SEEMA MUSTAFA | 11 OCTOBER, 2018
When Vilification Replaces Debate
In your arrogance, do not confuse the oppressed for the oppressor.
An article that I wrote yesterday, that was meant to serve as an indictment of MJ Akbar and the culture that he created at the Asian Age, has been misconstrued into a defence for sexual violence, with Twitter going as far as to label me -- without perhaps even reading the article -- a rape apologist.
The article was written before Ghazala Wahab's account was published, and centred on my reservations with the MeToo movement -- specifically, its lack of real world linkages outside the urban elite, its inability to engage with nuance, the clubbing of all forms of harassment and violence, the possibility of false allegations, and finally, the mob mentality that the movement has legitimised as an intellectual culture.
I knew the article would invite critique, and was expecting a discussion on the key points that I had raised. As someone who comes from a generation where an established career -- one that is on the side of the oppressed -- counts for more than your latest tweet, I expected the article to be read in the context of someone with years of fighting for victims; someone who was on the right side of the fence.
As soon as the article was published, the abuse began. Most of it, too vile to be repeated. Most of it, from younger journalists -- many of whom I do not know personally or professionally.
Part of the abuse was about my position on MeToo. How dare I raise an objection to such an important movement. Whereas I come from the school of thought that the more important and powerful a movement, the more debate and discussion is needed to ensure that it is able to fulfil its potential. When I talk of the Dalit woman whose everyday reality includes her rape in the field by a landlord, I am working toward escalating and not dismissing a movement -- by hoping to start a dialogue on taking MeToo beyond its current urban landscape.
Unfortunately, the reaction to my article only further reiterates one of the points I had raised -- that these campaigns have become more about social media lynching of those who dare disagree with even one aspect of it, than about the campaign itself. Meena Menon very rightly pointed out, "No one wants debate. It's all outrage. Agree or else. Intolerance and hurt sentiments seem to be universal part of our political culture. No wonder the right wing has won the ideological space. While we work off our frustration and failure by mauling each other. Not discussing, not debating, but hurting and humiliating and damaging as much as possible."
In addition to MeToo, the article detailed the work culture at the Asian Age. It spoke at length of the toxic culture at the organisation, and while I was able to insulate the bureau from it, the Desk -- with its own chain of command -- was another story. The article was meant to be an indictment of the culture and the editor. It was not in a language that social media has legitimised, as that remains alien and unacceptable to me.
I have never been silent in my condemnation of the culture that MJ Akbar created, and while we did not have social media, we did not mince words when we spoke amongst reporters and other journalists, bureaucrats and politicians -- and the very fact that so many were aware of the culture at the Asian Age is because we were never silent about it. I’ve spoken at length about the culture, on and off the record, over the years.
I do not remember Ghazala Wahab in that workspace as she never worked in the bureau, and I do not remember her coming forth. I do not recall anyone coming forth while I was at the Asian Age. I believe her when she said she spoke to me, and her account of the violence she suffered is horrifically disturbing to read. Ghazala says that my response was that she should take a call, and I hope that when I said that, I meant that the decision to report the harassment was hers to make, but she had my support were she to choose to report it.
And while this should not be used to descredit or disbelieve Ghazala's account, former colleagues have pointed out that the account refers to Surya Kiran building, when I was a part timer with the Asian Age. I was not bureau chief at the time; I went into the office ocassionally to write the editorial. I later joined as bureau chief, when the paper operated from Vandana building.
What's important to consider, is that Ghazala's account is from twenty years ago -- there were no sexual harassment committees or social media, and the only course of redressal was to file a police complaint. That's why many victims were forced into silence, and the reason why a culture that is misogynistic and a clear abuse of power, continued for as long as it did. Now that Ghazala and others have bravely spoken up, we must ensure that the fight goes into the courtrooms, and the perpetrators are brought to justice. She needs to file a formal complaint.
As for us, why didn't we speak up? We did. Just not on social media, which did not exist at the time. Why didn't we hold the victims' hand? Most didn't come forth. I was speaking to a colleague of mine, who was in a similar position at another publication with another editor around the same time. She said that in their organisation, a victim did come forward. My colleague told her that it was her call to file a complaint, and the victim -- clearly traumatised -- eventually chose not to.
I reject the charge that my entire generation of journalists are guilty of collective silence. Silence not so much in the sense that we didn't speak, because we did, but silence because we did not do more. We couldn't do much more -- as unless victims were willing to file a complaint, where was the redressal? It’s ironic that social media enourages and legitimises abuse on the basis of ignorance, as many saying I did not speak up at the time have no idea where I am coming from. We all spoke up, repeatedly.
That said, this is one particular change that the MeToo movement must be celebrated for. 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.
MJ Akbar is one amongst many. And I am one amongst many women journalists who worked in that environment.
What has angered in the response to my article is the abuse from younger women journalists. We may be twenty years older, but we have fought patriarchy in the workplace -- we have done it by creating space for ourselves in what was completely a man’s world, by fighting for women’s place in the bureau, fighting for the issues that women can and should write on, pushing for promotions for women as per merit, fighting for equal pay, making our way into editorial positions that were always the domain of men.
As a woman, like others of my generation who travelled the same journey, to enter journalism when media houses did not even have toilets for us, the struggle has been intense. We entered a highly patriarchal set up that did not recognise women, and then insisted we cover what they considered women assignments like fashion shows. That was the first struggle, To be taken seriously, to be given the same assignments, to prove we were equal to men. The next step was to be accepted for political reporting. To be sent to cover conflict. To go to war zones. To prove that in political and security reporting we were next to none. This was even more difficult, and at one stage even the Army balked saying they had no toilets for us in the field. The third step was to reach positions that women generally did not hold. To become Chief of Bureau, to become Resident Editors. Took a long time and here only a handful of us succeeded. Even today, not a single woman is editor-in-chief of a mainstream newspaper.
We have never been silent on calling out and condemning the culture at the workplace, at Asian Age, but also at various other organisations. We too have a list to name and shame, and if you think the environment today is toxic, try and imagine what we had to manoeuvre.
Outside the workplace -- we fought against patriarchy as we succeeded together in getting dowry declared murder; in maternity benefits; in equal pay; in creating gender parity in media houses; in increasing the acceptance of women; in taking strong positions for Muslim women as part of a running campaign, against the Shahbano judgement; of covering distant rapes and campaigning for justice. This is just part of the list, and one that I did not think needed reiterating.
It is ironic that several journalists from the so-called independent media joined the attack, and it was journalists from mainstream newspapers and television channels who contacted me for a response.
There has always been, in the journalism we practised, space for dissent and debate. Abuse was seen as the resort of cowards. A case in point is that of late editor Kuldip Nayar, who was our editor at the Indian Express. He would invite us to criticise his articles with arguments, which he would then counter. The debates were heated and informative, but never resorted to abuse. I come from that genre of journalism, and am surprised and angered that journalists today -- while claiming to fight for equality -- have legitimised a behaviour that vilifies and abuses. Being repeatedly, agressively and unilaterally labelled a "rape apologist" on a misreading of my position, by journalists so much junior to me, is indicative of this degeneration.
The fight is a continuum. The tools for it may be different. While ours were the bar at Press Club or the halls of our offices or the fields in a distant village, yours are also social media.
But in your arrogance, do not confuse the oppressed for the oppressor. You do not know my fight, and condemning an entire generation of women journalists who fought for your place in the profession is a very tragic outcome. A career spanning 40 years of fighting for victims cannot be discounted and social media cannot be used to legitimise abuse and disrespect.