What “Me Too” means for the Few Good Men out there

I’d like to begin this post by recounting a conversation I had with some colleagues over lunch recently. The conversation began with all of us sharing our worst work travel stories. Inevitably, a female colleague eventually shared a story of feeling concerned for her safety on a tour.

She told us about the tour when, after a late night flight, she found out that the host organization had made stay arrangements for her at a shady hotel where she felt very unsafe. No electricity, low boundary walls, doors that didn’t lock very well, a singular caretaker who looked like he might be drunk. She felt unsafe to the point that she insisted on changing hotels at 2am. The story made me share what I do in situations like these – and insensitivity of corporate and government travel agents ensures that this happens every now and then. If I feel unsafe staying in a hotel and have no option to change, I latch the door from inside (because locks can always be opened from outside with the hotel master key) and I move a table or chair to block the door. It may not help much if shit happens, but it makes me feel not-uncomfortable enough to fall asleep at night. 

When I said this, there were five other people at the lunch table. Four women and one man. Four hands immediately shot up in the air when I said this, and they all said – “Me Too!” We were all fairly surprised to see that what we all thought of as our own personal paranoia, was actually a fairly prevalent practice among women travelers everywhere. Of course, no one was as shocked as the singular man at the table. I will never forget the look on his face. He was so shocked that for a while he legitimately insisted that we were all bluffing. The idea that someone will feel scared enough on a work trip to blockade their hotel room door with furniture was absolutely alien to him. 

That was a moment of truth for all of us – a reminder of the very different planets men and women inhabit. Not on Mars or Venus, but on this very Earth itself. 

Our male colleague said he couldn’t believe this happened on all those work trips he took with us. I said I couldn’t believe he didn’t already know it did. All the other women on the table said, “Me Too.”

 

What is “Me Too”?

The social media trend running all over Facebook and Twitter over the last week, in case you have been living under a rock, was that of women putting up two words on their posts: “Me Too”. Posting these two words essentially marks their attendance in the list of “women who have suffered sexual harassment in their lifetimes” – which, as the campaign proved, pretty much translates into “every woman ever”.

 

Why is “Me Too” important?

A conversation between Seth Meyers and three female writers of ‘Late Night with Seth Meyers’ – Amber, Ally and Jenny – about the Harvey Weinstein scandal best describes my views on the Me Too campaign:

Amber: Seth, how did you feel when you heard the allegations?

Seth: I was disgusted and shocked. How did you feel?

Amber: Well, I was disgusted and not shocked.

Ally: I was disgusted and shocked that it took so long to become a story.

Jenny: I was disgusted and shocked that people were shocked.

Women, everywhere, are not shocked by the numbers of women that shared that they had been sexually harassed by men at some point in their lives. Men, everywhere, were.

And that is a problem. Most men are not aware that “women who have been at the receiving end of gender based violence and discrimination” translates to “every woman ever”.

That, to me, is the power of the “Me Too” campaign: To make men notice and realize the humongous percentage of women they know and care about, who have been at the receiving end of gendered violence or harassment. Men who care, but are simply not aware. Men who are aware, but simply don’t care. Men who are aware and care, but are in denial. Men who actively try to understate the all-pervading active misogyny that is like a bad debt burden or a genetic disorder modern day society has unfortunately inherited from its past.

It is a fact that most men, good men, well-meaning men, men who care – like my colleague in the story above – are simply unaware of the world women inhabit. They don’t know what it means to live with rape anxiety every moment of everyday. My male colleagues don’t realize that when we work late at the office, I hold my pee in because I am too afraid to walk down the dark deserted corridor that leads to the office ladies loo. But my female colleagues know it instinctively – because they do too. My father is going to read about the hotel story and positively freak the hell out, but my mother will likely not be surprised – because when she travels, she feels it too. My brother was enraged beyond words when I told him about a harassment incident that happened to me as a child, a full two decades after it happened. His girlfriend practically shrugged and said, “me too”.

These are all Good Men – the best men I know, in fact. They live and breathe with us day in and day out. How is it that we have still not been able to convey this very real part of our lives to them? How is it that the Good Men are still oblivious?

And this is why “Me Too” is important. Because of the Few Good Men.

