This year the Nobel Prize in Literature will not be awarded. This is hardly the first time something like this is being done, but never before has the reason behind such a step been a sex scandal. The members of the Swedish Academy decide the recipient of the prize each year but this year the award has to be canceled because there are only ten extant members of the total council of eighteen. That is not enough to come to an agreement over a suitable recipient of the Nobel Prize. Where did the rest of the members of the council go? They have resigned because the husband of one of the members of the Academy has been accused of sexual harassment by eighteen different women. The Academy also used to financially aid an organisation founded by the accused. Besides, in the past this same man has been accused of leaking the names of the winners in advance having gained the information from his wife. After these uncomfortable incidents came to light some of the members of the Academy resigned. One must admit that it is because of the Me Too movement that so many women have come forward with their stories of harassment against such an influential man. The movement has provided immense impetus to women who have faced sexual violence to voice their accusations, to not be afraid and to never feel ashamed. It has provided many women with a lot of strength and assured them that no matter how rich or influential the accused men are, their stories of harassment will no longer remain dirty secrets, that their Time’s Up. In case of the Academy, if the women had not come forward the husband Jean Claude Arnaut would have remained installed as a virtuous man in the public eye. His reputation now lies in ruins, the Academy has snapped all ties with him and his wife too has had to pay for his indiscretions by resigning from her position in the Academy.
Hollywood too has gone through a storm recently. A series of women came forward and accused powerful producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment. Harvey was forced out from his own company. Accusations were leveled against Kevin Spacey and Ben Affleck too; Spacey lost his deal with Netflix as a result while Affleck too has had to apologise for an old incident when he had groped a young journalist. Accusations were raised against director Oliver Stone that he had allegedly grabbed the breasts of a woman in a party twenty years ago, with the woman recently making the story public. Dustin Hoffman, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Douglas, Roman Polanski, David Copperfield are only a few among the nearly 122 celebrities against whom many women have alleged sexual harassment. Without consent they have grabbed breasts or touched buttocks, told sexually coloured jokes, lured women to their rooms under false pretexts, tried raping many of them and even succeeded with some. Not just in Hollywood, this is everywhere, in the music industry, in the world of art, in politics, business or media. The effect of Time’s Up has been felt in nearly all of these places. Not just ordinary women, celebrities have accused other celebrities of sexual harassment and have caused devastation in the lives of many such predatory men, causing them to lose their reputations, their careers as well as their clout. To give due credit, Me Too has managed to unmask many such predatory abusive men. The stronger Me Too has grown in the west, the more rabid general misogyny has become too. Time’s Up has added to the pressure, leading to many institutions crumbling and even ministers being forced to resign.
In the Cannes Film Festival this year, for the very first time, a hotline has been established to combat harassment. If anyone attempts any sort of indiscreet behaviour they will be immediately reported to the hotline. On fliers of the festival this year they have printed advice such as ‘Good behaviour is required’ ‘Don’t spoil the party, stop harassment’. This sort of an initiative by Cannes is commendable as well as essential.
A few days ago the Attorney General of New York Eric Schneiderman was forced to resign after four previous lovers alleged that he used to physically abuse them. Although Eric was a vocal crusader in the fight for gender equality he is now being regarded as a liar and fraud by the people, the shame forcing him out of office.
In the west when accusations of sexual harassment or abuse are raised even the most influential of men have to now go through shame and censure; they have to face public ridicule. In many cases they have to leave their high positions of authority, come to terms with their fall in society and their tarnished reputations. And how are things in our subcontinent? Here women continue to face torture and incredible sexual torment, rape or gang rape on a daily basis. Not just adults, even infants are no longer safe. Every day there is fresh news of abuse against a child, be it in Comilla or Kolkata. Let’s take India for instance. Even after accusations are proved the accused do not fear any backlash against their reputation. Back in 1988 a government official had accused the then DGP of Punjab Police K.P.S Gill of sexual harassment. The next year Gill was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honour. Even after the accusations were proved in court the award wasn’t rescinded and nor did it affect Gill’s name in any adverse way. Various accusations of harassment, including allegations of rape, have been raised against as many as 48 MLAs and 3 MPs across party lines but the political parties hardly care about such data. If things come to a head they can always blame things on the violated woman’s clothes or her character and support rape too if need be. The only consequence is that no one will have to suffer any at all – since most people in the country are used to victim-shaming rather than shaming the predators.
Misogyny, abuse, rape have become so normalised in our societies that accusations leveled against men result in people shaming not the accused but the woman who has gone through the ordeal. Men don’t have to hang their heads in shame, women do. I speak from experience when I say that society has never criticized or rebuked any man who has shamed me or cheated me; it is I who has always had to bear the brunt of all abuse. I used to be in love with and was married to poet Rudra Muhammad Shahidullah a long time ago. In the second volume of my autobiography Utal Haoa (Restless Wind) I have written about his treatment of me, terrifying stories of his regular visits to brothels even after marriage and bringing back STDs to infect his wife with. After reading these accounts Bangladeshi society had felt no hatred for him; all their hatred had been directed at me. I had dared to speak about sex in public and that must make me a bad woman, a fallen woman. Because to them the only good woman is the kind that silently tolerates all abuse and torture at the hands of her husband, and the woman who successfully hides all her husband’s misdeeds is the one with the strongest character. In fact, after the revelations about Rudra nothing happened to his social standing other than his consistently surging popularity. This is unthinkable in a civilised nation. In the third volume of my autobiography Dwikhondito (Split) I have written about renowned author Syed Shamsul Haque’s frank admissions regarding his relationships with teenage girls. He had once taken me on a trip and force me into sharing a room with him at night. Even though I had averted any untoward incident the whole thing had been terribly uncomfortable. Did Syed Haque have to apologise after these revelations? Did he have to bow his head in shame? Did his social standing suffer? Not at all. He continued to lie with his head held high, went to court and hit me with a hundred crore lawsuit and got my book banned by the High Court. Syed Haque is no more but my book is still prohibited in Bangladesh. Those who were expected to be on the same side as freedom of speech and the independence of women, they had sided with Syed Haque, sang his praises and thrown the choicest of abuses at me, all because I had dared to publicly reveal the misdeeds of the great man.
This is our patriarchal misogynous society. Sunil Gangyopadhyay, the ex-president of Sahitya Akademi, had once groped me; I had been stunned by his audacity. Even after revealing this on social media no one had accused Gangyopadhyay of any crime, they had directed all the abuse at me. Many had figured out I was speaking the truth but they had sided with him nevertheless. They were convinced that a man had the right to sexually harass a woman. When Sunil had devoted himself to banning Dwikhandito he had repeatedly remarked that whatever happens between two people behind closed doors has no business being discussed in public. Since I had done exactly that in the book I was pronounced guilty and the men who had committed the actual crimes were deemed not guilty simply by virtue of the fact that they were men. What would Sunil have said about Me Too? Would he have also rebuked the western women who are revealing the abuse they have faced at the hands of men behind closed doors? No he wouldn’t have. He would have hailed them precisely because they are from the west, while had it been a woman from this region he would done all in his power to drive her out, to silence her, to bring down devastation upon her.
I am talking about my own experience but this can as well be the experience of any woman in the subcontinent. A Ram Rahim or an Asaram Bapu is punished, not to give women their due rights, but because such punishments help one reap immense political profits.