Tavleen Singh dubbing MeToo in India 'imitative of West' exposes her disconnect; realities for women are same worldwide
#MeToo is hugely relevant because 55 percent of nearly 1.3 billion Indians are under 25 years of age. This movement is relevant more to them than to us and our ancestors
In her column of 14 October, senior journalist Tavleen Singh murders 803 words to declare #MeToo movement in India as “irrelevant” and “a shabby copy” of its counterpart in America, to dismiss criticisms on Twitter of her defence of alleged sexual predators as a "torrent of abuse", and to defend her "friend Suhel Seth" despite multiple accusations of sexual harassment.
She feels for a minister who could "lose his job" as junior foreign minister and feels nothing for more than a dozen women who faced harassment by him. The minister is MJ Akbar (he reportedly resigned on Sunday).
Like Tavleen Singh, there are many apologists on social media demanding, much like Islamic clerics do, that the raped women produce four witnesses. The likes of her will believe them only when they visit courts and produce evidences. But, #MeToo is relevant precisely because women cannot enter police stations and courts safely. First, our society shames the survivors, not the rapists. Second, cops humiliate them in police stations. Third, lawyers seek to demean them in courts in the presence of male judges, lawyers and others. Patriarchy is sexual assault.
The society is the rapist. This is the reason women are speaking up on Twitter, not in the society. The society teaches raped women to commit suicide and not cause 'dishonour' to their family by speaking up. The society teaches them to suffer in silence, a key reason why survivors have been silent for so many years. Every act of sexual harassment is a continuing psychological trauma. The society teaches them to keep their mouths shut. The silence has advocates in the form of Singh who draw social boundaries for them. But, #MeToo has already becoming relevant.
Teenagers in colleges and universities are discussing new norms of behaviour. Teachers and principals of schools are debating. Male managers in shops and offices are forced by #MeToo to unlearn inherited patriarchal behaviour. Sexual predators in workplaces, in the Parliament and in social environments are terrified. A sitting member of the Indian Parliament from Karnataka was so afraid he obtained a gag order to silence a right-wing activist. As a result of #MeToo, young women are acquiring attitude. In sociology, attitude is girls’ empowerment.
Singh ridicules #MeToo in India as "imitative" of the West. But, social change rarely comes from within. Almost invariably, social change comes from interacting with external ideas through forces of technology, globalisation, or wars.
Raja Ram Mohun Roy was inspired by English equality when he opposed Sati, the widow burning. In 1776, America became the first modern democracy. Today, most of 193 members of the UN are democracies or quasi-democracies. The black movement grew in America. It spawned the feminist movement.
Movements of ideas begin from one country and spread to others. #MeToo began in America and, like democracy, is entering Indian society now. We cannot expect the generation of our mothers and grandmothers to speak for women’s rights and individual liberty. They grew up in an era when democratic attitudes were yet to seep into our society. In India, democracy was imposed from the top in 1950. Democratic ideas and attitudes are beginning to be acquired by our next generation. It is not incidental that most of #MeToo advocates who are speaking fiercely are young, very articulate, and supremely confident.
If Singh is right that everything "imitative" of the West is wrong, it would mean we should also reject blue jeans which empower our girls, Twitter which enables our women to speak up, railways which propel our women to go long distances and alone, and democracy which propelled more than 1.3 million women into Panchayati raj institutions — something the Indian society wouldn’t permit.
Singh mocks "militant Indian feminists... who burned bras when feminism was fashionable" — but, listen ma’am, they were far ahead of their time. Their souls would be watching #MeToo with cosmic satisfaction.
Societies are hostile environments. Many retrogressive forces on social media have dismissed #MeToo advocates as elite, urban, educated women. But in reality, movements of ideas and reform do indeed originate from the educated women living in cities and percolate into less educated classes and in rural areas, or into Hindi journalism. We are witnessing a trend of men and women marrying into different castes and religions because they have acquired new democratic attitudes after having studied in cities. Cities give birth to self-aware individuals and secure their liberties, while villages drown them into caste and religious orthodoxies.
Irrespective of what happens to the survivors in courts and police stations, merely listening to them opens up cultural space in which women can feel more secure than they were previously. #MeToo is hugely relevant because 55 percent of nearly 1.3 billion Indians are under 25 years of age. This movement is relevant more to them than to us and our ancestors. Singh narrates real stories of rapes and so-called honour killings to murder #MeToo. Her journalistic narration is, well, a narration designed to defend culprits, unlike #MeToo which has emerged as a tool of empowerment which scissors into alleys of our society and exposes its criminals.
Her column reveals a profound lack of understanding of how patriarchy subjugates women in varying ways. When she talks of the 'honour' killing of a Muslim girl, there is failure to grasp that it is patriarchy, not Islam, that is murderous.
Many of those who are demanding proof from #MeToo survivors will be willing to execute a Muslim in the court of public opinion without asking for evidence if he was falsely implicated in a terror case. The power is male. In our society women are taught to succumb to the dictates of men — like in the cases where women convert to Islam to marry. It's patriarchy, not Islam alone, because I have not seen Hindu boys converting to Islam to marry a Muslim woman, barring exceptions.
In our society, only a female changes to the tunes of a man irrespective of religion.
Singh rightly observes: “More than a hundred Indian women get raped every day, four out of 10 are children, and 94 percent of the perpetrators are relatives". This is the precise reason India needs #MeToo.
She notes how after Jyoti Singh’s brutal gangrape, “All that we got was a stricter law. We already have too many laws.” Yes, laws don’t work – so #MeToo is needed in Indian society. She says “American realities are very different” – no ma’am, realities for women are everywhere the same, their subjugation has lasted for centuries across world.
She also notes that "in its Indian incarnation, MeToo is irrelevant" — actually, it is more relevant in India than in the United States.
Singh also has grudge against liberals and writes: “So illiberal are the ‘liberals’ leading the MeToo movement” — a precise reason, she should be part of #MeToo. Singh should begin by naming the editor who told her that she had “wasted” her time by writing a detailed report on the gangrape of a woman by policemen in Gujarat’s Bharuch district.
If that editor had been challenged by her, she would be part of #MeToo in India of today. Her article is an apologia seeking to murder the soul of individual liberty.
The author is a former BBC journalist and senior fellow at the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington, DC. He tweets @tufailelif