Has Kashmir’s MeToo lost its way?

© Wande Illustration

The MeToo movement in Kashmir has lost its way, argues Natasha Rather. The movement whose aim was to initiate debate around the rampant sexual abuse prevalent in our times has been reduced to vulgar name-calling and settling of personal scores. A course corrective is needed if the movement is to reach any respectable goals. 

The MeToo Movement gained popularity last year in October when Alyssa Milano, an American activist and actor, through her twitter handle, urged women to share their experiences of sexual violence and abuse. Her call was heard and her tweet became “viral” as over 12 million people responded to the hashtag in less than twelve hours. The movement quickly gained prominence across the world when aggrieved white Hollywood actresses, all-powerful and empowered women, started to come out with their stories of surviving sexual violence at the hands of powerful men in their industry from a time when they were not celebrities yet, were looking for work and were novices in the entertainment industry. They spoke eloquently and powerfully about their experiences; when men in the industry, using their position of power and entitlement, abused and raped them. They spoke of their silences, of well-guarded secrets, of fear and being intimidated, of being coerced into signing agreements to regulate their actions and they spoke of the trauma they had endured. The world stood in shock as not every day you would see powerful and eminent women talk about sexual abuse – their pain and ordeal.

Alyssa Milano's tweet which went viral | Courtesy Twitter 

The story of the original MeToo Movement goes back two decades when in 1997 Tarana Burke, an African American activist and a sexual assault survivor came across a 13-year-old girl who had been sexually abused. She was moved by the story of this child and wanted to do something for survivors like her – particularly for young women in Harlem area of New York (a black majority suburban neighbourhood) who were victims of sexual violence and were compelled to live and deal with their trauma alone because there was no social support. In 2006, Burke organized a formal support group and the movement began as an opportunity for women to share personal stories of abuse and its psychological repercussions on their lives and thus gain empathy with each other. These conversations between women survivors of sexual abuse led to the creation of a community that thrived on mutual listening and mutual understanding and hence the tagline “Me Too”. The movement was not meant to be just a tagline – it aspired to be bigger. The movement was aimed at initiating uncomfortable conversations around sexual violence and build community healing mechanisms, and most importantly, to show survivors that they are not alone.

The MeToo movement, which was actually started by marginalized women in America and whose objective was to render support to underprivileged and disempowered women facing disadvantages not just of being women but of being women of colour from lower social and economic backgrounds, was soon overtaken and overshadowed by white American women especially celebrity stars. This, no doubt, gave power to the movement as it became immensely popular. These white women were powerful celebrities and they attracted an audience from the world over and their voices were heard and respected. These were women who had reached great heights in their careers and had substantial power to influence opinion. They demanded justice and the world listened.

Coming to Kashmir, the MeToo movement, before it turned a year old, finally arrived here with a unique character. Almost everyone proclaimed that this was our moment. But was it, really? A few non-Kashmiri women accusing Kashmiri men of being their perpetrators can’t really be described as Kashmir’s MeToo. No doubt their stories of abuse and harassment need to be heard and respected, but a better start for the movement would have been if we Kashmiri women, from all backgrounds and strata of society, had started talking about our experiences. The few aggrieved Kashmiri women who later chose to speak up and break their silence came from positions of relative ‘privilege and power’ and accused men mostly from the journalist fraternity as being their aggressors. However what transpired afterwards has been unfortunate and cannot be described as #MeToo. The whole exercise turned into #YouVsMe and #YouTryToDestroyMeIWillRuinYou.

Let’s face it now than later.

In a recent interview, the founder of the movement Tarana Burke complained of being distressed about what the world has made of this movement. She notes that the movement has “lost its way”. Kashmir is a perfect example of MeToo losing its way. The MeToo movement is not about instigating a gender war; it is not about making mere accusations and of sitting judge on people’s characters and their morals. It is certainly not about raking the worst of people’s past.

This movement is an opportunity to have constructive, meaningful and sensitizing discussions on what constitutes sexual violence and abuse and where to draw the line between casual flirting and harassment. It is about understanding consent and stressing that NO means NO. This is an occasion to develop a culture of listening to and believing the survivors, sharing our own stories, providing collective support to deal with the trauma. Women need to be encouraged to speak, but not necessarily at book reading sessions or on Facebook or Twitter. It is about speaking up in whichever manner that you are comfortable with, and shedding the burden of silence. It is alright to choose to be anonymous and to not name your aggressor publicly. We need to understand and respect that it is the survivor’s story and they decide the best way to tell it.

The movement has shown the need for Kashmiris to come together as a community, regardless of what gender we identify ourselves with and deconstruct the inherent sexism and patriarchy that exists in our society and affects the lives of people along the gender continuum in different ways. It is an occasion to understand how power is abused and accept the reality that women who are in apparently advantaged social, economic and political positions also face sexual abuse and harassment. There are hundreds of women who continue to be vulnerable, with their perpetrators in close proximity, and therefore this is an opportunity to understand why women remain silent, how we can disempower the perpetrators and ensure justice for the victims. There is a pressing need to break the silence, but certainly not through mud-slinging and name-calling.

Clearly, this has not happened in Kashmir.

The MeToo in Kashmir is not an inclusive movement. So far, the movement has gone about naming and shaming people, and maybe rightly so but the speculations and counter naming and shaming defeat the purpose. I believe the victims and I believe that it takes a tremendous amount of courage to speak up. But the MeToo movement should not become a place to settle personal scores and indulge in a vendetta. There are thousands of Kashmiri women out there who are not privileged, resourceful and do not speak English like many of us. They come from less advantaged social and economic backgrounds who are not taught to question their sufferings. They do not have access to resources and recourse mechanisms. They probably lack the support system that many of you reading this might find in your progressive friends, family and colleagues. The current discourse around MeToo in Kashmir gives no semblance of it being encouraging for other less privileged women to become part of this movement because MeToo in Kashmir has become about spitefulness and vengeance. Voices of all other women have thus been rendered irrelevant.

In fact, all of us who have followed the so-called MeToo Movement in Kashmir are guilty of having indulged in the voyeuristic delight of peeping into other people’s bedrooms, of watching people take off each other’s covers. We have indulged in this sadistic pleasure, smirked and cringed all at the same time at having been made privy to individual sexual preferences and habits. We must call out sexual misconduct, definitely. But in this time and age, revenge is a screenshot away. Every accused person in Kashmir’s #MeToo has a #YouToo to retort with. This is clearly not what this movement is and should be. If you have wronged a woman, own it up. If you haven’t, shaming a woman won’t prove you innocent. A simple rule is that two wrongs don’t make a right. Women too need to understand definitions of sexual violence, abuse and harassment for the purpose of their own protection and for responding responsibly.  

Lastly, there are hundreds of men out there who misuse their privilege and position of relative power with respect to the women they violate or abuse in professional, domestic and other spaces and we need to talk about that. Accountability of actions is important and simply apologising for putting a woman through trauma and indignity is not enough. Men need to understand that their apologising does not mean they shun responsibility for corrective action.

There are women who live in trauma and they need our support to speak up and fight. We must create an enabling environment for them to come out but if they are at a risk of their characters being assassinated, there is a slim chance that they will. Let us not be complacent in promoting silence. This can be our movement of emancipation and empowerment as opposed to taking jibes at each other. Let us remember that this movement is much bigger than our individual (mostly insignificant) egos. ♦

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