By Nilanjana Goswami
TIME magazine has recently come out with its year-end edition which nominates the ‘Person of the Year’. It is a tremendous accolade and great world-leaders, statesmen and pioneering figures in the arts and sciences have been honoured with it in the past.
The Silence Breakers
According to its policy, ‘Person of the Year’ features and profiles a person, group, idea or an object that “for better or for worse… has done the most to influence the events of the year“. However, this year, TIME chose to represent a group collectively called The Silence Breakers. These are people who spoke up about sexual harassment in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and caused a chain reaction with the popularising of the #MeToo movement. This movement resulted in the toppling of a great number of privileged perpetrators from their seats of power. TIME’s editor-in-chief, in the address to the year-end issue, lauded these women for unleashing “one of the highest velocity shifts in our culture since the 1960s”.
Pictured on the cover are actress Ashley Judd, the first person to accuse Weinstein of misconduct and sexual harassment; lobbyist Adama Iwu; along with strawberry picker Isabel Pascual (under a pseudonym). It also includes American pop-star Taylor Swift, whose legal battle with and subsequent victory over a DJ who had molested her was met with great jubilation all over social media. Former Uber employee Susan Fowler is also included, whose calling out of the sexual harassment in her work-place resulted in the ousting of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
The issue also highlights activist Tarana Burke who had launched the #MeToo programme back in the 90s. Also included in the issue was actress Alyssa Milano, who brought it into popular currency. The address commended all of them for “giving voice to open secrets, for moving whisper networks onto social networks, for pushing us all to stop accepting the unacceptable”.
Voicing the voiceless
A quick glance at the cover story shows us that TIME has been extremely diligent and discerning in its choice of nominees. The story features artists, activists, a state senator, a dishwasher, bloggers, entrepreneurs, homemakers, journalists, professors and an entire team from housekeeping who are plaintiffs in a case against one of the most pre-eminent chains of hotels in the world. “Over the course of six weeks, TIME interviewed dozens of people representing at least as many industries, all of whom had summoned the extraordinary personal courage to speak out about sexual harassment at their jobs. They often had eerily similar stories to share” reads the report.
The great fallout from the Weinstein scandal prompted similar organised responses from women and men all across the globe. They spoke about the instances of sexual harassment and rape and psychological cost exacted from them. A flurry of investigations followed, abusers were stripped of power and privilege and swift justice was served. Insofar as TIME’s selection of this event is as an enduring, powerful proponent of social change, it is a silver lining in a year that saw a massive spike in instances of sexual violence against women.
However, TIME’s choice of representatives for this event is avowedly based on victims in America, and many of the accused are prominent figures in the media, society and polity. Similar and worse abuse may be going on right at this moment in a far removed village in India, but it will not have the privilege of a ready stage and an audience.
The problem, therefore, is how to make these faculties of support universal, readily accessible to those outside the represented geopolitical sector. The need of the hour is standardisation in the political and economic fields, of retribution that will support the victim and sorely impact the abuser when found guilty. Former federal prosecutor Mary Shannon Little exclaims: “A real shift will begin when commentators ignore the salacious headlines and probe why the Silence Breakers didn’t or couldn’t speak up before now.”
TIME’s nomination of The Silence Breakers, however, points to the global community sitting up and taking notice of the toxic atmosphere that surrounds women at work and in their homes and can be taken to presage better times in the making. Here’s hoping that this accolade inspires victims of sexual abuse to speak up, condemn and triumph over the oppressors.
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