#MeToo Echoes in the Indian Women’s Rights Movement

Bhanwari Devi. Wikimedia.

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The Indian version of the #MeToo movement had its humble origins in Bhateri, a small village in the state of Rajasthan. In 1992, Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped by higher-caste landlords for attempting to prevent a child marriage. This was a watershed moment in the history of the women’s rights movement in India, a movement that ultimately led to the enactment of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

Of the Kumhar (potter) caste, Bhanwari Devi was a saathin (friend), a grassroots social worker of the Women’s Development Project (WDP). Her job was to identify social and developmental issues, and act as a bridge between the community and the government. Bhateri was dominated by the Gurjar community of milkmen, positioned higher in the caste hierarchy than Bhanwari’s kumhar caste. In 1992, the government decided to launch a campaign against child marriages, and Bhanwari was tasked with preventing these marriages by counselling members of the community – who blatantly ignored the efforts. Meanwhile, Ram Karan Gurjar, a local villager had planned to marry off his one-year old daughter. Bhanwari tried to persuade the family of the potential severity of the issue (sexual health concerns) and alerted the local administration, which managed to stop the ceremony on the day of Akha Teej, a popular festival considered auspicious for solemnising marriages and infamous for the ancient evil of child marriages that went unabated during this season. Sadly, the ceremony did take place the very next day. What followed was a social and economic boycott of Bhanwari’s family by the villagers. On the fateful day of September 22, 1992, she and her husband were attacked by five men, who raped her and left her husband unconscious. During the trial, the sixth judge ruled that the accused were not guilty. 15 years later, with two accused already dead, the High Court of Rajasthan held a single hearing. Bhanwari’s case changed the narrative around women’s rights in India. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by women’s organisations in the Supreme Court of India under a collective called Vishaka, resulting in the Vishaka guidelines, eventually superseded by an Act of Parliament.

Since October 2017, thousands of women around the world have been taking social media by storm with the #MeToo hashtag, following the sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein when actresses Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan decided to speak up. Spanning over three decades, this harassment epidemic involves hundreds of aspiring women hoping to get a toehold in the industry. A troubling fact about this issue is that most never speak up, or limit it to confiding in a co-worker due to fear of retaliation. In some of these cases, the women quietly received pay-outs upwards of millions of dollars. Legitimacy of the abuse was even denied in the case of McGowan, whose Twitter account was temporarily suspended in early October, after she wrote about her encounters with Weinstein. The biggest obstacle in the fight against unpunished sexual harassment is not the scale of the issue, but the fact that the response to sexual allegations tends to be to demand action from high-level leaders in society or from legislators and policymakers, instead of from affected women themselves, their families, colleagues, and the community at large.

In India, lists of sexual predators and harrowing tales of rampant sexism were also circulated via social media for a few days. Predictably, the movement died its natural death before gaining any real traction. As a law enforcement officer in India, I am repeatedly told that it is our responsibility to safeguard these women from the predators lurking everywhere. It certainly is our duty. But the reality is that law alone cannot transform a society. The most noteworthy contribution of the #MeToo movement was that, for the first time ever, there was a global consensus over the fact that sexual harassment is not a law and order issue alone, but has deeper cultural undertones. It also acknowledged that it is not an isolated issue, but an everyday occurrence. Values must start at home. It takes a community-owned response to turn the tide favourably towards the numerous, voiceless women. In attempting to put this into practice, one question stands out: How can humankind cultivate a collective social responsibility by not trying to cover up abuse or avoiding it by sophisticated bypasses?

Society must rise above the typically narrow popular response that follows this pattern – harassment, maligning, and slut-shaming – when a woman decides to speak up. Sexual harassment has been an accepted norm in the workplace for far too long that any such experience is seen as an isolated incident, rather than an epidemic that needs to be addressed immediately and holistically. The onus of turning around the toxic work environment for the better is on all women and men – a collective social responsibility. It’s time for a cultural revolution to combat this issue and to ensure effective implementation of the legal provisions to instil confidence among victims. TIME magazine hailed the anti-harassment movement by naming “The Silence Breakers” on its cover after millions shared their personal tales of sexual assault. The #MeToo movement is a global cry for justice. Advocates of this cause have a responsibility to take it from the high offices to mundane workplaces across the sectors.

When the victims name it, shame it, and call it out, let us not shut it up.

About the Author

Rema Rajeshwari is an Indian Police Service officer currently serving as the District Police Chief in the State of Telangana in India. A Yale World Fellow from the cohort of 2017, her areas of interest are global security, counter-terrorist financing, and social innovation for effective law enforcement. She blogs on security and law enforcement issues.

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