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“Like most Indian women, I am not safe,” Indian author Meghna Pant wrote on Facebook Monday. “I cannot walk where I want. I cannot wear what I want. Not unless I’m ‘asking for it’… #MeToo.”
Pant is one of many Indian women flooding social media with their stories of sexual harassment and assault, just as women in the United States and around the globe do the same.
About a week after dozens of women came forward to make sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the owner of a popular bar in Pune, India, called High Spirits was also accused of sexual harassment.
As with Weinstein, an Indian blogger said a culture of silence and inaction among men with power kept the behavior from being brought to light.
Other recent high-profile cases in India include rape charges against a former magazine editor, accusations of sexual harassment against a former judge for the Supreme Court of India, and the conviction of rape for a prominent Indian guru.
In India — where a woman is raped every 20 minutes — sexual harassment and assault has become an ongoing national conversation. 2017 was brought in with reports of mass molestation at New Year’s Eve celebrations in Bangalore, and there’s a popular word, “eve-teasing,” to describe public sexual harassment, though many women find that term problematic.
But as Indian human rights lawyer Ria Singh Sawhney wrote on Facebook Monday, “the outpouring of responses reaffirms the fact that rape and abuse is not an ‘Indian’ thing, or a class thing, or a thing that happens to friends of Harvey [sic] Weinstein … Abuse and its various shades happens to all of us.”
And as in the U.S., Indian women have increasingly told their stories publicly, in an effort to show the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault. In 2012, the brutal gang rape of 23-year-old medical student Jyoti Singh, who was beaten and gang raped while returning home from a movie in New Delhi with a male friend, spurred mass protests of violence against women.
Singh, who later died from internal injuries, was dubbed “Nirbhaya” or the “fearless one.”
This week, legions of Indian women continued to tell their stories online. “Me too. Not just once or twice, not just years ago, not just by strangers. Not just without the knowledge of so called ‘loved ones,’” Simona Terron, who is based in Mumbai, wrote on Facebook. “Don’t worry if you’re reading this, you know you’re safe from being outed publicly because ‘ghar ki baat; ghar mein rehni chahiye’ yes?”
The Hindi phrase means: “What happens at home, stays in the home,” meaning women are expected to keep incidents that happen at home as private matters.
Other women passed around an image from the mythical love story of the Hindu god Krishna and the milkmaid Radha, a story in which Krishna’s harassment of nude bathing milkmaids is a central detail. In the photoshopped image, the milkmaids say “#MeToo” as a seemingly lecherous Krishna looks on.
— Neha Dixit (@nehadixit123) October 17, 2017
— Neha Dixit (@nehadixit123) October 17, 2017
Shubha Sharma, an Indian journalist, wrote online that “Saying #MeToo is like stating the obvious, really. I experienced my first horror on the street at age 12… It’s come in different forms since.”
A 2007 government study, the most recent of its kind, found that more than half of children in India face sexual abuse of some kind, and that most do not report it.
Harini Calamur, a content strategist based in Mumbai, posted a similar story from childhood. “The first time, I was 8-9 (or 7). And, the postman, caught me near the lift. Pinched non-existent breasts. I hadn’t yet hit puberty,” she wrote on Facebook. “Not everyone has to go thro[ugh] a ‘Nirbhaya’-like case for it to be called trauma.”
Jasmeen Patheja, who since 2003 has run Blank Noise, a community project to fight street harassment, told the NewsHour that the #MeToo hashtag was powerful because it showed that women were no longer going to be silent. “It symbolizes the shift that we’re no longer willing to sit in silence and shame and denial,” she said. “It’s created a space to listen in, share, heal.”
Blank Noise is running a project called “I Never Ask For It” in which women submit their narratives along with a garment of clothing they remember wearing when they were harassed, as a visual call to “reject blame,” Patheja said.
Why Loiter, a movement that asserts women’s right to loiter — to safely be outside — wrote on Facebook that people were finally acknowledging the dangers of public spaces for women. (For years, Indian women have had separate train compartments from men). But it said that not enough was being said about the “dangers of the private.”
In its research, Why Loiter also wrote, it had found that nearly every single woman had a story of sexual misconduct.
Some placed the blame in part on pop culture messaging, and specifically Bollywood’s “no-means-yes” message in its films. A recent Huffington Post India piece wrote that “Judwaa 2,” the latest action-comedy Bollywood film to hit theaters, “like a zillion Hindi films before it… establish[es] that this butt-grabber, sexual harasser is a man women will eventually fall in love with, because they actually secretly consider being chased and grabbed as a rite of passage to fall in love.”
Many other women asked institutions and men to do better. “I’d love to see a counter trend of men posting ‘I’m sorry and I’ll do better,’” Rega Jha, Buzzfeed India’s editor, wrote on Twitter. “This one’s on you dudes.”
By Tuesday, the Kolkata Police had posted that they were taking steps to respond to the flood of #MeToo responses they’d seen. “We hear every single one of you,” the police force wrote on Facebook. “We are here to take your complaints every time you want to report a case of sexual harassment … We are asking you to be not afraid.”
The force also said it understood the mindset of boys was key to stopping sexual harassment, and that it had launched a project called “Dear Boys” in local schools to teach teen boys how to respect women.
Many women welcomed the post, thanking the force and saying they hoped it followed through. Meghna Pant told the NewsHour it was important that police were “acknowledging women’s experiences instead of undermining them” and also addressing male behavior from a young age.
But other women said the effort was too little too late, and accused the police of having bungled the 2012 gang rape case in Kolkata of Suzette Jordan, who went on to become an anti-rape activist before dying of an illness in 2015.
“Miss you my idol, my friend, my fallen warrior,” Jordan’s friend wrote on Facebook Wednesday. “I know how much you’d be supporting this [#MeToo] campaign if you were alive <3.”
WATCH: Widespread allegations suggest Weinstein was long protected by ‘culture of complicity’
Elizabeth Flock is an independent journalist who reports on justice and gender. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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