This appeared in CNBC TV 18 here
If you look back at one theme that is recurrent across 2018 in India – it has been rights. Be it the Supreme Court striking down Section 377 that impinged on the rights of LGBTQ citizens; or the Triple Talaq Bill that restored rights to Muslim wives who were abandoned by their husbands after the uttering of Talaq thrice; be it privacy, now declared a fundamental right; or the right to enter the Sabrimala – rights – especially gender rights – were at the forefront of the public discourse. And nowhere was it seen more than in the #Metoo movement that hit India, and permeated across class, age, and gender – to be the greatest assertion of rights since women got the right to vote. But, taking it forward from a movement to a system is the key for ensuring that rights are institutionalised and do not depend on naming and shaming on social media.
A 100 years ago, in 1918 after the end of the First World War women in the West, over the age of 30, got the right to vote, for the first time ever. When women fought for this right, they were the objects of derision amongst their peers, and amongst men. Men who ran parliament and government, managed to block this bid until the women finally wore them down. It was hoped that women could vote for issues that concerned them. And, it was the first step towards being accepted as equal individuals in society. Women in India had the equal right to vote from the first general election in 1951-52. However, despite being equal in the eyes of the law, patriarchal systems across communities, and societies, ensured that most of these rights were never exercised. And, while there have been women who have made it in every sector, there is an underlying issue of patriarchy, and privilege, that many women – even those who had made it – have had to face. All that came tumbling out with #MeToo.
It was but appropriate, a hundred years after the suffragette movement gained its first victories, women across the India, across socio economic groupings, came out to speak about the quiet humiliation they had to suffer, on a daily basis, at the hands of men in the position of power and privilege who used both to molest the women. As the #metoo movement went viral in India, memories came tumbling out, as did stories.
And, it put sexual harassment on the front pages, and part of popular discourse. Men began to understand that cat calls, and wolf whistles are not ok, anymore than sending women colleagues porn clips; they understood that copping a feel was not a perk of the job; and sex could not be demanded for handing out contracts or making payments. Me too spread from the cities to the smaller towns, from the women in corporate offices, to the women in the textile sector – there were stories from all over, that shook India and revealed the extent of the issue.
Now, as 2019 begins, and the #Metoo movement is tapering off, there has to be the next level. There has be a systemic way of ensuring that harassment is minimised. And, also the systemic way of ensuring culpability and punishment. Right now, #MeToo is about naming and shaming. But, there has to be more. Those who abuse their power, and subject women to their unwanted advances and attentions have to be brought to book. But, the question here, and it is an important one is what the extent of punishment for the men for breaching consent And, how will it be decided.
Apart from those accused of more serious charges like physical molestation, or rape – the remaining #MeToo cases do not fall under the purview of criminal law. Most are not breaches under civil law. How do the women get restitution? How are the offenders punished? And how long is the duration of the punishment? At this point of time, in the cases that have come to light in India, some men have had a suspension of their livelihood till further notice. How long is that suspension? It cannot be for ever, that is for sure, but surely there is a midway between never and ever.
As we approach the last two years of the first two decades of the 21st century, we must appreciate that it is only when justice is done, and seen to be done, that rights are upheld. That process has to be transparent; the innocent have to be protected; and the guilty punished. Today what we have are the accusers and the accused. The system has to ensure closure for each of these cases, to see justice being done. And, that is the first step for ensuring the success of women’s rights 2.0