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SEEMA MUSTAFA | 10 OCTOBER, 2018

Whoa #MeToo, Hold Your Horses…

Whoa #MeToo, Hold Your Horses…


Note: This article was written before Ghazala Wahab’s disclosure on MJ Akbar and has been updated since. It refers to the work culture at the Asian Age of the time, that is between 1997 when I had just joined till my resignation ten years later. Following a misleading campaign on Twitter, that misconstrued my reservations with MeToo into a defence for MJ Akbar, I have clarified my position in a status and in this subsequent article. 

At the very beginning let me make two facts clear. One, I am writing as a journalist who has spent a lifetime on the side of the oppressed, and this includes women, particularly those in the rural areas. And hence come into the #MeToo debate with some reluctance, but as a person from the same side of the fence, fully opposed to patriarchy in all its forms, and flying the flag for gender equality, justice and rights. This is for those who might not be conversant with the work I and many other colleagues have done, walked the roads, been hit by water canons, attacked by goons in the fields for covering rape of Dalit women, social oppression et al.

And it is after much thought and discussion I have finally reached the conclusion that I have a problem with the tone and tenor of the MeToo movement on the social media. Maybe, as feminists have noted in their writings for newspapers like The Guardian, it is a generational gap, or perhaps the trial of both --- the accuser and the accused --- on the social media is too unsavoury to digest. For the girls are also being attacked by the usual patriarchal mindset for doing little more than sharing experience.

The first problem that I encountered with this movement, and that remains, is its inability to differentiate between the man who is guilty of rape and sexual assault from the man who solicited a woman with a drink, or an unacceptable text message. The movement offers the same ‘punishment’ for all. The same response, and the same reaction. 

It also seems difficult --- for me at least as my years in journalism were spent in the backwaters of the Hindi belt mostly --- to accept a movement that is so exclusive and by its very nature is confined to the upwardly mobile elite in a couple of big cities with no resonance whatsoever in the smaller districts and villages. Well that is not the intention, others might argue but then can such a movement in a country like India where the majority is excluded --- including the girls working under harrowing circumstances in regional purposes --- actually carry legitimacy beyond a point? And be successful in confronting patriarchy in the manner intended? These are questions that come to mind, and are not condemnations of the movement itself. 

At the same time I am convinced and impressed with the argument of the supporters of MeToo that it has succeeded in placing the onus on the man for acts of sexual harassment; two it allows women to speak in the security of larger support on the social media and three, creates an environment where the victim does not have to suffer from the insecurity of being a victim. 

But to come back to the critique in the hope that the questions and issues raised here will be factored in to better what is clearly a powerful weapon discovered by women across the world. In most cases the stories shared here are old, even decades old, that the woman bottled up and seemed to be encouraged by MeToo to share. This is a big achievement to my mind, but at the same time, engaging with criticism -- especially from those on the same side of the fence -- will only strengthen a movement. 

Me Too has allowed journalists the space to name and shame predators in their work environment, and ensure action. And several names have emerged, some have gone quiet, some have protested, and some have lost their jobs or stepped down pending enquiry.

As I write the demand for the sacking of Union Minister, and former journalist MJ Akbar has reached a crescendo. I worked with Akbar in The Telegraph where our boss in Delhi was Kewal Verma, and he was that entity who flitted in and out of Delhi. We met him sometimes, and to be frank he did not seem to be particularly interested in any of us in the Bureau. In fact, rather antagonistic for the most part.After serious political differences with him---he had become a Rajiv Gandhi bhakt midway, stopping my reports (I was covering the Congress party)--I went to Aveek Sarkar and resigned. By the way, Akbar stayed in a hotel when he came to Delhi, and used that for interviews and meetings. I was interviewed at the hotel, and so were some colleagues who did not report anything unusual. Incidentally I met Sarkar also in his hotel room in Delhi, to resign. As I met several diplomats, and visiting scholars, judges and even officials. So hotel rooms were then part of work, not sleazy unless the man inside made them so. Perhaps it is different now.

I did not see or speak with Akbar for a decade, and then at some point joined the Asian Age. It was here that one became aware of his growing interest in younger girls, and while many joined and stayed the course there were no complaints from the Bureau. Not a single, a fact I verified with recent conversations with former colleagues. He left the Bureau completely alone, never hassled any girl, communicated with reporters (including men) directly through me, adopting a hands off approach for all the time I worked there. I stayed because he gave me full space, did not interfere, and remained polite through the years I was there. In fact many stories he was credited for, like the nuclear deal or the Bofors interviews, were at our initiative with Akbar--visibly worried---going along.

It seemed to be a different story on the desk, as all his favourites ---male colleagues included---were there. He would party with them, drink with them, mix with them while keeping a long distance from the Bureau. We were rarely invited for these parties, hosted by the young female and male sub-editors living in apartments. Akbar used the work place to hire young girls who received undue attention. We don’t have any idea---and I say this with complete responsibility and after discussion with a couple of my senior former colleagues---whether he had sexual relations with them, but yes women were promoted out of turn, brought on to Page 1 sub-editing as he handled that directly, and there were whispers about specific girls on the desk. London was a choice posting, almost reserved for girls though a couple of guys did dent this bastion, and the perception was that the sub editor (never a reporter) posted there was the current favourite. And available for Akbar when he visited London which was often.

