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A file photo of Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta. Photo: AFP
A file photo of Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta. Photo: AFP

Opinion | When a woman points a finger at the powerful man

Instead of listening to the women and trying to understand their pain, many of their critics have tried to see something deeper, weaving a conspiracy theory

Of all the questions people have raised over the allegations made against powerful men by actor Tanushree Dutta in India against her co-star Nana Patekar (and the dance director and others who she says were complicit in the incident occurred in 2008 during the shooting of a film) and by professor Christine Blasey Ford in the US against federal judge Brett Kavanaugh, the one that’s the easiest to answer is the one being played out in front of us, by men, who ask with injured innocence: Why did it take so long for these women to speak up? 

To be fair, it isn’t only men who are doing the questioning; some women have questioned Dutta and Ford too, but the majority of those who are vocal about their scepticism, are men. And they are desperate to find a reason—any reason— that avoids the possibility that the man felt entitled. 

Why did the women not speak up earlier? Look at the responses. Instead of listening to the women and trying to understand their pain, many of their critics have tried to see something deeper, weaving a conspiracy theory perhaps, by trying to identify their political affiliation (in Ford’s case) and religion (in Dutta’s case). They propound unsubstantiated theories that women do it to blackmail men, that they are hungry for publicity, or that they have an insatiable thirst for revenge. The more convoluted the theory, the more plausible it seems to those who want to believe the men. The simple, straightforward explanation, that a stronger male asserted his perceived authority and forced himself upon a woman, is considered simplistic. 

That’s wrong. And the issue goes beyond these two high-profile cases. It affects our lives daily. Rather than laying down strict rules over the meaning of consent (and to repeat what I’ve said in the past, often—no means no, and even within marriage, no means no), the society forgives these men their trespasses, because the careers of those men matter. And so, other men think they too can get away with it, that liberties can be taken with women. And a culture of redress where complaints are addressed promptly, effectively, and fairly just doesn’t develop. 

The vituperation Ford has already received, and the abuses that have been hurled at Dutta indicate a certain type of masculine privilege and dehumanization, which will only make it harder for the next woman to say what she has experienced. The dehumanization works at both levels — the man loses his humanity, and he fails to see the human in the woman. 

If we are to ask the women in our lives — friends, family, acquaintances—if they’ve ever experienced unwelcome and unsolicited male advances, in almost each case, the answer would be a resounding yes. In some instances, the names of men who may have acted boorishly may even seem surprising. Nothing offers immunity to women—their age, the dress they are wearing, the time of the day, the place where the attack takes place. And men act with impunity because they get away with it, as they always have. 

How the woman walks, how she talks, how friendly she is, the kind of “signals" she may have sent (as imagined by the man in question), and when a weak no may even mean yes, as a judge decreed recently, all increase the woman’s sense of vulnerability and the man’s assuredness. That is the reality of power. The garment worker molested by the foreman at a manufacturing plant; the agricultural labourer being told that if she wants a job she must meet the manager at the guest house late in the evening; the secretary told that “such things happen" when she speaks of how she finds it uncomfortable when her manager keeps touching her; the vice-president invited for a drink in the senior manager’s hotel room after dinner “to discuss tomorrow’s presentation;" the young reporter being told that she needs to be more accommodating to the editor if she wants plum assignments or beats; the doctoral student dependent on the adviser over the path her dissertation takes; or the junior lawyer interning for a high court judge—in virtually all walks of life, in almost all professions, and in nearly all contexts, women across the world have had to deal with men who think mistreating the women around them is part of their job description. 

Yes, not all men are like that; but enough of them are, and we, as men, must reckon with the burden of millennia of guilt for which we must atone and own up responsibility. 

To be sure, there are different versions of what may have happened. Often there are few eyewitnesses, or witnesses whose memories are unreliable, or who are unwilling to get drawn and speak up for the woman. Women have buried these stories deep in their minds; they do not wish to confront those demons again. But sometimes, the time seems right, and they do speak up. We have a collective responsibility to listen and seek justice. 

It takes courage for the woman to speak up and point a finger at the powerful man. Sometimes, it takes a long time too. In some instances, the woman may have misremembered or may act out of spite. But many women don’t, because they do not wish to undergo the scrutiny and ritual humiliation that would follow once they make the charge, for that’s when their personal lives become public, and they lose control over their own narrative. 

When she talks, we—men and women —should listen with empathy. We should respect her dignity. Compassion should drive our response and fairness and a sense of justice be our goal. We live in 2018. 

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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