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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

The MJ Akbar case shows women need men to embrace #MeToo for it to have any real impact

The past few weeks demonstrate Indian women, like those elsewhere, cannot always rely on the sisterhood and presume all members of their gender will stand solidly alongside them in the trenches

Former junior foreign minister MJ Akbar with his lawyers outside Patiala House court in New Delhi, India. Rajat Gupta / EPA
Former junior foreign minister MJ Akbar with his lawyers outside Patiala House court in New Delhi, India. Rajat Gupta / EPA

There has been a lot of activity around India’s #MeToo movement of late and depending on where you stand, it’s either too much or too little. But one thing is clear: Indian women, like those elsewhere, cannot always rely on the sisterhood and presume its members will stand solidly alongside them in the trenches for a war that some claim is unfocused, unfair and even unjustified. In India, as everywhere else, there is no unified, gender-coded front in the #MeToo battle.

Consider the news developments in the three weeks since India’s junior foreign minister MJ Akbar resigned to launch a defamation case against journalist Priya Ramani, one of a number of women accusing him of historical sexual harassment.

Last week, Mr Akbar testified in his first court hearing about the “immediate damage” caused to his reputation by the “scurrilous” claims. Just days later, Indian journalist Pallavi Gogoi, who is now based in the US, accused Mr Akbar of raping her 25 years earlier. Mr Akbar responded by saying his relationship with Ms Gogoi had been “consensual”, a claim that was immediately rejected by his accuser.

Mr Akbar’s wife Mallika has rushed to his defence, charging Ms Gogoi with “flaunting the relationship [with her husband and causing] anguish and hurt” to the family. Meanwhile, a number of male Indian commentators have called into question Ms Gogoi’s motivations, honesty and even her character, challenged the direction and thrust of the entire #MeToo movement and even accused the Washington Post, where Ms Gogoi published her revelations, of being anti-Indian.

The latest to wade into the debate is Bikram Vohra, a prominent Indian editor and former colleague of Mr Akbar, who wrote that it was "laughable" the MJ Akbar he knew in the 1980s could "make the leap from a relatively ho-hum boring guy...to being this grotesque figure who suddenly had this Rasputin-like ability to stun so many intelligent women into silent submission". Indeed, he claimed, had someone “just smacked him one hard across his face instead of being in awe, maybe the monster would have deflated, more's the pity”. In other words, it was the women’s fault for letting Mr Akbar become an alleged sexual predator.

The twists and turns of the Akbar case have been dramatic and compelling to watch, with palpable human emotion on all sides. But it goes beyond prurient detail. What the case really tells us about #MeToo, #MeTooIndia and other newly women-focused movements is key. First, having more women speak about previously below-the-radar matters might change little, not if all that emerges is the usual defence: that the victim is lying or was a willing participant in the alleged incident. That was the line taken by Mrs Akbar in arguing her husband’s case. Last month, US first lady Melania Trump urged women “to have really hard evidence” before alleging sexual misconduct, even though such cases don't always have the luxury of solid proof. Second, a cause – any cause – has to be seen as just, and be supported by both men and women if there is to be real, lasting and broad social change.

How does one do that with #MeToo? Can it even be done? Men – not just in India – are increasingly feeling threatened by the name-and-shame movement and the backlash from both sexes has already begun, with its critics claiming the accusations are either trivial, historical vendettas or merely attention-seeking.

Right now, women are turning on other women over their claims of sexual harassment. In the wake of her allegations that she was sexually harassed by her co-star Nana Patekar, Tanushree Dutta, the former Bollywood actress, has faced plenty of criticism herself. Among her critics is dancer Rakhi Sawant, whom she threatened to sue after being subjected to an alleged smear campaign.

Additionally, the silence of Indian women in power – Mr Akbar’s female former ministerial colleagues, for instance – is striking. It took a male BJP leader, PVS Sarma, to publicly state this week that "MJ Akbar must go now. He should be removed from the party." He added on Twitter: "He should be advised to quit [until] he is cleared of the charges. He can always come back if he is not found guilty." That it was a male politician who spoke out is significant – and heartening.

The sisterhood alone cannot provide support for a movement led by women. Those women have fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, who should – and often do – care just as much. The voices of both genders are equally important in this battle. And while the evidence in all cases must be thoroughly investigated, women need men to embrace the #MeToo movement for it to have any real impact.

That said, women, just as much as men, have a fundamental right to be treated with respect. That’s the irreducible core of the #MeToo movement and it will not be diminished by smears and name-calling.