It literally speaks volumes that Time magazine this time has chosen to me as its Person of the Year the ‘Silence Breakers’ — women who have cast aside their hitherto crippling sense of shame and fear to speak out against sexual harassment. It is a centuries-old affliction that societies around the world chose to garb with innocuous mes. “Discussions of sexual harassment in polite company tend to rely on euphemisms: harassment becomes ‘ippropriate behavior’, assault becomes ‘misconduct’, rape becomes ‘abuse’ We’re accustomed to hearing those softened words, which downplay the pain of the experience,” the Time cover page article points out. The recognition to this utterly shameful, if universal, malaise has been a long time coming, but it has snowballed into a huge social movement since the fag end of 2016. The rallying cry of countless victimised women in the US is reaching a crescendo with the #MeToo hashtag exploding in social media. In turn, it has been powerfully echoed in Europe, farther afield in India, across Asia and many other countries. In France, women have hit the streets, adopting the #BalanceTonPorc hashtag which translates as ‘Expose your pig’. And many women have chosen to do just that, exposing the swine-like behaviour of men who not only exploit their position of power, but in many cases are totally blind to or uncaring of the dividing lines between the sexes. Crude sexist comments, obscene jokes, ippropriate touching and groping, indecent exposure, molestation and outright sexual assault are the manifestations of this abuse of power by indecent men. And the reasons women chose to remain silent, as many revealed to Time, would strike a chord with women everywhere. It is the fear of losing that all-important job to support one’s family, of ridicule in the workplace and society, of violent retaliation, of the shame and distress it could cause to near and dear ones.
Seeking to demonstrate how sexual harassment equally afflicts women of various socio-economic strata, identities and backgrounds, professions and immigration statuses, Time has showcased five women who are as different as different can be. There is Hollywood star Ashley Judd and American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, corporate lobbyist Adama Iwu (a black) active in California politics, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler and Mexican immigrant worker Isabel Pasqual. All of them had a horrific tales of sexual abuse to share; they were supplemented by women across a wide spectrum coming out to recount similar experiences, as well as the emotiol and psychological trauma they had to wrestle with for years. It was Ashley Judd who set off the firestorm in October 2016 when she spoke out against influential producer Harvey Weinstein, and she was seconded by the likes of Angeli Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow — the list of women accusing Weinstein as a serial sexual harasser and abuser has already lengthened to 80 by now. Legendary actors and Oscar winners like Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman have been exposed and disgraced. Former US President George HW Bush and several American lawmakers have come under the cloud over allegations of ippropriate behaviour or outright abuse. Uber has fired dozens of errant executives and warned employees not to cross the line. The raging debate has singed academia too, with reputed dons coming under public scanner as allegations fly. The Time article, pointing to exposes made by New York Times and other dailies, poses the question that if women from traditiolly domint socio-economic classes face this horror day in and day out year after year, what hope is there for those who are vulnerable — immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income workers and LGBTQ people. But the reality is that in most countries, women are impeded by glass ceilings, unequal pay and subordite positions. The office clerk, the hospitality worker, the aspiring artiste, the university researcher — women in these and countless other positions continue to be vulnerable. Maybe, just maybe, a vast social movement has at last begun that will not fizzle out inconsequentially, that the ‘Silence Breakers’ have started a revolution of refusal. With fear turning to fury and in seeing the mighty exposed and sent toppling, women (also some men) survivors are now saying they have had enough. The compulsion ‘of going along to get along’, the fear of retaliation, the code of silence imposed by the exploiters and the powerful — will filly be blown away by survivors speaking out loudly and fearlessly — so arises the hope. For India in the throes of its own huge churning against sexual violence perpetrated on women and girl children, the #MeToo movement ought to strike a resonce fast. The time to speak out is now.