In 2005, a South African doctor, Sonette Ehlers, unveiled her invention –Rape-aXe –a female condom lined with teeth like projections that would injure the penis upon entry. The condom was meant to be a weapon for women to defend themselves from men, who did not understand the meaning of ‘no’. Despite media coverage, the condom was never sold or marketed. In a man’s world, such inventions should better be crushed.
A vagina lined with teeth that castrates men. It is a fear in men that was first recorded by Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s. But the concept has been a part of legends and folklores in cultures all over the world. In India for instance the stories are quite popular among the Baiga tribe in Madhya Pradesh. According to folklore, the only way to ‘subdue’ a woman with teeth in her vagina is to rape her, knock off her teeth and then marry her and claim her.
From folklore to mythology, and Bollywood to White House (currently occupied by a man who allegedly believes women should be grabbed by the p***y) — we live in an overtly misogynistic world, where men have been given the entitlement of getting away with treating women like a commodity. And this global misogyny has become entrenched in our DNA. Right?
Think again. And, refer to the old Baiga tale I wrote above… can you see the teeth sprouting? Only this time it cannot be subdued with force. It is a revolution and it is called #MeToo.
#MeToo is a movement where women are speaking up about their stories of incidents of sexual harassment in their lives every day. In the short history (10 years to be exact) of hashtag activism, MeToo seems to have emerged as the most successful campaign to have resonated among millions of women all over the world.
Started by an American activist, Tarana Burke in 2006, the movement was resurrected last year in October by actress Alyssa Milano, who used #MeToo on Twitter and encouraged women to speak up about the sexual harassment they face in everyday life. What followed was a barrage of accusations from women in the US and across the world. Actresses Uma Thurman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeniffer Lawrence and Ashley Judd came out with their stories of harassment by Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein. Bloomberg reports that in the past one year, there have been 425 accusations in the US alone, thanks to the #MeToo campaign.
In India, journalists Sandhya Menon (@TheRestlessQuil), Rituparna Chatterjee (@MasalaBai) and writer Mahima Kukreja (@AGirlOfHerWords) created a MeTooIndia hashtag and received hundreds of accounts every day, (from film and media industry initially, which later spread to other sectors as well).
The result: Men, many of them sitting at the helm of success, have had to resign. The message is loud and clear, men can no longer get away with sexual misdemeanour. Staring at cleavage, eve-teasing, feeling up women, cracking bawdy jokes, sending pornographic pictures, browbeating a woman into submission are not acts of machismo. There is a word for it and it is called harassment, which by law is a punishable crime.
Ten years ago, actress Tanushree Dutta was branded ‘unprofessional’ when she put her foot down and refused to perform certain dance steps that would have allowed actor Nana Patekar to paw her. Her refusal was followed by intimidation by goons. She filed complaints with Cine and TV Artists Association (CINTA) and the police, but no action was taken.
Even earlier, a battery of women suffered silently in newsrooms, in dread of their “predatory editor”, in this case erstwhile minister of state for foreign affairs MK Akbar. So what is different now that people are taking notice? Probably, women have had enough and they are no longer scared to let the skeletons roll out of the closets.
The bullying, however, hasn’t stopped there. Akbar’s posse of lawyers threatened one particular journalist, Priya Ramani, with a criminal defamation suit. A year ago, Ramani had written an open letter to Harvey Weinstein’s of the world, without taking any names. After the MeToo movement picked up in India, she admitted on Twitter that it was Akbar that she had written about. Mint (the newspaper she works in) read ‘#iamwithpriya’ in place of Priya Ramani’s regular column, when the news of the SLAPP suit flashed across news channels. It is an unprecedented act that deserves to be praised, especially when it comes from a sector, where sexual harassment redressal has rarely been given any attention.
Times, they are a changing. Authorities seem to have woken up. Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister of Women and Child Welfare has stated there should be zero tolerance for sexual harassment at work. Home Minister Rajnath Singh (despite mocking the MeToo campaign) will lead a group of ministers to strengthen legal and institutional framework to deal and prevent sexual harassment. The National Commission for Women and Delhi Commission for Women have set up email IDs to receive complaints and ensure their quick redressal. In the film industry, CINTAA and the Producers Guild of India will form a special committee and will take steps to ensure redressal and prevention of sexual harassment.
But there are others who need to be heard.
When #MeToo was trending on social media, 36 school girls in Saharsa, Bihar quit school out of fear of eve-teasers. Several other girls from Jharkhand, who were rescued in a trafficking racket, admitted to having been raped and tortured by their employers. One tribal girl who was rescued, died in Ranchi after being tortured by her employer in Delhi. A pin was inserted in her tongue to silence her forever. But she did not have a voice in the first place that could have been silenced.
There are lakhs of women like her, who still suffer in silence. Martha Farell Foundation conducted a quick survey among 291 part-time maids working in Gurgaon, Faridabad and South Delhi. It found that over 29 percent of women domestic workers reported sexual harassment at work. Of this, 20 percent complained to the police but received no outcome and 19 percent remained silent.
Hashtag Activism is yet to touch this section of the society. The #SheToo voice is inaudible but not silent. #MeToo has penetrated rural India and women and is trending in small towns of India. Google’s MeTooRising app that tracks the Google searches for #MeToo all over the world carries a quote from activist-poet Muriel Rukeyser on its opening screen, ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open’.
That is exactly what is happening. As I write, India continues to shine on the map like the Kohinoor diamond. The app lists out names that were unheard of. Today the top Indian cities/ towns where #MeToo is trending are: Mohammadpur Gujar in Haryana, Jatni in Odisha, and Selakui in Uttarakhand.
Rural India is appearing on the #MeToo radar. Women reporters from Khabar Lahariya, a grassroots network of women journalists in small town and rural India have written an open letter compiling their stories of sexual harassment in journalism. Post #MeToo, the unsolicited porn videos, they used to receive regularly have come to a stop.
Critics fear that #MeToo can be misused by many. And it is true. But the movement has made men cautious, they can no longer get away with everyday harassment and blame the woman for being unprofessional or prude.
It is a tempting idea, but women cannot grow teeth in their vagina. The next best thing is to join a movement to speak up about her ordeal and not be afraid to name her perpetrator.