Asian women continue to suffer despite #MeToo revolution
For days on end, it looked like an Indian version of the Kavanaugh story, where US Judge Brett Kavanaugh managed to win his nomination to the Supreme Court despite a loud and highly publicized attack on the women who had accused him of sexual misconduct during his early years.
At almost the same time that the conservative judge won his nomination, in India a similar battle had broken out between a woman journalist and her former boss, M.J. Akbar, a renowned journalist-turned-politician and a junior minister in the Indian government. The initial complainant was soon joined by nearly a dozen other women journalists who alleged similar misconduct by Akbar when he was editor of two leading newspapers in India.
Akbar, who was overseas during the controversy, did not comment even upon his return. It was only the next day that he hit back, denying all involvement and blaming the women for playing a political game, with next year’s parliamentary elections in sight. He also filed a defamation suit against the first woman accuser. However, the day after he went to court, the case was joined by nearly 20 women journalists who said they were witnesses or victims of Akbar’s behavior. This bold riposte is what is believed to have finally forced the minister to resign.
Akbar is not the only man in India who has been accused of sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement reached India only about a month earlier, when a former Bollywood star accused a leading actor, Nana Patekar, of misconduct during the shooting of a film more than a decade ago. She said that her complaint to the actors’ association and other bodies had gone nowhere and she had to leave the film. She also accused Patekar of threatening her and having planned an attack on her and her family. The actress finally quit Mumbai and settled in the US. Patekar rejected the claims and took her to the court, even though the actors’ association did try to make up for earlier lapses by apologizing to the actress and strengthening its sexual harassment complaints procedures.
Even though it has been more than a year since the beginning of the movement in the US, Asian nations and notably South Asia has largely remained immune to it. There have been too few revelations in any Asian country — from Japan and China in the east to the South Asian subcontinent in the west.
While the #MeToo movement seems to have empowered some women to speak up, the fate of a large majority of Asian women does not seem to have been changed one bit.
Ranvir S. Nayar
There has been a serious pushback against the movement in places like Japan, where the very few women who dared to speak have been trolled on social media, while victim blaming is rampant, not just in Japan, but also in other nations in Asia.
The main reason behind this is the extremely conservative nature of Asian societies, where women often feel guilty every time they are subjected to attack or ridicule. The patriarchal system is so deeply entrenched, even in the developed economies like Japan or South Korea, and much more so in the developing nations, where even talking about sex remains a big taboo and, if a woman speaks out, more often than not she is assumed to have “invited” the trouble. This is the reason that only 4 percent of Japanese women dare to report even rape cases, as against nearly 35 percent in the US. The figures would be more dismal in the developing economies across the Asian continent.
Part of the problem for Asian women also stems from their low participation in the workforce. There is also a near-total absence of women in powerful positions — whether in politics, business or even sports. India ranked 148th in the global list of participation by women in government, according to a 2017 UN report.
The disparities between the genders are so pronounced and social norms so heavily loaded in favor of men, all across Asia, that very few women would dare to speak out, even if they had been subjected to rape at the hands of their superiors or peers.
Also, while the #MeToo movement seems to have empowered or given the courage to some women to speak up, the fate of a large majority of Asian women does not seem to have been changed one bit by these revelations, as many of them continue to suffer harassment or worse at work, home or in society. What India and indeed Asia needs is a cultural revolution leading to a change in mindset and much greater participation by women, as well their presence in the decision-making processes. Until then, #MeToo will mean little to the vast majority of people in this part of the world.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.