From Washington to Bollywood, women are being heard − but are they being listened to?


The indian film star Tanushree Dutta has made accusations against the actor Nana Patekar. AFP

The world is paying close attention to the drama over the confirmation of US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, but this is less for reasons of prurience than those of perturbation. Mr Kavanaugh is accused by several women of sexual misconduct while in school and college. One of them testified in the Senate, as did Mr Kavanaugh. The emotional nine-hour hearing was live-streamed in America and internationally.

Its fallout — a belated, time-bound, and initially circumscribed FBI investigation — has become a point at which partisan politics has collided with gender politics.

Around the world, women are asking if their stories of assault and harassment matter enough to the men in charge for them to bring about any meaningful change.

Consider the international response to the Kavanaugh hearings. In the days after the highly charged Senate testimony by Dr Christine Blasey Ford, Mr Kavanaugh’s first accuser, a well-known Indian lawyer wistfully asked if judicial appointments in her country would ever factor in “the nominee’s conduct and treatment [of] women”.

In Brazil, reflecting the broader effects of a worldwide surge in female activism, countrywide protests were organised by women against the sexism and misogyny of Jair Bolsonaro, far-right front-runner in Sunday’s presidential election. Mr Bolsonaro has been convicted for saying a female fellow legislator was not “worth raping” and commenting on how ugly he believed her to be. The protests have generated the anti-Bolsonaro #elenão or “#NotHim” hashtags, which are being shared by Twitter users around the world, including celebrities such as Madonna.

And in Bollywood, where stories about the casting couch and harassment of starlets are as notorious as they are neglected, an actress now based in the US has renewed a decade-old allegation of harassment. Tanushree Dutta made accusations against Nana Patekar, an award-winning actor who has a record of supporting progressive, humanitarian causes. The allegations have drawn unexpected attention and sympathy. A woman journalist corroborated Ms Dutta’s account of events on the day in question in 2008, prominent stars such as Priyanka Chopra tweeted about the need to #BelieveSurvivors, and younger actresses demanded a reckoning with India’s largely unexamined culture of sexual abuse.

Mr Patekar denies Ms Dutta’s charges, as does Mr Kavanaugh. Both cases are very different, of course. Mr Patekar is not in line for a lifetime appointment in America’s highest court. His predicament is unlikely to trigger a party-political fight with national consequences. Even so, there is a resonance. The attention being given to the allegations against a respected actor illustrates the new importance of women’s accounts, even in countries such as India, where gender rights are more an aspiration than a given.

But women — in the US, India and elsewhere — are dissatisfied. They admit they are being heard and possibly with more sympathy than before the so-called “Weinstein effect” of a year ago. In the past year, the #MeToo movement has brought about the downfall of several US federal officials, including one senator, eight members of the House of Representatives, one federal judge and two White House aides.

And yet many women complain that the new openness is a sham and nothing is really changing in terms of male entitlement. The Kavanaugh confirmation process has only buttressed these claims of patronising paternalism. The Republican senators are seen to have paid lip service to Dr Ford’s account, hearing her out but just as quickly casting doubt on her stated “100 per cent” certainty Mr Kavanaugh was her attacker.

They then presented Mr Kavanaugh as victim of a politically motivated character assassination and moved with indecent haste in their efforts to have him voted into the position of Supreme Court justice. When forced into ordering an FBI inquiry, the White House insisted that it accommodate the desires of Senate Republicans, which basically meant a severely limited scope. The impression is of a whitewash, a self-serving exercise in getting the optics right with little intention of getting to the truth of the matter. It has incensed women all over again.

So, where do we go from here? A war of the sexes is a dismal prospect. In the 18th century, English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft declared in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” She called for “a revolution in female manners”, one that would overthrow an iniquitous system of socialisation that prevented women from standing up and speaking alongside men as moral equals.

Wollstonecraft offers useful lessons for us today. Rather than gender animosity, it is far better for wise men, in the truest sense of the term, to assess the just and virtuous way forward. Meanwhile, farsighted women must work alongside them without anger, self-pity or a sense of entitlement. In other words, in the #MeToo age, women should not become that from which they seek to liberate themselves.