Bombay Begums and India’s #Metoo Movement

Scrolling Netflix one day for my latest series to binge (hurry up with season 6 Outlander!), the top suggestion of the moment was Bombay Begums. Bombay is more currently referred to as Mumbai, its ancient name before the British thought Bombay was more fun to say, and Begum is an aristocratic or royal title for women who are “up there.” In the context of this series, which at first, I thought was going to be a reality show about rich, film-industry connected Indian ladies of leisure (alas, Netflix already has one of those), “begums” refers to high-powered career women and those trying to climb the ladder.

So, spoiler alert. Rani is the powerful CEO of major Bombay bank. Fatima is fast on the rise in her career in finance with a husband lagging behind her. Aisha is young, pretty, ready to climb but needs to figure herself out first. Finally, Lili is a street-smart former prostitute who wants to earn her money with respect. The series is narrated by Shai, Rani’s stepdaughter who has figured out the power of women long before the grown-ups have. Long story short—these women all become more intertwined than you’d think they would at many points at odd with each other, but finally coming together in a quad of strong women supporting strong women. The biggest common denominator among them all? They’ve been manipulated, abused, and made to be complicit by the men who dangled the keys to success in front of them. Smart and competent women all of them, but voiceless until they all start talking to each other.

India has a patriarchal culture that happens to have a lot of very strong and brilliant women working their way through it. Indian women are entrepreneurs, CEOs, doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, artists, writers, filmmakers, actors, and society-shakers. Yet they too face the same dilemmas women around the world face in navigating their place in whatever fields they choose to conquer. And like so many women around the globe, finding their voice to speak out about the abuse many of them have suffered has been key to taking back their power and paving the way for the women who follow them. In a culture that clings to tradition while embracing modernity and innovation, the clashes between them are great and often frequent.

Sexual harassment in the workplace has often been sadly seen as part of the job. But as we all well know; all it takes is just one person to come forward and the house of cards quickly crumbles.

German website DW.com published a piece about the movement taking root in India.

 “Like in other places across the world, the #MeToo movement generated discussion in India about sexual harassment within the workplace, particularly in the entertainment and film industries.

As an immediate aftereffect, more women were encouraged to speak up against their harassers, both publicly and anonymously.

Filmmaker Vinta Nanda had spoken up against veteran Bollywood actor Alok Nath, whom she accused of rape. ‘Before the movement, I was afraid to move because I felt isolated and ostracized,’ she told DW. But now, she added, ‘I know I am not alone.’

‘Most of the others who have spoken out feel the same way as I do and that is one massive step forward that the women’s empowerment movement has taken,” she said.’*

In this context, a series such as Bombay Begums is groundbreaking as it sheds considerable light on a serious problem. This happening in a country where many women—no matter how educated or high-powered they are—fall victim to the same discrimination, harassment, abuse of women regardless of socio-economic background. Given that the series also portrays sex, adultery, and a woman’s choice in them (topics Indian media and film/tv productions tend to gloss over), the show makes a strong statement about the bodily autonomy of women.

In one particular scene, Lili witnesses Aisha being sexually assaulted by a senior team member of the bank and tries to stop it. The stereotype dictates that Lili, as a prostitute is used to, even accepting of, a man using a woman’s body at a whim. But the narrative blows the lid off that: Lili has done what she has needed to do to provide for her son and herself. But it is her choice, even if it’s not the ideal choice. So, when she sees another woman being forced to give up her body autonomy 1. She doesn’t question Aisha. She sees what is happening and calls it out. 2. There is no dawdling over consent—she saw that questions answered in Aisha’s eyes and body language. And she’s ready to testify.

Women don’t usually get assaulted or harassed with a witness nearby. And even when someone is willing to corroborate their story, the risks of telling the truth are sometimes too great to take.

But like with many things, there is strength in numbers. As women in India and around the world, get better at believing each other, being willing to stick their necks out for each other, and stand together, it is becoming increasingly harder for the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault to blend back in the shadows. And when men stand with women, the effect is even more powerful. This is how it must be.

As the male character who assaulted Aisha said (and I’m loosely paraphrasing), “It’s getting harder to be a man with this #metoo stuff.”

And while we know it’s not all men, that is exactly the point of speaking up.

* https://www.dw.com/en/india-metoo-women-rights/a-56785203#:~:text=In%20October%202018%2C%20the%20global,social%20media%20and%20other%20platforms.

Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash