If you look back at one theme that was recurrent across India in 2018, 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 of Muslim wives who were abandoned by their husbands after uttering of the word Talaq thrice or privacy, that was declared a fundamental right or the right to enter the Sabrimala temple.
But the greatest assertion of rights was the #Metoo movement that hit India and permeated across class, age, and gender. 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.
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. 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. #MeToo 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 that 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 there has to be a systematic 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 is what should be the extent of punishment for the men 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 forever, 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, the rights are upheld. That process has to be transparent; the innocent has to be protected; and the guilty has to be 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.
First Published: IST