There are some men who will never change, who cannot be convinced or converted. Goalpost Shifting, Strawman, Appeal to Authority, Ad Hominen, Ad Populum, Arguing by Example – the number of logical fallacies deployed by detractors to debunk the blatant fact that life is tougher for most women than it is for most men is unparalleled. By extension, these folks deny that this is a situation that needs to change. Many of these happen to be men. For people who wish to create a safer world for women, these are not the men we need to start conversations with – it is simply not a productive use of our limited energies. No, the Good Men are the ones to focus on.

 

Who are these Few Good Men?

Good Men are those who are truly touched by campaigns like “Me Too”.

Good Men are genuinely horrified by every reminder of gender-based violence faced by women around them everyday.

Good Men don’t turn a blind eye to this reality, even though it is a deeply uncomfortable one.

Good Men listen. And even though it is really hard to relate to something so alien to their everyday lives, Good Men try to empathize.

Good Men do not try to minimize the lived experience of half of humankind as “one-off instances”.

Good Men do not ask “what was she wearing” or “why was she there” or “who was she with” or “was she drinking” – they ask “what did we do as a society that gave him the audacity to do this”.

Good Men don’t see women speaking out about their experiences as “attention seeking” (yes, I saw that one too).

Some exceptionally Good Men see these posts and actually apologize on behalf of men everywhere. They pledge to do better themselves and rekindle our faith in man-kind.

Good Men don’t start with #NotAllMen, they want to do something to put an end to #YesAllWomen.

The Good Men are the ones who are going to be our partners in creating a better world for everyone. 

 

So what should the Good Men do now?

I took the liberty of making a list of some of the things I could think of that the Good Men can do to help getting out of the house a less unpleasant experience for the women around them.

These things go beyond the physical safety stuff that goes without saying. Keep doing those things anyway. Drop a lady home if it gets late in the night. Or at least make sure she gets a cab and gets home safe. If you are two people vying for the same public transport in the evening, let the lady take it – she might never reach home if she misses this one. When you see a man’s hand roving around a lady in a bus, put yourself between the man and the lady. When you spot a man lechering at a woman, tell him off. When a woman rebukes a man harassing her in public and the man answers back trying to legitimize his behaviour, don’t just stand by and enjoy the tamasha unfolding, speak up. Basically, always be the buffer between women and the creeps around them.

Since you are the Good Man – you already do all of the above. And we thank you for that.

I am writing this to bring up the subtle things that even the best of men sometimes miss out on. Things that you can do in our everyday life to help create a safer world.

Admittedly, we could use more women doing the following as well. But this post is just for the men, because it is a sad reality of our social conditioning that everything is taken more seriously when heard in the lower register of a male voice.

So here goes:

Forward with care

When you get a WhatsApp forward with a gender-based joke that paints women with stereotypes likes nagging wives, gold diggers, bitchy, catty, bossy, friend-zoners, mother-in-law haters, daughter-in-law haters, haters of all fellow women, husband dominators, irrational, over-emotional – do not forward these jokes, we beg of you. Do not award them with smileys and thumbs ups. If the sender is someone you can be frank with, tell them how the stereotype perpetuated by this jokes are used as justifications by sexual harassers. Men who rape, kill, and mutilate women feel justified in doing so because women, to their mind, are one or all of the above. At the very least, every seemingly harmless joke fuels this perception of women in our collective societal mindset. And at the very worst, it makes a man who was rejected by a woman feel justified in throwing acid at her face.

Be aware of Double Standards

Watch out for changes in your perception of the same quality when seen in men and women. E.g. is a man keeping his foot down for something he believes in being “assertive”, and a woman doing the same being “bossy”? Is a man lashing out at someone without reason “having a bad day today” and a woman doing the same “being really bitchy today”? Be mindful of these perceptions in your own head. Watch out for them in your everyday language. Speak out when you see it in other men and women. These subtle things add up and systematically encourage misogyny around us.

Don’t fund the misogyny industry

Don’t pay to watch movies that feature men harassing women in the name of love, passion, or comedy. Don’t buy tickets to movies that use the objectification of women as a selling point. Discourage others around you to drive business to such movies, and help Bollywood accelerate its long overdue process of growing the hell up.

