Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Harassed woman (representative picture)

Open letter: of the Personal and Political

The fact that there is a one-sided debate around issues of inappropriate behavior against young women in Manipur instead of a dialogue is the saddest, most telling narrative of what ails Manipur society today. ‘Yu Ngaoriye’ (I am drunk), a message sent by a public figure to a young woman author who is decades younger is the center of a social media storm. Instead of looking within, instead of understanding why such a gesture is inappropriate, instead of recognizing that this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of socio cultural hypocrisy in Manipur, the reactions to the calling out of the public figure fall along predictable lines: ‘what is wrong with the message?/it is not harassment/the person has contributed so much for Manipur, let it go/ file a police case if you want to pursue this’. Please recognize what this is about.
No one has questioned the said person because of his ‘years of work for Manipur’ – the same years of work incidentally, for which he got due pay and perks, a social standing, the term ‘Oja’ and ‘Eeyamba’, being feted as an intellectual and advisor on various forums and perhaps, the blanket cover to get away with repeated inappropriate behavior against women in recent years. A few are ready to put the excuse on alcohol use, preferring to go for the easy way out, for who wants to admit that ‘yu nagoriye’ is the best excuse to sweep away the larger discourse that no one wants to touch upon: that of female agency, that of consent? ‘Yu Ngaoriye’ is not what is wrong here but when used as an excuse to hide predatory instincts, it is unacceptable. The term can be used amongst consenting adults and is a courting trope that allows both adults to push boundaries of flirting and casual talk on intimacy. Intellectuals can put in academic text here and put in sub texts for repressed sexual desires, even put in romantic notions to make their point of how alcohol or other intoxicants and drugs are a foundation for one’s expression. It certainly cannot be used by anyone who is in a powerful standing that is granted by age, social position on anyone else who is not on an equal standing. Please recognize what this is about.
To those who say the girl’s tone lacks decorum and due respect: do you expect her to wax platitudes when instead of apologized to, she was being told by the person that there was nothing wrong in the message sent to her? Secondly, after the screenshots of the communication between the two was shared, the responses that came in from any other young women triggered many to share their experiences which bound many with a shared trauma but also a shared sliver of power that came in with being able to exhale it all out that lead to a vocal articulation in the social media but then aggravated by the attacks on her calling out, rather than the person in question. Any living creature that is being pushed to a corner will get defensive and lash out. That is the basis of survival. If you expect decorum and respect, the approach should be one from the humility that comes from wanting to know what the other person is going through, not putting yourself as the spokesperson of what is happening and being ready to examine your biases. Please recognize what this is about.
To those who want to split hair and say ‘it is not harassment’, please ask yourself then what is harassment? If you are defining it by being a male and the privileges you have from that, you are denying how it translates for those at the end of being harassed: the ones vulnerable to it – women who are single either by choice or who have walked out of marriages or who are widows, young women who are trying to take their place in society and the nupi maanbi community (trans women) of Manipur. For all those who want to go into the technicality and legal sphere of what comprises of harassment: sexual harassment infringes upon the fundamental right of a woman to gender equality under Article 14 and her right to life and live with dignity under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Section 354A of the Indian Penal Code defines Sexual harassment as ‘bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors. The critical factor is the unwelcomeness of the behaviour, thereby making the impact of such actions on the recipient more relevant rather than intent of the perpetrator.’ Another matter of great irony is also the fact that the same people who talk of due process and legal provisions do not ask themselves if at all they are aware of Employer’s Obligations towards making work places safe for women, much less have efficient committees for employees to bring in cases of sexual harassment. This covers all work places including media, health and hospitality sectors, educational institutions including Universities and private and public organizations that employ people. Please recognize what this is about.
But legalities aside, what lies at the heart of the matter is how willfully silent and hence complicit, the majority remains. There are three interesting reasons for the silence: being ‘uncomfortable’ about the tone and language of those who are speaking up; knowing the said public person through ties of blood, class, gender, work, friendship and lastly, what will this really amount to? All of the three reasons are partly problematic and highlights exactly what is wrong with Manipur: our total hypocrisy when it comes to the entitlement that comes from being a man. It’s alright to venerate Meira Paibis as ‘Imas’ for they are not in the prime of their life, they become mothers for every one; Freudian complexes of sexuality and desirability are not in the picture and hence, they are safe. But bring in young women who are speaking up and the discomfort shows, the ignorance and the utter disregard to wanting to engage on just where and why all of the rage is pouring out emerges. This discomfort, this unwillingness to engage shows very clearly amongst the many young men who scoff saying ‘these feminists’, make sarcastic comments while the men from the older generation are either waxing eloquent intellect or passing away the entire matter on grounds of ‘their tone lacks decorum’. Please recognize what this is about.
For those who want to go on intellectual lines, please read up on the #MeToo movement. Please read up on ‘The Personal is the Political’, recognize your biases and the fragile sense of awareness that makes you think everything you know is correct. The everyday battles that women who have dared to venture out of the confines of society and its norms and then speak out is a lived experience that none of you can wash away with your disdain or discomfort. To all the men and women who remain silent now: if the same thing had happened with another person who is not of the social standing that the said person occupies, would you have been where you are right now or gone all vocal and castigated the other person? If this exact same thing had happened with a Non Manipuri, there would have been an endless stream of jingoism and chest beating for sure. Please recognize what this is about.
To all those asking, what all of this is going to achieve: a lot of young women and nupi maanbi community are getting together and sharing stories of being harassed: some are by the same person at the center of the storm right now; students being preyed on by tuition teachers; University Professors dropping messages here and there with no rhyme or reason, one going so far as to come visit a working professional at home and who was then followed by this ‘well respected’ person till a friend’s pre wedding ceremony that she was attending, making himself an extra uninvited guest! What is being achieved is there is a small window opening for women to connect now with one another in a manner that is unprecedented. There are also a few men from the younger generation who are quietly showing solidarity, by wanting to know how to process all that is happening. This is only a tiny opening for the majority will have their excuses not to engage because they do not like where the discourse is going. More’s the pity but the next time you find them talking about ‘Women in Manipur are empowered’ or ‘Women occupy a place of respect in Manipur’, you can hand out a Best Entertainment Award or one for acting/performing to them. Please recognize what this is about.

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