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December 17, 2017

An Era Of Empowerment: How Social Media Is Giving Women A Voice

Text by Kiran Manral

Social media has given women strength in numbers and the courage to raise their voices. Leveraging this new-found power to the utmost, they are fearlessly sharing their stories to great impact

A few weeks ago, the internet had its Arab Spring of sorts. Women across countries and continents were posting their tales of sexual harassment under the hashtag #MeToo. On Facebook, Twitter and on blogs, #MeToo became a rallying call to women — and men — to state and acknowledge the very real elephant in the room — that of the universality of sexual harassment. It began, quite innocuously, with an article by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker, which exposed the powerful Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein’s exploitation of women in the industry over several years, with actions ranging from harassment and exposure, and most damningly to rape. The article had a domino effect. It not only effectively destroyed Weinstein’s career, but also led to a cascade of similar accusations against not just powerful men, who abused young women, but also against powerful men in Hollywood, like Kevin Spacey, who abused younger men.

In all this, the most notable thing that spurred this on to take a life of its own beyond Hollywood, beyond the rarified atmosphere that the rich and famous live in, was the rallying call by actor Alyssa Milano to women across the world to post their #MeToo stories. Women responded, and how! For days, timelines across social media platforms were filled with women posting their stories of sexual harassment, abuse and assault. #MeToo was empowering, empathetic, and led to an outpouring by women — celebrities and otherwise — in solidarity with each other, closing ranks, initiating conversations that needed to be had loud and clear. In 24 hours the hashtag had reached 12 million on Facebook and in 48 hours, it had been posted over a million times on Twitter.

The undeniable avalanche that this movement had caused was definitely more than a show of solidarity; it was a culmination of the frustration women felt from the lack of redressal of the real problem they have constantly been dealing with, a problem with no resolution in sight, a problem that only seemed — and still seem — to be escalating. Interestingly, the #MeToo campaign came much before the Alyssa Milano tweet; it came about when an activist named Tarana Burke coined it nearly a decade ago, in a bid to reach out to sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities. That this phrase, coined all that while ago, would go on to become a watershed moment in the history of the war against sexual violence against women was something no one could have foreseen. Before #MeToo, there was #YesAllWomen, which also spoke about the commonality of the experience every woman has faced at some point or the other. And there was also the #NotOkay hashtag, which sought to remove the tacit acceptability with which every sexual harassment incident is swept under the carpet. All these built the ground for the groundswell that #MeToo was to rally.

What #MeToo did was that it de-stigmatised the admission of being a victim. With the numbers came the strength, and with the strength came more women joining in to post their stories, a movement that snowballed into something that the world could not afford to ignore anymore. For those who had been victims of sexual harassment and assault, this was a moment of catharsis, or possibly some form of closure. #MeToo was a movement whose time had come — the time of spunky, fearless women, who will stand up, speak up and speak out loud, because their doing so is the bulwark upon which other women can gather courage to raise their own voices and speak out.

What has been an important facilitator of this change is the advent of social media. It has given women strength in numbers; it has given them heft and amplified their voices, and helped them rally around their cause. Most importantly, it has given women a platform to put their stories out unfiltered, in their own voices — and in this lies its power. Until social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook came upon the scene, there was no or minimal public discussion on issues like sexual harassment or even everyday sexism.

In India, Hindi film actor Kangana Ranaut has been vocal about the nepotism prevalent in Bollywood. She’s taken on a male co-star in a rather public spat in which she’s held her own, despite all the odds stacked against her. In Pune, a pub with appalling misogynistic behaviour towards its female customers was called out by a young woman on Twitter, who detailed the incidents of sexism that the pub had been involved in. Stand-up comedian Supriya Joshi wrote from the heart about navigating the dating world as an overweight woman, a topic that few would dare speak about a few years ago. A young student activist, Gurmehar Kaur, took on the might of a concerted troll attack with gumption and grit. These are the voices we wouldn’t have heard a few years ago.

Some years ago, a brave young woman dared to speak up about the sexual abuse she faced at the hands of a powerful man in the media. The Tarun Tejpal case was perhaps the first of its kind. R. K. Pachauri of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) was accused by a woman in the organisation of sexually harassing her, a case that made ripples worldwide. Powerful men in powerful positions have been known to sexually harass the women they’ve worked with, but for the most part, these have remained stories on the whisper network. But things are changing. What has changed perhaps is the courage it takes to speak out against such behaviour. Decades ago, IAS officer Rupan Deol Bajaj complained against the now-deceased KPS Gill, then the director general of police, Punjab, for patting her behind at a party. Gill was convicted of outraging her modesty and made to pay a fine and serve probation of three years. She had, as a strong support, her husband, an important ally in this battle between the sexes.

For far too long, when women have spoken up they’ve been silenced, first by the other women around them and then by the men in their lives. The shame was theirs, not the perpetrators’ for victim blaming has always been a real thing. What did she do to encourage such behaviour? It must have been something she did or said that made him think she was that kind of girl? What was she wearing? Why did she go to meet him? Why did she wait so long to complain? The questions are endless.

It is tough to speak out against powerful sexual predators. Some renowned female actors with solid bodies of work have been victims of Weinstein’s behaviour and not gone public with it. The risk is real, that of seeing one’s work dry up in a bro-culture of omertà, of being perceived as a troublemaker. It isn’t just the bro-culture that shields perpetrators of sexual assault. In India, a list of names of those in academia who have been inappropriate with or sexually harassed women, posted online by law student Raya Sarkar, saw a backlash from female academicians, who protested against the name-and-shame method employed without, as they put it, ‘due diligence’.

Thankfully, some women have taken that risk today. But actor Rose McGowan who spoke out against Weinstein, accusing him of rape, found herself arrested over a substance possession charge a few weeks later. The timing was perhaps too much of a coincidence.

Making the workplace — whether it is a film set or an office — safe for women is not something that can be necessarily enforced by rules and regulations. What it needs is a tectonic shift in attitudes, among both men and women, which will happen only through jolts of the kind sparked by the Weinstein story.

Women have come into the workforce and this means that they must be willing to stand up for themselves and for other women, when incidents of harassment occur. A whisper network has existed for long — which spoke about these incidents, warning other women about predatory men. But this whisper network now becoming a shout through social and mainstream media is a positive development indeed. It is women speaking out about their experiences, regardless of the consequences, which could be as drastic as them losing their jobs. It could spell the end of their careers and they could face the expenses of a lengthy legal battle, which could crush them financially.

Breaking the sense of entitlement with which men continue to prey will only happen when men realise that women will speak out. They will tell their stories without holding back, despite the power equation being skewed predominantly in favour of the men. And with this speaking out comes empowerment for the next generation of women, who should know that they need never keep quiet, for their voices will be heard.

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