Don’t buy products that advertise themselves by painting women as mere objects of male desire. Trust me on this – no woman out there is going to fall in love with you over your perfume or your shaving cream. And products that perpetuate this notion are adding to men’s misplaced frustration and rage against us women who happen to live outside hair gel ads.

Don’t raise rapists

Resist the urge to keep a compulsive hawk eye over all movements of the women in your family, to the point of suffocating them. We know that “hope you will not get raped” is every family member’s wish for us. But if the boys were watched instead and “hope you will not rape” became the new Indian family motto, rape would magically vanish overnight.

Teach the Children

Notice subtle cues that we give our children that train them in gender stereotypes. Don’t just gift cars and Operation sets to boys, and princesses and kitchen sets to girls on their birthdays. Take equal responsibility along with your wife for your household chores. Do traditionally female tasks like cooking, cleaning, managing the maid, changing the diapers. Do them publicly and with pride. Remember – children don’t learn to do what you say, they learn to do what you do. And everything you do is absorbed like a sponge.

Notice what happens at Every. Office. Meeting. Ever.

Your female colleagues at work are constantly struggling to get their ideas noticed, put their point of view across, and do simple things you take for granted like being heard at work meetings. Notice when this happens. Next time a woman in your team makes a point at a work meeting, notice how often it gets drowned out because someone talks over her, or a man repeats her idea and gets credit for it, or everyone simply ignores that she spoke at all. This happened at Obama’s White House, so be open to the idea that it might be happening around you as well. And when you do spot it, stop it. Make an extra effort to draw the attention of the meeting to the point made by a woman, even if you do it by expressing a disagreement. We don’t need your endorsement for all our ideas. But your help in getting them heard would mean a lot, and it would encourage a lot more women to find their voice.

Help make workplaces safer

When you see men objectifying women co-workers – whether it is a compliment for ‘the beautiful saari she wore yesterday’, or horror at ‘that bright red lipstick’ that endangered samaaj ke sanskaars, point out how male dress code is never a point of conversation in the gang. We come to work to do our jobs – help us be treated with basic respect and professionalism. In a world where even the British Prime Minister is not safe from objectification at the workplace, imagine the plight of us common women.

Help us not be reduced to objects of male entertainment, curiosity or virtuosity. Help your male colleagues keep their opinions about our attire to themselves – over time it will encourage many more women to join the workforce and discover the power of financial independence.

In conclusion

Most importantly, when you watch a woman stand up against any of the above, support her. Understand that it takes a disproportionately large amount of courage for a woman to speak for herself and her rights in a male-dominated room. It means that she has either gone through intensive internal turmoil to find her voice. Or that she has undergone some traumatic external experience that taught her to speak up. Or, in most cases, a combination of both. Don’t wait until later to tell such a woman how she was very brave, in private. Don’t think it to yourself. Don’t just rave about it with your wife later that night when you are telling her about your day.

Speak up then and there. Be vocal and loud and public with your support for a woman who showed the guts to speak out. Repeat and endorse what she just said in your lower voice register – sadly, it will make others take notice of the merits of her point.

And finally, if you are a company travel agent or hosting a work trip from a partner organization, please please please book us on better hotels.

 

Can I get a “Me Too”, ladies?

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HIMMF: Phillauri

HIMMF is a new series of blogposts I am starting today. I have been struggling with the review format for a long time, feeling torn between my (usually) strong opinions on most of the content I consume – books, movies, TV shows, plays – and the knowledge that my opinion barely qualifies as amateur whining of a passive couch potato when compared to the humbling amount of time, effort and creative genius it takes to produce the simplest form of content. And so, more for writing practice than anything, I decided to go ahead with HIMMF – How It Made Me Feel – a series where I will air to the Universe what I felt when I read a book, watched a movie, or ate a shameful amount of ice cream while spending a shameful chunk of my limited time on this planet watching a TV series on Netflix. So here it goes. HIMMF. To whomsoever it may concern.

