Ruminations: Enemy in the ranks
Women who try to delegitimise victims of sexual harassment could win the odd battle but not the war over #MeToo

Fifth columnists have been a part of every major war, undercutting the defences from within. Britain confronted this during the Second World War, discovering to its horror that there were more Nazi sympathisers at home than it thought it had, people who supported the Fatherland and fed Hitler’s hate with their anti-Semitism. During the freedom movement, the fifth columnists were a different breed – they were patriots, Subhas Chandra Bose’s supporters, who risked their lives to conspire against the British, the colonial masters.

It is not surprising that #MeToo, a full scale war being fought across the globe against patriarchy and misogyny, should have fifth columnists too – women who try to pull down women victims of sexual predators by attempting to deligitimise their stories.

Wars against other forms of oppression in society have had fifth columnists too. The one against caste system, for instance, has seen people from the exploited castes stand together with oppressors. Then, women – mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law – have sometimes been obstacles in the fight to end the dowry system and atrocities against young married women. It was only a matter of time when women, women of note, would stand up and be counted against the #MeToo war.

One of them was Catherine Deneuve, a French movie star. In a letter published in the French daily Le Monde, she denounced #MeToo ‘puritanism’ saying it was a witch-hunt and a threat to sexual freedom. Deneuve was among the 100 signatories to the letter which makes the revolting claim, “Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cack-handedly, is not — nor is men being gentlemanly a macho attack… Men have been punished summarily or forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch someone’s knee or try to steal a kiss.”

Among those who signed the letter are the writer Catherine Millet and German actress Ingrid Caven. The letter goes on to say, “Instead of helping women, this frenzy... actually helps the enemies of sexual liberty — religious extremists and the worst sort of reactionaries. As women, we do not recognise ourselves in this feminism, which, beyond denouncing the abuse of power, takes on a hatred of men and of sexuality.” For the record, Deneuve had stood along with Roman Polanski in the case involving the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, saying to use the word ‘rape’ in the case was excessive.

Compare this with the hope that the movement generated in India. It gave them the courage to recount instances from the past, humiliation that they had been forced to swallow. A victim, writing about how it might impact India Inc, says, “As the tide turns against tolerance for misogyny and amoral leadership globally, shareholders realise it’s not good for business. Is corporate India prepared for this new expectation from investors and consumers?”

The tolerance for misogyny and male dominance clearly included more than condoning an act that involved touching someone on the knee or trying to steal a kiss. It involved trying to humiliate them once again by questioning their stories. It is important to understand why they do this. The role of women standing with oppressors in cases of sexual harassment and dowry is akin to those who ignored caste-related atrocities against members of their own caste. It shows an eagerness to belong to the existing power structure and the fear of loss if they take a different view. The anxiety over possibly losing privileges prompts them to act against women who challenge the power structure. In essence it means that by standing with those who represent power they are assured that they will not be ignored in the competiton for resources. Atrocities against newly-married women also stems from the fear that older women would be ignored by the young couple.

There has often been the argument that alongside genuine cases where women have fallen victim to sexual predators, there are gold diggers who lodge false complaints against men. But, in most cases such women are outed either by the fifth columnists in the ranks or by other women. The damage often threatens to be greater than the numbers would suggest because typically, these fifth columnists among women – and some of them are invariably influential – succeed in muddling and derailing the campaign, as indeed they have tried to do now.

However, and fortunately, it appears that the war on sexual predators is too far gone the other way for the conspirators to be able to stand their ground in front of the armies of women who refuse to be cowed by the enemy. Using devious means against members of their own sex and dressing it up as counter argument has not worked. Fortunately again, the war continues, it has not died down. Surely misogyny has caused so many victims that someone somewhere will always muster the courage to come forward with a new story of injustice that would urge us all to act. That should send a message to those who thought the campaign to expose sexual predators was episodic and would soon die down.

Ananda Majumdar