by Apoorva Mandhani
A lot has been written and said about the awakening that #MeToo movement has attempted to bring about over the past couple of weeks in India. While the effect of the movement is still unfolding, with lawsuits being filed by all parties involved, it is my recent reading of Virginia Woolf’s ‘A room of one’s own’ that presented an interesting take on the dynamics that have existed between the two genders, which seems to be responsible for the outright refusal of several men to see any logic in women calling out their harassers on social media platforms.
What Woolf says
Woolf’s high-charged feminist essay rationalizes the need for a woman to have financial independence and intellectual freedom—money and a room of her own. The essay (or rather, the speech) takes us through the journey of her research, and her postulation that women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses for men. However, we have not been just another ordinary pair of looking glasses. We have had, for centuries, the delicious power to reflect the figure of a man at twice his natural size, feeding his confidence and stature by merely existing. This also partly explains the necessity that women often are to men, as well as the uneasiness that men feel when criticized by a person of the opposite gender.
For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished
—Virginia Woolf, 1929.
How the looking glass has evolved in the 21st century
Cut to nearly 90 years later, we are still their looking-glasses. Only this time, we are showing them the ugliness of a large portion of their tribe—the ugliness that has existed for centuries, but was so internalized that we had begun viewing it as an “occupational hazard” rather than the vile stripping of a woman’s dignity by men in power. This time, we are showing them the skewed power dynamics that have always existed under layers of denial and shame.
It also explains the rattling and unnerving effect of the movement on my male friends who haven’t had any allegations leveled against them so far. See, I could have addressed them as “my innocent male friends”, but I’m not taking any chances on this one. Anyway, over the past ten days or so, I have seen men come out in herds to defend unknown men. I have seen them collectively throw dirt on any woman who dares to speak ill of their brethren. I have seen men moaning over the loss of careers of those who chose to step down only after half a dozen women accused them of having crossed boundaries of decent behaviour with them.
Why are innocent men worried about the #MeToo movement?
The key here has to be the image that the mirror is now showing to all these men—the veil has been lifted. Don’t get me wrong, I do not call men ignorant of the prolonged harassment of women over the years. Instead, I accuse them of having turned a blind eye to instances of locker-room talk (that has later materialised in their behaviour) as acceptable forms of social conduct. After all, it is paradoxical that while every single woman I know has faced some form of harassment in her life, no man I have ever known seems to be friends with a harasser.
Then there are men who haven’t stepped forth with an opinion at all. Now these are the “woke” men who have an opinion on everything, but are maintaining radio silence on their stand on the movement. Having spoken to a few such men showed a deeper lack of understanding of the cause. Take for instance, this journalist with decade long experience, who messaged me when the #MeToo fire had just been lit. He told me that he, along with a few of his friends, couldn’t sleep the previous night for the fear of being outed. Bewildered, I asked him if he has ever harassed a woman, to which he said that he hasn’t harassed anybody but is scared of the ones he ghosted in the past. While I do not support ghosting, the mere act does not constitute sexual harassment at workplace—the focus of #MeToo in India.
Clearly, there has been a misunderstanding
The conversation revealed a lack of comprehension of not just what constitutes sexual harassment at workplace, but also the intent of women in publicly naming and shaming their harassers. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that very few men have stepped forth as allies for changing the hostile status quo that currently exists in workplaces around the country. It needs to be understood that the fight here is not against all men, but against those who have no inkling of the concept of consent or those who are well aware of the boundaries but know that violating them would not bring them any harm. It is this understanding that now needs to seep in.
Women are breaking through the glass ceiling, and are finally using their own looking-glasses to only show what has existed for centuries. To the men who do not know what to say or how to become allies, acknowledging the existence and the truth of the image being shown to them has to be the first step.
Apoorva Mandhani is the Assistant Editor at LiveLaw.in
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