IN A 17TH CENTURY ITALIAN painting you can see today’s MeToo movement play out with surprising accuracy. Two women with muscular arms hold down a man. One pins his arms, even as he tries (in vain) to throttle her, while the other slams one fist down on his cheek, and uses a knife to slice his throat. His eyes are rolled back, but open. He knows his assassins. Blood streaks down the sheets. The women look neither scared nor flustered. Instead, their faces are calm, as if this were just another day in the kitchen, decapitating a particularly feisty chicken.
To any casual viewer, this is a brutal painting. The women seem unmoved by murder, by the man’s sufferance, by his dying, by his death. But dig a little deeper and you will learn that this is a painting that represents a woman artist and the man who raped her. Judith Slaying Holofernes was painted by Artemisia Gentileschi. Describing this particular work, Jonathan Jones writes in the Guardian, ‘The dying man is Holofernes, an enemy of the Israelites in the Old Testament, and the young woman beheading him is Judith, his divinely appointed assassin. Yet at the same time he is also an Italian painter called Agostino Tassi, while the woman with the sword is Artemisia Gentileschi, who painted this. It is, effectively, a self-portrait.’ Even a cursory reading of Gentileschi will reveal what a fascinating historical character she is. Gentileschi (1593–1653) was an Italian Baroque painter, considered in the same canon as the Baroque master Caravaggio, known for his realistic depictions. Gentileschi was an aberration; at a time when women painters were not allowed into the hallowed academies of Florence, she had her own international clientele. Even while her genius is apparent to all, she is remembered for being the woman who was raped by senior artist Agostino Tassi, and then participated in the prosecution of her rapist.
Gentileschi’s work is in the spotlight today because of the ongoing exhibition Beyond Caravaggio running at the National Gallery in London. But reading of her life and work, I find the parallels between then and now both uncanny and unnerving. Gentileschi’s father, also an artist, recognised his daughter’s innate talent, and hired Tassi to give her lessons. The father would accuse Tassi of raping his daughter in 1612. She fought her attacker during the rape and in court. Witnesses and friends spoke up for her, while Tassi emerged as a serial offender. Despite evidence in favour of the woman artist, she was tortured and the male accused was set free. He had the blessings of the Pope, after all. In life, Gentileschi could not get justice. So she sought her revenge the only way she could—in her work, on canvas. In her art, she slit his throat. And she did so not alone. With another woman she took down the perpetrator.
Four hundred years later, not that much has changed; the art academies of Florence have been replaced by the newsrooms of Delhi, and the patrons of Rome are now leaders at Raisina Hill. Gentileschi followed ‘due process’, she took the man to court. But that did nothing for her. Similarly, today, women at the workplace are calling out men who have humiliated, hurt and harassed them. Often these men are their mentors, those who taught them the ropes. Women who’ve been let down by courts and committees are taking matters into their own hands. Like Gentileschi, they are painting their own stories. They are doing so not alone, but with the strength of the sorority.
The past few days have been exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. Women are angry. Women are telling us why they are angry. They are speaking out against a culture of male impunity and immunity, one where bad behaviour thrives, is overlooked and never redressed. Anger is always seen as a negative emotion, one which we suck in, breathe out and muffle. Often anger does damage and destroy. It can cause more harm than good, but at times, to not be angry is also to prop up a ‘profoundly corrupt status quo’. In her recent book Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger (September 11th, 2018) Soraya Chemaly details the importance of harnessing and channelling this rage. She writes, ‘Saying ‘I am angry’ is a necessary first step to ‘Listen’. ‘Believe me.’ ‘Trust me.’ ‘I know.’ ‘Time to do something.’ When a girl or woman is angry, she is saying ‘What I am feeling, thinking, and saying matters.’ As the treatment of our anger and the state of our politics vividly confirm, this is not an assurance that we can take for granted.’
The problem with social media outrage is that there is no room for nuance. It starts and ends with 'you are with us' or 'you are against us'. There is no doubt that what is happening is vital and necessary. But the outrage, we must remember, is against the system, and not all men, not every man
As sordid stories of harassment come to the fore, it becomes evident that certain men fail to see what women want. When a man chooses to flick a bra strap, ogle at a cleavage, prolong a hug, place a hand on a thigh, a tongue down a throat, or an ice cube on an arm, he is showing a woman that he simply does not care what she might be feeling, thinking or saying. MeToo as we now know is not only about harassment, it is about power. It is about a male power that denies women control. MeToo is as much an act of solidarity as it is a referendum: no more. The outpouring on social media, the retelling of incidents, the hashtag TimesUp tells us that women are angry. And we have a right to be. As Chemaly writes, ‘Anger is usually about saying ‘no’ in a world where women are conditioned to say almost anything but ‘no’.’
IN GENTILESCHI’S CASE THE CRIME was terrible and absolute. She had been raped. The MeToo accounts are more complex, more layered, but equally in need of redressal. But to talk about what is playing out is also to acknowledge that nothing is black and white. Sohaila Abdulali is a writer, counsellor and activist. She is also the first Indian survivor to speak about rape, after being gang-raped as a 17-year-old, in 1980, in Bombay. She wrote an article in Manushi about the silence surrounding rape at a time when victims were never identified, let alone publicised. Her soon-to-be-released book What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape (Viking) offers a lucid lens. She writes in chapter one, ‘In this book, I will contradict myself. Rape is always a catastrophe. Rape is not always a catastrophe. Rape is like any other crime. Rape is not like any other crime. It’s all true. Except for the foundational belief that rape is a crime, with a criminal and a victim, I will not take anything else for granted.’
