There is a pattern in most longish conversations I have had with women this year. Having moved cities, and on a quest for new friends and acquaintances, I have ended up meeting many women who work in the media or the arts. When we meet in a cafe or in a bar, the first half of the conversation is, predictably, millennial small talk: whining about our phones and how we can’t stop scrolling through them, why we are still on Twitter despite how terrible it makes us feel, the fake news flooding our parents’ WhatsApp feeds, the government. Once we are sufficiently warmed up, we slip in the question: “So… what was #MeToo like for you?” Within a few minutes, I have told a person I just met about all my dilemmas concerning my closest male friends.
It has been one year since a second wave of women’s #MeToo narratives took over social media in India, and two years since the “List” of sexual harassers in academia was first published. What has changed? What remains the same? Indulekha Arvind has a detailed report in the Economic Times, tracking changes across several industries, suggesting that while speaking about harassment might have become easier in the last year — there is a 14 percent increase in complaints registered in BSE 100 companies and a 70 percent increase in complaints at the National Women’s Commission — women’s chances of getting justice might not have. (Just this month, two men against whom #MeToo allegations were raised, Subodh Gupta and Pravin Mishra, filed defamation cases against their accusers.) Moreover, with #MeToo’s reach having been limited to the urban elite class, the chances of women in blue-collar professions being heard remained unlikely.
When we try to gauge the achievements of #MeToo, there is a tendency to jump to talk about where the outed men are; have they got their jobs back, are they on panels of literary fests. While this is important, for it shows us just how thick the protective coat of patriarchy is, holding men’s careers as the sole measure of #MeToo takes away from the movement. What if we understand #MeToo not through the men, but through us women? How has it affected our time, our work, our days? What has changed in the internal lives of women?
A couple of months ago, I had called a friend’s sister to get advice on applying for a PhD programme. When we ended the call an hour-and-a-half later, I quickly wrote down something she had said: “If toxic boyfriends did not hurt our egos, we would not get attached to them.”
Yes, we had digressed into talking about relationships, toxic relationships and why we had spent years chasing men who treated us badly. The change in topic was seamless, I could not remember how and when it happened. While all through these years as a woman I had been trained to invisibilise and not talk about gender in order to seem serious at work, now only the opposite was possible.
Last October, there were days in my former workplace when a coffee conversation between two female employees despairing about someone’s #MeToo story on Twitter would turn into a team meeting, lasting hours. One moment a colleague was drawing a flowchart on the whiteboard, mapping how male friendships and impunity worked in a media organisation she was harassed at, and the next, we were confiding in our colleagues about the toxic patterns of our ex-boyfriends. Soon, someone was talking about how she realised that she gets a stiff back every time she meets a group of people, because instead of sitting comfortably back in her chair she has to constantly lean forward in order to make her voice heard amidst the roaring decibels of confident men. The personal flowed into the structural into the academic, and the more we talked to each other, the more we discovered things about ourselves. We were unabashed, loud, we were talking about men non-stop, at work.
What played out in public was only the tip of the iceberg of this furore that was triggered in many of us last year.
While some women were bravely calling out harassers in on social media, reading their stories was changing others. When we talk about what women are dealing with after #MeToo, we should acknowledge the wide range and diversity of dilemmas that we have been harbouring: about ethics, about loss, about deciding to trust again. For instance —
— S struggled with the loss of a friend who had forced himself on her years ago. She had given him the benefit of doubt and repressed the memory — till she heard last year from another friend who had been harassed by the same guy. “Suddenly the six years I had spent with this friend, the things I had shared with him, our deep conversations about life and politics, I did not know how to handle those memories. He was a predator, and yet my closest friend,” S says. She has cut off all contact with him, but he still haunts her dreams.
— The discussion about calling this friend out publicly, revolved considerably around: “What if my parents find out. No, not only about the fact that I was harassed, but that A is the harasser; how will they ever trust my male friends again?” Many of us have worked hard to show our parents that it’s okay for us to have close male friends.
— An acquaintance I met, whose close friends had been publicly called out during #MeToo, said she was struggling with how to think about cancel culture. “If toxic men also grew up in a patriarchal set up, how much accountability do we ascribe to them individually?” she wondered.
— N over email: “I wasn't betrayed by the men I knew/admired during #MeTooIndia, because my experiences had already taught me not to trust them, ever...This time around, I felt a sort of grim vindication, but also joy in the knowledge that we're building a fledgling sisterhood in our response, after all the generations patriarchy has spent dividing us”
— M, who is coping with being made to feel “small and unintelligent” by a toxic ex-boyfriend, said, “I am tempted to see his behavior as dictated by patriarchy, that he was just being a man, it will make it easier to get over him them. But I am afraid if I think of relationships only in terms of gender, I will lose empathy”.
These are tough questions that we carry within ourselves… questions with no easy answers. #MeToo does not just occur in the outing on social media, it is developing constantly in our minds. We are re-evaluating relationships, looking at who to discard fully, who can be redeemed, who to put effort in. As V said, “The weight that we carry is this negotiation of preserving relationships, but also our sense of self”.
Even though #MeToo has been a watershed movement, it is still unravelling as we dig deeper to find just how far patriarchy goes in our lives, dictating the behaviour not only of men, but all of us. There are no answers, but there is a sudden sense of discovery, a sense that there is something tremendously significant to be found — and it is to be found in talking with other women. #MeToo is unspooling, still.
Shireen Azam is a freelance writer and researcher currently based in Goa. She tweets at @shireenazam
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Updated Date: Oct 20, 2019 09:41:30 IST