Onlookers crowded against the walls of the Delhi courtroom for the testimony of Mobashar Jawed Akbar, India’s former junior foreign minister, and the highest-profile man to quit his job after Indian women started sharing their #MeToo stories last year.
Akbar, 68, has denied accusations by more than 10 women of sexual misconduct. Over two hours in court, an antagonistic audience hissed and tittered as he answered questions on the stand.
But Akbar was not the one on trial. Instead, it was was one of his accusers: journalist Priya Ramani, who has been charged with criminal defamation, an offence carrying a maximum two-year jail sentence. Akbar quit his job last year to pursue the defamation charges.
The case, which has its next hearing on 20 May, is emblematic of the challenges facing India’s #MeToo movement, just over six months since a trickle of stories on social media became a wave of accusations against some of the country’s most powerful men.
‘They are coming back and hitting hard’
Many of the women who raised complaints are now facing a backlash that is playing out in courtrooms, on the streets and privately, in workplaces and homes across the country.
“[After last October] all the men were on the back foot and squirming and really uneasy,” says Rituparna Chatterjee, a journalist and activist who is writing a book on #MeToo in India. “And then they laid low. And now they’re coming back, and hitting really hard.
“Priya’s is one in a sea of cases, most of which are under the radar, and the women, you can sense their frustration and anger and hopelessness,” she says. “Some are thinking of taking their cases back, some are getting legal notices, some are having their parents pressure them.”
In recent days, dozens of Indian women have been detained for protesting outside police stations and the country’s supreme court after accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced against India’s chief justice, Ranjan Gogoi. A female staff member, who has asked not to be named, accused him of making unwanted advances, and then seeking retribution against her when he was spurned. Gogoi denies the allegations and says the woman was dismissed following proper procedures for “inappropriate behaviour”.
A panel including three of Gogoi’s colleagues determined there was “no substance” to the woman’s allegations last week after an internal inquiry. The woman says the process was unfair, including because she was denied a lawyer. She has not been allowed to read the report clearing Gogoi of assaulting her. “Supreme court: have some shame,” women chanted the morning after the verdict, as police officers dragged them onto buses.
It is this very disillusionment with institutions of government and the law that led some women to air allegations of sexual misconduct on social media in the first place, says Karuna Nundy, a supreme court lawyer.
“Women said, ‘there are structures, and we’re not going to them, because we don’t expect to get a fair hearing’,” she says. “Therefore, we’re going to come out and accuse you in public.”
But using the internet to call out sexual harassment and assault has been a mixed blessing for some Indian women. It has enabled and encouraged them to finally speak up; but in an arena that has not always provided the legal and moral support they need.
“People were just waiting to see who’s next, with no stake, with a salacious sort of interest in this. Voyeuristic,” Chatterjee says. “Meanwhile there were hundreds of women getting in touch saying, ‘My husband threw acid on my face’, but those cases never moved forward.”
She and other prominent organisers in the movement have tried to connect people to networks of lawyers and mental health professionals. They also established an official Twitter account, @IndiaMeToo, to amplify stories and serve as a clearing house for information. But scrambling to fill the gaps where institutions have failed is exhausting. “It has engulfed my life for six months,” Chatterjee says.
She also feels the burden of counselling women who are trying to report sexual crimes in what is still a conservative country. “A woman will say, ‘I want justice but my parents can’t know’,” she says, recounting a typical conversation.
‘A tax we pay for being women’
Alongside Ramani, less high-profile women who were swept up in the #MeToo wave and named their alleged abusers have also found themselves facing legal threats.
“It was a feeling of comfort in numbers,” says one womanwho called out a well-known executive last year for lewdly propositioning her. “Everyone was coming out and you felt almost like it was a wave of people.
“I thought, yeah, we are going to get justice, things are going to get different. You almost think there is more structure to it than there actually is. But the morning after, you wake up, and you’re hit by the reality of this whole thing: you are one-on-one with the person you’ve called out.”
A month after she made her allegations on Twitter, she received a legal notice threatening to press charges for criminal defamation. A lawyer has been representing her pro bono, and no further threats have been issued, but the episode has had a chilling effect. She asked for her name not to be used in this article.
“I don’t regret coming out,” she says. “The solidarity hasn’t gone away. It’s just that everybody is fighting their battles. There are defamation suits, gag notices, all the women are subject to fear and inhibition. Some women are losing their jobs, some women are getting threats, and there is nothing in place to protect them.”
Many of those who have raised their voices since October say they are aware they are among the country’s most privileged. For poor women on urban fringes or in the countryside, the fear of speaking out is much greater, says Rakhi Sehgal, a labour researcher and activist.
A 2016 survey of garment workers in South India found one in seven reported being raped or having to commit a sexual act by an employer or superior at work.
“For a lot of women in the unorganised sector, violence and harassment in normalised,” Sehgal said. “In one of my interviews, a garment worker told me, ‘It’s the tax we pay for being women on this earth’. They’ve come to terms with it because it’s the only way they can deal with it.”
If the progress of #MeToo in India is rocky, it is following in the footsteps of earlier Indian women’s movements, says Rebecca John, a supreme court lawyer who is representing Ramani in her case.
In 1979, two policemen were acquitted of raping a girl from a tribal community, with judges citing the fact the child was “used to sex” to argue she might have incited the officers. Outrage at the verdict sparked the formation of several major women’s organisations and, eventually, the reform of India’s rape laws.
When Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped for trying to stop a child marriage in 1992, the five men she accused were acquitted. But the decision galvanised a national protest movement and a legal campaign that resulted, years later, in the country’s first guidelines for handling sexual harassment at work.
The precedents are cause for hope, says John. “Even through defeat, women have pushed forward,” she says. “From every dark moment you do get some light at the end of the tunnel, and many women have had to lose before there is public outcry and change in the law and in the way systems operate.”
Chatterjee says she is often asked if the movement has been a success. She says it’s too early to tell. “Suddenly, in the middle of a deeply patriarchal setup, if you throw the #MeToo bomb, it will rattle a lot of people,” she says. “But 50 years from now, who knows?”
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