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India's #MeToo moment

Public outrage over sexual harassment must bring long overdue social change

| India
Many more steps to go. Female Hindu devotees protest the Supreme Court ruling against the Sabarimala temple's ban on some female worshipers.   © Reuters

I live in a country where a government minister has been forced to resign in the face of allegations of sexual harassment by 19 women. Meanwhile, women of menstruating age are being physically assaulted to stop their entry into a temple that men consider off-limits for females.

One step forward. Many, many more to go.

The news on Oct. 17 that M.J. Akbar, India's junior foreign minister and a former top journalist had resigned is a huge moment in India's #MeToo movement.

Practically every woman I know will have a story of being groped, and in many cases of being far more seriously assaulted, as the recent outpouring of horror stories detailing sexual harassment across industries has shown.

We experience it fairly early in life. Already as teenagers, for example walking on the street or browsing in a store or traveling on a bus. It doesn't matter where. Such behavior is practically the culture in India. You're there, so a man can just reach out and grab whichever body part he's in the mood for. It doesn't matter how educated or wealthy he is. While not all Indian men behave like this, the male sense of entitlement is deeply ingrained.

India has a horrific record of sexual violence against women, including young girls. In 2016, the latest government data available, nearly 39,000 cases of rape were registered, apart from close to 85,000 cases of assault on women. But experts agree that even these numbers are vastly under-reported.

India strengthened its rape laws and set up fast-track courts after the brutal rape and murder of a 19-year-old girl on a bus in Delhi in 2012. In April, in response to the furor over the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl, the government introduced death penalty for those who rape children under the age of 12.

In 2013 a law to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace was introduced. But employers seem to vary as to how strongly they enforce it.

That's why the fact that we are finally seeing a public outcry and the start of a real reckoning is a big deal for women across the board, and not just for those who were allegedly pawed, abused or intimidated by Akbar. Akbar has denied all accusations, which date back to the time of his previous career as a journalist, and has filed a defamation suit against one of his accusers.

India's #MeToo movement had a sputtering start a year ago when a 24-year-old law student published a list on Facebook accusing more than 50 Indian academics of sexual harassment.

It gathered steam in September after Tanushree Dutta, a young Bollywood actress, accused Nana Patekar, a 67-year-old actor and film maker and a star of the industry, of behaving inappropriately on the sets of a movie they shot in 2008. Patekar has reportedly sent a legal notice to Dutta denying the allegations and demanding an apology.

Subsequently, several women have come forward to accuse men in media, entertainment, politics and art of a range of offences including sexual harassment and even rape. Some of those men have been fired from their jobs or put on leave while companies investigate the complaints.

We can hope that these big-city cases will start to influence women in small town and rural India to speak up, where sexual harassment is an even bigger taboo.

While it is welcome that some men are finally being held accountable, it is mind boggling that at the same time we are seeing a live example of India's deep-rooted patriarchy in southern Indian Kerala state's Sabarimala temple. A centuries-old holy site, it has historically banned women of menstrual age from entering the temple. Reason: the god worshipped at the shrine is celibate and menstruating women are impure and a distraction. In September, India's top court ruled the ban as an infringement on the rights of women worshippers.

The temple opened its door on Oct. 17 for the first time since the ruling but priests and worshippers ignored the court and declined to let impure women into their hallowed sanctums.

One newspaper photograph showed a group of sari-clad women approaching a car headed to Sabrimala temple to check if any of the travelers in it were women of menstrual age. It drove me nuts. I can't decide who is worse: predatory and misogynistic men, or the women who assist them and help enforce the patriarchy.

I don't know when as a society we'll reach a point where everyone (and not just men) views women as equal human beings who deserve equal rights. But at least the high-profile naming and shaming cases are having a positive effect.

For one, men who indulge in such behavior may pause and think twice before they grope again. Not because they've seen the error of their ways overnight. But out of fear of humiliation and the law.

The other, and more important, impact is that other women (and men) have been emboldened to come forward and share their stories. My social media feed, whether on Twitter or Facebook, is witness to it.

This is crucial because only when we start talking about the muck, can anything be done to clean it up and prevent future cases.

However, we are barely scratching the surface. An acquaintance of mine left a plum job at a big advertising agency within months because her boss made her life hell after she refused to sleep with him. She declined to approach the company's human resources department, even though the man had a reputation for such behavior, because she did not want to be labeled as a troublemaker and endanger her career. I'm waiting for the day when such women can also tell their stories - or even raise confidential complaints - without fear of repercussions.

Like Suparna Sharma, resident editor in Delhi of Asian Age newspaper and one of the 19 women who accused Akbar of sexual offences said, "I just wanted to scream out that name and say this asshole has done this to so many girls for so many years." And she did.

Megha Bahree is a freelance journalist in Delhi. She writes about business in the subcontinent.

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