But then to be fair, often male sub editors were treated in the same manner, with the same partiality. In fact there were girls we could not criticise to him even for shoddy work, but there were also men he did not want to hear a word against. We suspected a great deal, often felt we knew a lot of what we weren’t actually able to see, but in real terms there was not a shred of evidence, ever. Not inside the office of the Asian Age at least. Solid speculation, no evidence. And that is the truth. But an atmosphere full of whispers and conjecture and speculation does not make for a healthy work place.

But now I read the story of Ghazala Wahab, a case of total harassment and abuse by MJ Akbar. Out of the MeToo movement, but a strong indictment of the editor and his behaviour. A confirmation of what we thought he did, and had little by way of evidence. She says she spoke to me, and I am sure she is right. If she spoke to me she did not share the details as she has written them now.

It is well recognised in the women’s movement that a boss using the work space to solicit his subordinates is guilty of sexual harassment, regardless of whether the girl agrees or not. As he uses his position of privilege to extract concessions that he might not receive in an equal playing field.

Me Too is a powerful voice. But I do have a concern, which I hope other women will help me address. My problem is that the movement is too subjective, it is arbitrary. It has no responsibility. All I require is the right gender, access to Twitter, and I can level any allegation against anyone for it to be believed hook, line and sinker and for the man to be pilloried beyond belief. I am not saying that the women are lying, most will not be. But there will be the one, or the two, who would name a man for reasons other than harassment. And then what? After all old fashioned jurisprudence does warn against collateral damage, and does speak of justice as a concept where an innocent man is not framed, even if it means the guilty get away.

Yes men have lost their jobs and we are proud of this success of MeToo. But on what basis? Where is the enquiry, where is the evidence, where is all that as journalists we require before we even publish a story. The point is behind every tweet there is a subjective story, and that is important in our final verdict----since we have become the mob with the power to try and hang even before the accused has a chance to defend himself.

This woman against man attitude disturbs me too. In journalism most of my colleagues are men. I was perhaps one of the fortunate women who does not have a single untoward incident to report where my bosses and my colleagues were concerned. I travelled with them, in conflict situations we shared rooms, not a word, not a gesture. But yes I do have a Who’s Who list of others who crossed the line, repeatedly. But then there was no MeToo so I settled them directly. And like feminist Germaine Greer has recently said in an interview, settle them there and then. Don’t wait for years. We did that instinctively. Many of us. We read them the riot act----and believe me all powerful people. And they backed off and while some never spoke to me again, others dissolved into courtesy.

MeToo is of course elite, and urban. That is the nature of the beast. It has no room for the women who many of us have interviewed in different locations of India, for whom rape in the fields is a daily occurrence. For whom the patriarch is the feudal landlord who has established a right to their bodies. Who are sick to their souls, terrified and terrorised, but cannot even recognise it as otherwise they might end their own lives. These women’s stories remain imprinted on the mind. The young girl in a remote village in Banda, accessible only in a run down boat, who was raped along with her mother and her grandmother is a walking tragedy. The police are upper caste, the village is upper caste, and she along with her family suffers in silence. This is India but we in our selfishness often do not even recognise it. And if we do, don’t make it part of our own. This is the fight to be fought. Journalists don’t visit them any longer, the women's movements except for a couple, have disappeared from the horizon. As for the law, where did that ever exist for the dispossessed?

And can a movement in India survive, or carry legitimacy when it is just for a miniscule population and completely, in every which way divorced from the masses? Questions that I guess only time will answer.

I respect the woman who has filed a petition against Soli Sorabjee, I too was invited for Dhan Saag once but nothing happened! My full support and solidarity for Ghazala Wahab who had obviously gone through hell, and has come out of it with the courage to share her experience in a sober article out of the movement. In fact her article has given the proof of MJ Akbar’s behaviour for which he needs to lose his job. I have full respect and support for the women who have used the hashtag to share traumatic experiences and created an environment for debate and discussion.

I am sure there is more out there, and I know some girls who have more to say, maybe they will find the courage. But then maybe they won’t. But the context cannot be lost, or the larger perspective ignored.

(This is my personal view and not the considered editorial policy of The Citizen).

(Following the misleading campaign on Twitter that has misconstrued my reservations with MeToo into a defence for MJ Akbar, I have clarified my position as: There is finally a fight for a decisive change in the culture of newsrooms and media organisations, that have thus far accorded impunity to powerful men. While I have reservations with the MeToo movement, I have repeatedly said that this particular change is to be celebrated. Anyone who knows me can vouch for the fact that I have, over the years, been consistent in my condemnation - both on and off the record - of the culture at Asian Age, created by MJ Akbar. We were never silent, but our inability to be more vocal stemmed from the inability at the time -- 20 years ago -- of victims to publicly share the account of harassment. I do not recall anyone coming forth while I was at the Asian Age, and yet, I believe Ghazala Wahab when she says that she confided in me. Although I had only recently been confirmed in the Asian Age, I hope that when I said she should take a call, it meant that the decision to report the harassment she faced was hers to make, but she had my support if she chose to report it. Unfortunately, at the time - victims did not have the safety or security to speak out, or perhaps the support to fight it out. We did not have sexual harassment committees or social media, and the only course of redressal was to file a complaint with the cops. This was perhaps the reason that journalists of my generation were forced to fight sexual harassment directly or remain silent. I am glad women finally have the space, security and support to call out perpetrators of sexual violence, and demand a necessary shift in newsrooms and media organisations. I stand by my article in TheCitizen.in that was written before Ghazala's story was published. In the article I have written on the culture at Asian Age in detail, and then later added that I support and stand by Ghazala and the others coming forward. My reservations with MeToo should not be misconstrued into a support or defence for MJ Akbar and other perpetrators of violence)

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