I find her words playing back to me as I hear and read of first and second-hand accounts of abuse, harassment, assault. Sexual assault is always a catastrophe. Sexual assault is not always a catastrophe. Both are equally true. It depends from person to person, from time to time. What is sexism to one woman is harassment to another. What is repartee to one can be a violation to a second. The point is that it is all subjective. What matters is if a man uses his power and position to make a woman uncomfortable, and if he continues to do so in spite of her refusals and rebuttals. This is not a ‘scary time for men’, as Donald Trump believes. This is simply a time when creeps and hunters are being held accountable. As they must. This is a movement against the man with a pattern of bad behaviour.
The problem with social media outrage is that there is no room for this nuance. It starts and ends with ‘you are with us’ or ‘you are against us’. There is no doubt that what is happening is vital and necessary. But the outrage, we must remember, is against the system, and not all men, not every man. We are witnessing an uprising against a system where the Human Resources Department does not pay heed to a woman’s complaints, or worse still squashes it altogether. It is a system where sexism is seen as par for the course. It is a system where the first response is, ‘The woman is exaggerating.’ It is a system where the Internal Complaints Committee is non-existent or defunct. It is a system where filing a case at the police station can be as harrowing as the incident itself.
MeToo must not be seen as a war of women against men. Instead, it must be understood as a battle against systemic persecution, fed by complicity. It is a testament to the power of social media that some of the most illustrious names have been called out for their unpardonable predatory and pervy behaviour. Social media is the first draft of history. And today history is being made. As Abdulali says, ‘The minute you speak, the moment you write your own narrative, the second you open your mouth, you are no longer just a victim. You are taking back some control. It is the opposite of victimhood.’ Telling is important. Sharing is essential; it reveals to an accused the impact of his actions, and it is a way to ensure that other women do not suffer the same. Sharing is a warning system, which shoots out flares to both the man and other women.
We must not regress into the morass of believing that all workplaces are dens of abuse, all male colleagues are harassers, and all apples are rotten. The conversation on social media can make it appear that women are damsels in a coven of warlocks
Abdulali writes with wisdom and clarity about the ‘outing of a secret’ from a survivor’s point of view: ‘It’s quite a balancing act—you don’t want to have a secret you can’t share, but you equally don’t want this one thing that happened to you to be the biggest thing on everyone’s mind when they think of you. I hope being a rape survivor isn’t the most interesting thing about me or anyone else. In the grand scheme, what happens afterwards is more important. Is Malala Yousafzai interesting solely because she was shot in the head by the Taliban? That is noteworthy, of course, but by now she is interesting because of what she has done with her life after that.’
As we watch what happens around us, we must ask, now what? At first it was an outpouring, but now there seems to be a channelling. The National Commission for Women has said it will take written complaints forward. The Network of Women in Media India (NWMI) and Gender at Work are seeking information on whether and how effectively media houses across the country respond to the issue. Lawyers are entering the fray.
This outpouring, this catharsis is a messy business. Aristotle in Poetics tells us that catharsis is a spectator’s response to a tragedy. The terror and pity that the spectator feels while watching a tragedy leads to a purge. This purge has a cleansing effect on the state. But in Greek tragedy, the audience was at a remove from the actors. The audience watched what happened to the actors in the proscenium. Today with social media, all the world is quite literally a stage. Those who are spectators to the tragedy sit in discomfort, wondering when they might be implicated. Those who are liking, tweeting, commenting and sharing suddenly become the actors up and centre. We are all in this together. We can shift from victim to perpetrator in the blink of an eye. We are all guilty, only to different measures.
‘Naming and shaming’ is not a perfect system. It is one which takes a name and throws it into the mosh pit of public censure. Before a legal conviction, these men have been judged guilty in the eyes of society; that is a responsibility to be taken seriously. The trivial and the serious risk being tossed in the same ferment. The name is not just a name, it is a living person, one with parents and children, wives and daughters. The implosion of a life is an ugly spectacle. Difficult conversations do not make for a happy family dinner. We must not regress into the morass of believing that all workplaces are dens of abuse, all male colleagues are harassers, and all apples are rotten. The conversations on social media can make it appear that women are damsels in a coven of warlocks. But to believe that is to deny women their agency; it is to overlook a woman’s power to tell a man to fuck off.
This movement is gaining traction, but it is still very much a metropolitan elite one. A few Twitter threads do mention salesgirls harassed by boorish bosses, bank tellers spied upon by managers and PhD scholars undone by thesis advisors. This will be a movement in its truest and fullest sense only when it moves beyond the Twitter walls and reaches corporate India and the vernacular press, IT corridors and tier II cities, lawyers’ chambers and district headquarters.
Our rage has been aired, a purge is afoot, but we are far from cleansed. Change begins at home, on the street, in offices. The law can only do that much. But if we can rattle a status quo, make men accountable for their behaviour, we can say the revolution is coming.