Dear Gen Now

Indian Express - 16 October, 2018

Setting up #MeToo as an all-or-nothing issue will make us ignore the considerable gains already made.

My reply is that setting this up as an “all or nothing” issue will make us not notice the considerable gains that have already been made or the never-before foundation we now have that we can build on.

Here is the sad truth. If you randomly pick any Indian woman who has stepped out of her home into the wider world of work, be it four or 40 years ago, there is a good chance that she will have a story of experiencing gender-based harassment in the workplace. Of being at the receiving end of behaviour from men in positions of power or co-workers, which made her life miserable. It breaks my heart (though it doesn’t shock my mind) that even so many decades after my generation entered the workplace, the situation remains pretty much the same. Now #MeToo has appeared on the scene. “What does your generation think of this”, a lot of you have asked me.

When I say “thank God for the courageous women who have put themselves at risk and ‘come out’ to make the world better for all of us”, many of you respond with frustration and despair: “But what’s the point? It will just lose steam, fade away and things will be back to usual; and the really powerful men will never be named.”

My reply is that setting this up as an “all or nothing” issue will make us not notice the considerable gains that have already been made or the never-before foundation we now have that we can build on. Remember what they say about money? That the first billion takes a long time to come but the next billion comes in a fraction of that time. I guess it takes the hindsight of being so much older than you to even see the inflection point that #MeToo is, and I hope you will see it when I tell you the story of my generation in a minute.

What gains? The legitimacy of the #MeToo movement is here to stay. I haven’t seen a furious public backlash against it as may have been expected given our male-dominated workplaces. I also believe that with this new social media weapon that anyone can access, the age-old workplace tactics of conspiracies of silence or other ways of intimidating and shutting up those who speak up will not work as easily as earlier.

Yes, the intensity of the movement, like all movements, will have its peaks and troughs but the “cut through” nature of the new weapon to fight harassment by publicly calling out people who sexually harass is here to stay. No more struggling to get the office officialdom to take note, leave alone act; no more running around the police and courts with huge time and money costs; and no more “each to her own” isolation or having to hunt for other victims who are willing to come forward.

Will it ever get to the really powerful men? The fact that it could get to them is the power of this weapon. Will action against powerful men actually happen? We have seen from experience in America and here (though it’s early days for us) that action has happened in some cases while others have managed to get away, though with severely dented reputations. Yes, some people may care about their own or other people’s dented reputations and some may not. But nothing we do can make this world perfect. It can only make our situations better; and saying not having it all is having nothing at all, isn’t right or sensible.

The biggest permanent gain is that #MeToo brings about a dramatic change in the attitude with which we women will approach sexual or any gender-based harassment henceforth. The shift is from “it’s my fault (that such a thing happened to me)” to “it’s my right (to not have such things happen to me)”.

My class of 150 at business school had around eight women. Many big reputed companies would come on campus and scarcely bother to hide their policy of not wanting to hire women, and interviews with women candidates often bordered on the frivolous. I remember an early job interview with a not very well known company where the all-male interviewer panel watched in amusement as one of them said “Oh so you write and do crosswords? Let’s see how good you are. What is a four-letter word for intercourse ending in ‘k’?” My sense of self-preservation kicked in and I scrambled in my head and came up with “talk”. They laughed and I was relieved. Please note, Gen Now readers, that it did not occur to me to say “What a ridiculous/offensive/ awful/double entendre question to ask, how dare you”, or report it anywhere. I eventually did not take that job, not because of how they behaved, but because instead of the advertised role, they offered me a more “womanly” one since they were an engineering company and didn’t want to take chances. It isn’t that I was docile by nature. Far from it. But why didn’t I raise the decibel level of protest then and in several other more mortifying incidents over the years? Because I didn’t believe that I had the right to not be treated this way.

I was told repeatedly, and I believed it too, that women like me were the infiltrators trying to force our way into the men’s world, and “bad things” were bound to happen to women who “broke the rules” and “lived dangerously”. As a Chilean woman of my generation once told me at a conference, “These (how we get treated sometimes) are taxes that we have to pay for stepping out of our homes”. The mantra was simple. Take care of yourself, don’t put yourself in harm’s way, dress conservatively, change jobs or make career sacrifices to avoid people when you get signals that are uncomfortable, and above all don’t speak about it because everyone will say that it was probably your fault — not necessarily because you did something to bring it on but because you didn’t do something to get out of harm’s way.

So dear Gen Now, the world has changed and we now know that we can unapologetically assert our right to be treated as people not objects; and to be treated with dignity, courtesy and distance. And that it’s up to him to behave well; not up to me to not bring out his beastly side. That is a huge gain and one that #MeToo has made clear. Let’s keep building on this and not let our disappointment of not getting the ideal outcome blind us to the fact that now, at last, we have the will and we have the way.