha’s wife and telling him not to act on his attraction. She asks him not to hit on her, to which he responds with an ‘Ok’. She then says outright that the conversation is making her “a bit uncomfortable tbh”. She goes on to tell Jha that she is the child of a broken marriage and can’t stand adultery. She proposes that they meet for lunch as friends, to which Jha texts “cool”. The conversation has made her uncomfortable, but contrary to what she claimed in her statement, the screenshots show Jha did not carry on propositioning after she said no.

The complainant regards this as a case of sexual misconduct on Jha’s part, but based purely on the messages she had made public, it is difficult to see how. Jha might have been trying to pursue a relationship outside his marriage, but that was his call to make, as long as he did not violate the consent of the person he was hitting on. The only stakeholder who has the moral right to object here is his wife.

This is not in any way to denigrate the complainant’s experience of feeling uncomfortable in that situation based on her personal history, and the power equation she experienced. But the subjective discomfort that a woman feels in a sexual situation cannot be the sole norm by which feminism adjudicates misconduct by men. To do so would be to diminish women’s sexual agency, and as the American feminist Daphne Merkin argued in The New York Times, to return to a paradigm where women are “perceived to be — and perceive themselves to be — as frail as Victorian housewives.”

The question is not merely of a set of innocent men being swept under the dragnet of MeToo. The fact is that there is an entire spectrum of unacceptable sexual behavior by men, all of which cannot be brought under the rubric of sexual harassment. All this points to the urgent need for MeToo to develop a taxonomy of sexual conduct and the conditions under and the manner in which they violate consent. This requires conversations that are more nuanced and richer and have space for debate, disagreement and dissent. It requires deeper forms of engagement and a collective will to develop a self-critical discourse that can generate the kind of intellectual spade work which is required. Historically, feminism has evolved, precisely because it has shown the ability to be self-reflective.

Another important problem with MeToo that Mustafa brings out in her article has to do with evidence and guilt. She writes: “MeToo is a powerful voice. But I do have a concern, which I hope other women will help me address. My problem is that the movement is too subjective, it is arbitrary. It has no responsibility. All I require is the right gender, access to Twitter, and I can level any allegation against anyone for it to be believed hook, line and sinker and for the man to be pilloried beyond belief. I am not saying that the women are lying, most will not be. But there will be the one, or the two, who would name a man for reasons other than harassment.”

This is exactly what happened with a man named Shreyas. He was accused by a woman on Twitter of raping her on a date. The man received hate mail and threats, he lost his contract job and the tide of online opinion changed only when he posted convincing proof through WhatsApp screenshots, photographs and videos that demonstrated that the encounter was completely consensual. Once the material was made public, the woman deleted the post in which she had made the rape accusation and the man said that he will sue her for criminal defamation.

It is important to understand here that when people like Mustafa are demanding greater accountability, they are not demanding that survivors stop naming and shaming harassers or that institutional or judicial due process should substitute for the anarchical nature of MeToo. What they are asking for is that accusation should not be automatically taken for clinching proof, that the calculus of probability should factor in the possibility of innocence. The MeToo discourse should recognise gradations of reliability; of first and third person accounts, anonymous testimonies etc. Allegations of sexual assault or harassment should be given the utmost seriousness, support provided to the putative victims and public pressure put on individuals or organisations named to respond to those allegations. Organisations which dismiss employees accused of sexual harassment should do soon the basis of inquiries where the accused is given a chance to present a defence.

What is at stake is not merely justice for men who might be falsely accused, but the credibility and long term viability of MeToo itself. MeToo, just like any other movement, does not function in political isolation. Its moral power rests on a hard fought and recently won public consensus that as a country, we need to address sexual assault and harassment by men and not hide behind victim blaming. But in the long run, MeToo can leverage that consensus only if it ensures that its voice continues to be seen as believable and just.

Network 18, of which Firstpost is a part, has received complaints of sexual harassment as well. The complaints which are within the purview of the workplace have been forwarded to our PoSH committee for appropriate action.

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Updated Date: Oct 16, 2018 07:15:38 IST