Phillauri

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I had given Phillauri a miss in the theatres when the terrible reviews came out alongside it’s release. But the trailer had definitely piqued my curiosity. So when I saw the movie had released on Hotstar, I made sure we dedicated one lazy Sunday evening to the home screening of the movie. (Shoutout to Airtel for the most amazing 4G network in Delhi – streamed 1.2GBs from my phone where the home wifi and the mandatory middle class JioFi connection failed spectacularly.)
Am I the only sucker who absolutely loved this movie? My Punju DNA and a recent Amritsar visit must’ve added to the effect, but I am also talking about the whole lovers-reuniting-after-a-century theme. Something about it that the hopeless romantic in me completely falls for everytime. It is sad that Bollywood hasn’t got the beyond-lifetimes thing right since Karz (okay may be Om Shanti Om in the middle. And yes, my bar is that low). Until Phillauri, of course.
**SPOILER ALERT
The climax scene when the lead characters reunite over the sea of spirits of the innocents who were mercilessly and needlessly murdered in Jallianwallah Bagh, I must admit I cried like Indian cricket fans across the country did, around the same time last night. Something about that place, that setting, the very real possibility that many such love stories ended abruptly that terrible day, and the thought that if ghosts do exist then there really must be many wandering the Jallianwallah Bagh, waiting for their unfulfilled tasks to achieve fruition, much like the Phillauris. Pass the tissues, please.
 SPOILER ENDS**
Another angle in the movie that I am an absolute sucker for – the strong female character. I am talking about Shashi, of course, and not the mopey bride-to-be who admittedly shows some decent strength herself, within the limited confines of her I-exist-to-get-married-to-my-highschool-sweetheart life frame. But Shashi, what a character! What a wonderful portrayal by Anushka Sharma, of a female artist and the pointless shit they had to face in the simple act of creating their art back in the day. (Thank God we have moved past this shit now.) And the role of Diljit Dosanjh as the drool-worthy Casanova who still knows an artist of greater calibre when he sees one and knows how to treat her with due respect, well ahead of his times.
Speaking of giving credit where it is due, especially to female artists, a giant kudos to Anushka Sharma who is telling us amazing stories through in her producer avatar, starting with NH10, and now Phillauri. Following her company Clean Slate Films with bated breath and googly fangirl eyes for what she does next.
And, finally, the music – oh, what a beauty! ‘Sahiba‘ has since been playing on loop on my phone ever since it was done streaming the movie for me. Even as I type this, the song is playing in the background and I am seeing Diljit Dosanjh crooning in front of that amazeballs giant microphone, which gives you real old-timey feels.
All in all, if you missed this movie because of the way-off reviews, or work, or life in general never giving you enough time to do all the theatre movie watching you want to do (or, as in my case, all of the above), do catch it now on TV or Hotstar. A work of art worth every second you spend with it.

 

PS: Fun trivia about this film. The CBFC wanted a scene in the movie cut because it showed the character Kanan reciting Hanuman Chalisa to ward away Shashi’s ghost and she doesn’t budge. The reason, and I love this part, that Hanuman Chalisa is a sure shot solution to ghost infestation and the movie inaccurately portrays it as being ineffective against one. So many incepted levels of idiocy there that it makes me laugh and cry for humanity everytime I think of it. Watch this movie, if for nothing else, then to piss off Mr Nihalani and his band of enlightened brothers.

Why a recent cover story of HT Brunch is problematic

This story was published in DailyO in February 2017, right after this issue came out. Re-published here in its unedited form.

 

I am an ardent reader of HT Brunch. Every weekend, I look forward to their latest edition to devour from cover to cover. As an engineer myself, I absolutely adore Mr Rajiv Makhni’s tech column. Ms Seema Goswami’s thoughts of the week always make for a fun and interesting read. Mr Vir Sanghvi’s rude food is always enlightening (I only wish it was sometimes accompanied by an English translation alongside the original Greek and Latin!).

Point is, it is a great magazine and makes for a wonderful showcase of everything that is new and young and worth knowing about in modern culture. Which is precisely why, I was highly disturbed to see their cover this Sunday.

This week’s cover story of HT Brunch is about the women’s football team. Normally, this should be a story that would fill one’s heart with pride for our girls, and pride at being a woman oneself. Normally, this should be a story I should want to recommend to all my friends who are parents of little girls and are looking for a bedtime story to read out to them – a story that would make them believe that anything is possible and any dream they dream that night can become a reality if work hard for it. Normally, this should be a story of grit, determination, blood, sweat and sheer girl gumption.

