All photos from the event: Zeyad Masroor Khan.
India's #MeToo movement—which gathered momentum last month—has been called a revolution, a historic moment for women’s empowerment. However, as I witnessed on October 25th at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia campus, the movement also evoked a sense of “tragedy” among a group of angry young men.
Almost a month ago, I came across what was being publicised as a ‘Haya (loosely translated as modesty) Sensitization Program’ organised by a private group: ‘Students of JMI’. Their intention, according to their circular, was to “rationalise” #MeToo at a time “when the followers of Kardashians, Madona, and Sunny Leone are teaching the lessons of women empowerment to the followers of Khadija, Aisha and Fatima (sic)”, and when there is a need to “stand up with full enthusiasm in the light and teach these armies of Dajjal with our words and actions”.
The Dajjal—used here as a term for proponents of feminism—is an evil figure in Islamic eschatology, who would ultimately bring destruction to the world. I must admit that I went to this event not just curious to know what this patriarchal group thought and because it made me a bit livid, but also because I thought it might just hold entertainment potential.
While I expected to see burning effigies of Tanushree Dutta and Tarana Burke, all I saw was a group of men, and a few women sitting at the back—this, in the light of one of their stated aims to achieve gender segregation at the campus. However, one of the speakers clarified that they had to “allow” women after some backlash on social media.
The programme began and, with it, a long diatribe about #MeToo in particular, and feminism in general. “Using a hashtag on Twitter and making it go viral does nothing. It’s not a solution,” said Mohammed Adil, the presenter-cum-organiser. “It’s mostly the ones who have vested interests that thrive on making things viral. In the end, even most of the ones who have been accused are still living a comfortable life,” continued the bespectacled and bearded boy in his early twenties. Most heads bobbed in agreement, but I could spot a girl looking visibly angry.
Then came the main speaker of the event, who I first thought was an expert on feminism, but later found out to be an “active” MBA student called Mohammad Arshad Warsi. “Feminism ne kuch nahi kara. Bas aurat ko aadmi se ladaya hai.” (Feminism has done nothing except make women fight with men),” he declared before releasing a tirade on feminism being “idiotic” because its definitions are changing with time. “Things that feminists stood for once have changed. They are against what they preached earlier.” I was tempted to stand up and say it's called evolution of an ideology, but decided to keep my opinions to myself to see how the event might proceed.
Then came the dismissing of the movement as something “immoral” because actors got involved. “The journey is from Hollywood to Bollywood. It gained ground in areas where so-called empowered women work like fashion, corporate, media and film industry. Why are most sexual abusers the ones who talk about feminism?” asked Warsi, making me wonder what he actually meant by that question.
The speaker then lashed out at the critics of their programme, who were mostly students and teachers of Jamia Millia Islamia, and active netizens. “We got a lot of abuse. Many made fun of us. They were angry because we talked about the concept of haya in our circular. Agar aapko haya se problem ho to aapko behaya hi kaha jayega. (If you have problem with the concept of modesty, then you will be called immodest).” said Warsi.
Finally, Adil invited a girl, who was seated at the back, to speak. Mariyam Hasan—an alumni, blogger and an aspiring author—seemed taken aback for being called on the podium to talk, but relented anyway. “The problem is that most men don’t see women as a humans, but only as a commodity," she said, probably the first statement that I agreed with that evening. "They think they can do anything and get away with that." There was utter silence. No heads bobbed, except mine. She went on to talk about the objectification of women, that she prefers to stick to “decent” clothing but doesn’t consider it a major factor. “Even women wearing modest clothes have to face abuse and even newborn babies get raped in our society,” she said.
After the hour-long event was over and the crowd dispersed as quickly as it had gathered, Yamina Afreen, a JMI student, told me that #MeToo is effective only against “celebrity harassers”. “It doesn’t tackle the harassment we have to deal with on the streets in our area. We have no option but to ignore it,” she told me.
She added that it's tough to speak out against such everyday harassment. “When we raise it with families and people around us, it is made out as if it’s our fault. What can women do in such a scenario?”
MeToo is a watershed moment. But I also agree with Afreen’s view of taking the movement beyond social media. During my time as a JMI student, I have been privy to different forms of harassment on university campuses (as brought to light by Raya Sarkar last year), and the ways in which the administration works to protect the perpetrators (as what happened at the Ashoka University and the Asian College of Journalism).
Before I went back home, I met some boys from the group and tried to make them understand how, in the light of rising reported cases of sexual harassment in campuses, we need more awareness on gender sensitivity, not haya. They just shook their heads in disagreement and walked off.
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