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After a year of very little momentum, India’s #MeToo movement exploded in October. The tide turned in a similar way as it had in the United States, where the hashtag was born. The ripples began in the media industry, but, as in the West, the reckoning within journalism, film and television was only the beginning.
Before long the movement’s waves moved outward, touching nearly every aspect of Indian society, from politics to the world of big corporations, from religion to law enforcement to sport. The Indian public was finally bringing powerful men to task for long histories of bad behavior that had been swept under the rug.
Perhaps the most powerful man to be taken down by India’s #MeToo movement—which has thus far toppled big-name Bollywood stars, a Netflix-associated production studio and a beloved comedy group—is M.J. Akbar, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet. His role—minister of state for external affairs—is akin to that of the American secretary of state.
Akbar’s name was first mentioned in association within the #MeToo context by Priya Ramani, a journalist. A handful of women then went on to share harrowing personal stories of Akbar’s history of harassment, physical advances, workplace sexual manipulation, and rape during his tenure at Asian Age, the newspaper he founded in the 1990s. More than 20 other women have signed their names to a letter accusing Akbar of the same behavior.
Akbar tendered his resignation, but he has not been quiet or contrite. Rather, he has taken his accusers to court for defamation, highlighting the Indian institution that has, perhaps, failed the country’s women the most over the years.
Previous attempts by Indian women to gain justice for sexual crimes through the country’s legal system have proven painful. The case against Tarun Tejpal for example, another prominent editor accused of sexual assault, was brought to court 5 years ago and there is still no verdict in sight. The future of the Indian #MeToo movement may ride on whether institutions like these will follow the lead of the hashtag’s calls to action.
It remains to be seen whether the movement is powerful enough to touch the lives of India’s ordinary women in a significant way, and there is much work to be done. According to a World Bank report from 2017, the country is seeing declines in women participating in the workforce. In 1994, 42.6 percent of women participated in the labor force, by 2011, that rate had dropped to 31.2 percent.
And, India is still a very dangerous place to be a woman or girl. In the World Economic Forum’s 2018 report on gender parity, India ranked third-lowest in the world on Health and Survival for women. According to the WEF, that makes India the world’s least-improved country on that particular subindex over the past decade.
It’s unclear if a hashtag will be enough to topple or change systems and institutions that have kept India’s women down, or if ordinary women outside the spotlight will get their turns at justice. The changes many Indian women hope for will certainly take time, but in 2018, #MeToo was able to get these conversations off the ground in ways the country has rarely seen before.