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But the moment I picked up the issue, I saw from the cover image itself that this would be no normal story. The cover image showed two photographs of the sportswomen – one, with them in their jerseys, posing with footballs, and the other, with them posing in fashionable clothing, wearing a ton of makeup, and high heels. The first photo was tagged “3k views” and the second “301k views”. Below the images was written in bold lettering, “It must be the make-up!”

My heart sank as I took in the monstrosity that was this cover image.

Even without opening the magazine, I felt let down by this publication that is supposed to be a herald-er of “what’s cool” and “what’s in” for the youth. Here it was, portraying women – sportswomen at that – in a light that reduces them to objects to be dolled up, and reduces their worth to “views” based on their looks and their make-up. I felt shocked that this horror passed the editorial process of the HT group. I felt shocked that, in this day and age, where feminism is finally becoming a point of discussion at family dinners, such a major magazine could still present a picture of women that sets their legitimacy as professionals back by decades, and reduces them to being pretty little things, valuable only because of their aesthetically pleasing bodies. While some in popular culture are making an effort to celebrate stories of parents encouraging their daughters in female infanticide-ridden Haryana to pursue sports, here is our national team being objectified on the front page of a leading pop-culture magazine.

The inside of the story offered no redeeming features either. It is frankly depressing that the magazine did not deem our national football team worthy of being covered by a sports journalist, and sent a beauty journalist(!) to cover their stories instead. The beauty journalist did what beauty journalists do – gave the ladies a makeover and spent time discussing their lip glosses, while their struggles and journeys as sportswomen went glossed over.

And then there was the utterly laughable section of the article where they brought in Mr Baichung Bhutia to comment on the girls’ makeover, because why would a woman dress up, if not for the approval of the nearest alpha male. It is a deeply awkward piece, where Mr Bhutia is clearly uncomfortable with what he is expected to comment on. Here is a picture of him in the magazine, where they have him shrug his shoulders in that “Who are these women and what did they do to my players?” kind of way. Not sure whether to laugh or cry at the self-goal there, pun unintended.

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I am sure Mr Bhutia must’ve felt far more comfortable talking about the game these women happen to play, and spoken about it at length as well. But here is the pearl of a quote the journalist picked and included in the article: “as a former FIFA chief once said, Indian women dance and move their bodies so well that they can definitely excel at football.” Downright educational to read Indian women’s sporting talent being traced back to gyration at wedding baraats. If this isn’t demeaning and belittling their respective struggles, and the hard work it must have taken to rise to where they have, I don’t know what is.

Someone I discussed this article with pointed out the responsibility of the women featured in the article and the role played by them in the angle the magazine chose to cover them with. To that, I can only respond by placing myself in their shoes. 20-21 year old girls, many of them from rural backgrounds, being covered by media professionals, cannot be blamed for trusting these ‘professionals’ to know their job. When I was their age, I was far behind them in terms of accomplishment (heck, I am a decade older and still far behind them in terms of accomplishment). And I cannot say with confidence, that if someone had asked me a decade back to put on some make-up and pose for a cover story in a leading magazine, I would notice anything terribly wrong with that.

Which is why I feel that the responsibility for the irresponsibility shown by the Brunch team here lies squarely on their shoulders. Perhaps shared, in part, only by history and the way women – even exceptional achievers like these girls – have always been portrayed. Unfortunately, that is where one looks at the media of today to move forward and bring about change. I sincerely wish the Brunch editors had chosen to play that role, instead of repeating and reinforcing the mistakes of the past for a shinier cover picture.

I am eagerly awaiting the next issue of Brunch with bated breath. I wonder if it will feature the men’s football team. I wonder if they will send a beauty journalist to cover the boys too. I wonder if we will read all about their favorite hairgels and exfoliating skin care routine in the story. I wonder if a senior female football player will be brought into the room after the sportsmen undergo a makeover to comment on how pretty they looked, and how Indian men are naturally good at footer, given the practice they get dancing at weddings.

I wonder if we will ever try to legitimize the achievements of our sportsmen by giving them a makeover and a thousand times more views! It must be the make-up!