#MeToo Headlines Are Here To Stay: It’s Not Just A ‘Women’s Issue’

#MeToo is an economic matter, an internal security issue, a matter of law enforcement...

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Let’s not begrudge the column space and airtime #MeToo is hogging.
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How much #MeToo is too much #MeToo?

While the naysayers are going all out and calling the #MeToo movement everything from “irrelevant” to “political conspiracy”, even some allies are beginning to feel that the movement has been getting undue media attention.

Just two weeks of collective catharsis, and already resentment is beginning to brew for ignoring other, more important, issues of national interest.

This headline, however, needs to stay — irrespective of the ministerial resignations or the high-profile court hearings or the not-so-famous testimonies.

The simple reason is, #MeToo is about more than a half a billion citizens of this country. It is also far bigger than what a single ministry, the one headed by Maneka Gandhi, is equipped to deal with.

#MeToo is an economic matter. It is an internal security issue. It is also a matter of law enforcement. #MeToo is a crucible to check what our principles of democracy are worth.

#MeToo and the Economy

It is no secret that women’s labour force participation in India is seeing an alarming decline. From 34.1 percent in 1999-00 to 27.2 percent in 2011-12, and from 26.8 percent in 2008 to 24.7 percent in 2017, as per the World Bank data, the workforce participation rates tell a dismal story. What does not get highlighted often is the fact that women are not opposed to the idea of being gainfully employed within the safety of their homes.

The findings of an ILO trends document for India (2014) stated the following:

Of the total women usually engaged in domestic duties, 34 percent in rural areas and about 28 percent in urban areas reported their willingness to accept work and tailoring was the most preferred work in both rural and urban areas. Among the women who were willing to accept work at their household premises, about 95 percent in both rural and urban areas preferred work on regular basis.
ILO, United Nations

It is not difficult to infer that women want to work as long as they are assured of a safe and enabling environment. For most women, home is that space, because they have been forced indoors due to the predatory behaviour of men out on the streets, in schools, at colleges, and at workplaces.

Women at Work, in History

Women’s participation in the labour force is not merely a fruit of industrialisation begotten modernity. The Harappan ‘Dancing Girl’ is a woman at work. The charge that #MeToo is a concern only for the urban, privileged women is a red herring.

The illustrated manuscripts from the Malwa Sultanate period (1392–1562), for example, showed women engaged in a variety of activities ranging from field-work to textile industry. Illustrations from Miftah-ul-Fuzala can be referred for the same.

In fact, Kautilya’s Arthashastra is a definitive record of women’s involvement in spinning and weaving. 

Kautilya’s seminal text talks about how the State employed women in the textile industry. Women’s traditional work in textiles clearly surpassed family needs.

As per 14th century accounts of Abdul Malik Isami — a historian in the Bahmani sultanate — women of all castes used to spin. How this economic activity became a domain of men, is not very clear.

Various historical and literary accounts suggest that women were also employed in professions like midwifery and inn-keeping, in addition to the usual suspects such as entertainment and acrobatics. Women’s marginalisation in the workforce over centuries would make for an interesting read, but that’s for another time. What is relevant now is the fact that women do not feel safe at their workplaces, ergo #MeToo.

Discrimination Against Women

Sexual harassment at the workplace is one of the crudest forms of gender discrimination. Women are often harassed to establish male dominance at the workplace. To put them in their place.

The Hooter (strip-club) lunch meetings in the US and the cruise parties or Bangkok work trips in India, are all part of this testosterone-driven work culture where women do not belong. Where men live and breathe entitlement. Where women are forced to take a backseat, or become collaborators.

While an India-centric study is still not available, ‘The Economic and Career Effects of Sexual Harassment on Working Women’ by Heather McLaughlin, Christopher Uggen and Amy Blackstone, sheds light on the impact of sexual harassment on women workers.

This 2017 study on the American working women found that the majority of sexual harassment victims left their companies within two years. Most of them resumed working in entirely new industries.

It is therefore fair to assume that things aren’t that different in India in this regard.

However, because of the rigidity of disciplines in India, industry switchovers may not be that easy, forcing women to call it a day in their careers. Stealing the opportunity to work from women by subjecting them to sexual harassment, is discrimination. This is in violation of the fundamental right to equality that the Constitution of India grants women.

Law and Order

Despite mandated by the POSH Act 2013, most companies do not have the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to look into the cases of sexual harassment. Under the POSH, the employer is also supposed to prepare “an annual report with details on the number of cases filed and their disposal and submit the same to the District Officer”.

It is difficult to find a company that does the needful. It is even more difficult to find a District Officer that has put a system in place to receive and assess these annual reports. The #MeToo movement is both an outcome and a symbol of these systemic failures.

Those who insist on “due process” before even naming the perpetrators, need to take note of this breakdown and the resultant despair. #MeToo is a law and order question.

When half of India’s population does not feel safe, it is also an internal security matter. The moment legislators and pontificators label sexual harassment at the workplace as a women’s issue, it is a deliberate act to undermine the gravity of the situation.

The Headlines Must Stay

‘Trial by media’ is an excess. ‘Silencing by media’ is an abdication of responsibility. While on one hand, the government wants to survey the domestic work of women and make it a part of the economic growth story, is it acceptable to relegate #MeToo to a ‘women’s only’ issue, that in turn is only relevant to a handful of the urban, privileged ones? If more Indian women worked, balancing the workforce, the GDP would rise by 27 percent, as per the latest IMF estimates.

But more importantly, it’s not just about money, honey. Harassment-free workplaces are integral to a democracy.

Many men have spoken out in support of their wives, family members, friends, and colleagues. More men are needed to say that it is a matter that concerns all the citizens of this country.

2013 marked a new era in the history of the Indian women’s rights movement. The country-wide agitations and a relentless media coverage of the Delhi gang-rape case of December 2012, jolted the State to action.

While little academic research has happened in India to clearly establish the role of the press, Abigail C Saguy established in her book ‘What Is Sexual Harassment?’ that American reporting on the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas case hearings, arguably led to stronger sexual harassment laws.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 allowed harassment and discrimination complainants for the first time the right to a jury trial in federal court along with the right to collect compensatory and punitive damages.

Let’s not, therefore, begrudge the column space and airtime #MeToo is hogging. Many more summits need to be scaled: the headlines must stay.

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