Friday, October 26, 2018

Repairing what's broken

Respect is hard. I don't just mean that it is hard to win the respect of others, or to hold onto your self respect. It is also hard to lose respect for people you've held in high esteem.

To see the names of men you looked upto, whose face, voice, writing were familiar, and then to hear stories of sexual harassment. Trousers dropped, unwanted touching, hints to female colleagues that they owed sexual favours. At such time, your instinct might be either to recoil or to disbelieve. To say that you never want anything to do with these men, or to treat women with suspicion: What (or who) is driving these MeToo stories?

I think it is time to reverse the question: What's driving men to denial? Why do they respond with defamation lawsuits instead of apologies?

The answer is loss of respect. Men may lose jobs in a few cases. But even if they continue their work, once named as sexual harassers, they may not command unstinting respect. The silence of women is a curtain that shields men from shame and mistrust. The accused men could pretend that they treated all women with respect, until some women dropped the curtain.

A society where women are not safe at work, on the street, at home, is not a healthy one. It needs healing. So, the question is: how are we going to heal ourselves?

First and foremost, we must stop investing in silence. Silence protects wrongdoers, be they corrupt politicians or sexual harassers. It allows them to go on doing what they do, emboldens them to do worse. Silence makes victims feel isolated. Silence ensures that justice is never done. It disables freedom and hobbles democracy.

I've learnt several things through watching the MeToo movement unfold. I saw that women who work in media, both news and entertainment, are among the first to speak up because they know how and where to tell stories. They belong to solidarity networks and associations. Some of these associations are female-only, which helps if the broader professional association refuses to act on their complaints.

81 percent of India works in the informal sector. Most women can't even prove that they were ever employed, much less that they were harassed or assaulted by a particular supervisor. Women who work in garment factories have told reporters that they are not safe; there are no committees even when there is a regular workplace. Construction workers, agricultural workers, mine and quarry workers would have said MeToo if they could. So, the second urgent step is to set up formal associations for each sector and ensure that the leadership is 50 percent women.

I've also learnt that people can be predatory whilst being fine writers or ethical journalists or fine musicians. When we re-evaluate our opinion of a man, we can collectively pressure him into fixing his behaviour, making amends. We don't have to pretend that his work is rubbish in order to do this.

But how to we get men to behave? Well, for starters, we could handle them a bit like we've handled girls for centuries. By frowning on their attempts to cross the lines of propriety, by pulling them aside and whispering that everyone is watching. By saying that if they go on like this, nobody will ever want to hire them or even marry them. By calling upon them to preserve their own self respect, because if they don't, others can't treat them with respect either.


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