In Suhasini Mani Ratnam’s opinion, the women coming out with their #MeToo stories should have kept them “within the industry”, because now these stories have become “entertainment”.
While I agree with her that #MeToo allegations need to be taken seriously, I strongly disagree that they should be kept hidden!
For the past few days, my social media feed has been filled with these beautiful pictures of prominent actors recreating some of Raja Ravi Varma’s iconic portraits. These “portraits for a purpose,” as actor Suhasini Maniratnam calls them, are part of a calendar that has been created to raise funds for her NGO, the NAAM Charitable Trust. The NGO supports single mothers (including abandoned/divorced/widowed women) from underprivileged backgrounds.
At the fund raiser event she was interviewed by an NDTV reporter. Speaking to the reporter, she detailed how celebrity photographer G Venket Ram and she herself collaborated to make this unique calendar happen. Speaking about her foundation, she said, “Right now we have 350 members. We don’t house them but we handhold them. According to a survey done in Tamil Nadu, only 35% of single women live up to their expected life expectancy. Most women die early. So our first interest is to make them love life and live a better life. We take care of their health and introduce them to better living, and better habits and exercises and diet. Second is what they want, that is, education for their children. We take care of their school education. With this, we should be able to go for college education as well for their children. These women are so selfless, more than their own health, they want education for their children, which I think is fantastic!”
It is a worthy cause indeed, and I applaud the creative vision of all involved in the creation of the calendar. I also hope that the women who get the benefit of these proceeds, feel empowered as a result. However, Suhasini Maniratnam’s answer to another question in the interview, has left me with a bad taste in the mouth.
The reporter asked her about her thoughts about the #MeToo movement, and about Chinmayi Sripada’s accusations against Vairamuthu, specifically. Suhasini’s response called to mind the typical patriarchal response of “keep such things inside the home.”
“Usually, I used to be the tough one in the film industry, so whenever such #MeToo problems arose, the younger girl used to come to me. I used to protect them and tell them how to deal with it. It was more personal, but now it’s out in the media. It’s good in a way, but in a way, we don’t know if it should go around because already the film industry is looked at as entertainment. So, a problem also should not be looked at as entertainment. It’s a serious issue, but it should not be looked at as entertainment from the other side.”
“It has to be done within the film industry. Without audience. I don’t want audience for a problem,” she added.
Even more bizarrely, when questioned if the industry should then engage with Vairamuthu or put in place a mechanism to probe the issue, she contradicted herself by saying, “That is a problem between the two of them. They have to sort it out. I don’t think it’s for all of us to interfere. If either of them is in trouble, we have have to go and help out. Otherwise it is a problem between two people.”
So, in her view, the women in the industry should keep the complaints within the industry and not make it public, and the industry itself should not interfere and let the harasser and the harassed sort it out between themselves. How is this any sort of solution? It certainly makes me wonder what support she gave the women who approached her for help!
As one YouTube user commented on the video of the interview, “Glad the anchor asked a difficult question. Sadly, Suhasini fell short. Everyone conveniently ignores about ten other women who have accused Vairamuthu.”
Rapes in India are severely under reported precisely because it is believed that rape and harassment are “dirty secrets” that should be kept hidden. It is a particularly harmful kind of victim blaming that weaponizes the shame and guilt that women feel after the rape/harassment. In a society like India, where rape culture already thrives, and women already feel that they will be blamed for “getting raped,” a statement like his by a public figure like her is irresponsible.
Sure, may be the woman is able to escape his clutches somehow, but when she keeps quiet, the harasser gets to keep his power and prestige. He continues to prey on other women.
Women have a whisper network, and they usually do warn women in their circle about predatory men. They key words however, are “women in their circle.” What about women who are not so accepted by the mainstream circles – Dalit women, or transwomen, for instance? They do not get the benefit of the majority-led whisper network. This is just one of the reasons why the “loudness” of #MeToo is a blessing. Now, everyone knows.
The biggest achievement of #MeToo is that it has brought about the important conversations about sexual harassment out into the open. It has given women a feeling that they are not alone, and that they have at least someone who believes in them. There is a strength to the solidarity born out of not keeping silent anymore.
Yes, none of the accusations have been properly investigated yet, nor have the culprits been brought to book, and that should be the next step. That would not have been possible, if like always, the women had stayed silent.
Sexual harassment is not the private business of two individuals. It is a crime! It should be made public. It should be investigated. The criminals should be punished. Given the power difference between the complainant and the accused, to expect them to resolve it between themselves is tone-deaf and reeks of privilege.
It is truly a shame that senior women like Suhasini refuse to support women like Chinmayi, who have taken a stand. It is a reminder of how patriarchy pits women against women, and how we must resist the urge to fall into that trap. We must keep the flag of solidarity and sisterhood flying high, and we must not stay silent.
Image credits NDTV video shared above
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