By Jessica Mayberry
The #MeToo movement has reignited a global conversation on gender. But too often this conversation is happening only among women. Gender activists are now hoping that a transformation will also take place among men in response to #MeToo. Whether in a village in India or in a city halfway around the globe, the shift I’m hoping for would look something like this: A young man reads, hears or sees something about a woman being sexually harassed—or worse. Perhaps it’s a piece in the media; maybe a community video; or something an outspoken teacher in his school or college said. The common denominator in all cases is challenging his way of thinking. Somehow, rather than just making him uncomfortable, a message gets through to him. And then he takes that crucial next step: he says something out loud. He finds his voice. He admits his anxieties or, perhaps, even his mistakes. He starts a real conversation with other men. Maybe just one friend. Maybe a whole village. Maybe on Facebook. Maybe in an op-ed. Maybe in his office.
At this point, we’ll hear something the world has never really heard before: a chorus of male voices committed to ending patriarchy.
A group of young men stare intently at the screen of a tablet computer balanced on a tripod jerry-rigged with a piece of wood. The men, aged 25 to 35, are all members of the Baiga tribe of Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India. In the past they have come together as budding activists to talk about getting legal rights to the forest they live in and depend on. Today they are talking about something significantly more challenging to their sense of self: patriarchy.
Ramlal Bhaiga, who had previously organized a gender discussion club three or four times, is a community correspondent with the organization I work for, Video Volunteers. Ramlal, who is 27, was married at the age of 12, worked as a daily wage laborer, and then got involved in India’s largest nonviolent social movement, Ekta Parishad—fighting for redistribution of land. Since we first trained him in video reporting in 2013, he has produced 44 videos on problems in his community arising from corruption and poor infrastructure and education. In nine of those cases, Ramlal also managed to get the problems resolved, by networking with government officials.
Ramlal says the group has seen a few videos addressing concepts such as honor, marital rape, why women don’t say their husband’s name out loud and about the division of labor based on gender. “During one session many of the boys admitted they teased girls when they went to the market or school,” Ramlal said. “They realized they ought not to behave like this. They felt that if they teased girls even after joining a gender club, they were no different than [other men]. They wanted to be better than that.” He said one of the boys told him a few days later that when a “wrong thought” crossed his mind he remembered what they’d discussed in the gender club and reconsidered his actions.
Ramlal, of course, has never heard of the #MeToo movement. There’s no hashtag for it in the language he speaks. And if there were, he wouldn’t have seen it anyhow, since he is hardly on social media. Internet has only come to his area in the last couple years. But once Ramlal learned what #MeToo was, he had this to say on the power of media, in any form. “From what I see and hear, women are oppressed in every part of the world. Video Volunteers is running discussion clubs across the country and so we end up seeing videos from other parts of the country. This way we all learn from each other’s perspectives; what is acceptable in one part of the country may not be acceptable in another. This helps us form a real picture of what’s going on.”
Ramlal says creating spaces for dialogue among men is critical “because we have so internalized what we have learned from society, movies and our families. In our area the boys follow the example of their fathers who abuse their mothers. Or elder brothers who drink or go out and harass or grab girls during festivals or fairs.” He said that in his village, “we often feel incapable of stepping in to stop violence against women. We are told that it is not right to interfere in someone else’s problem. But through discussion groups, I think I can equip at least one person in each family to stand up for themselves or others. Then other people in the family will change their perspectives. Then the family next door will learn by example and then a whole village.”
Will the #MeToo movement die out before it spreads to men? There are three reasons it might: the conversations required are so difficult, they are happening mostly online, and they are missing the root cause, which is patriarchy.
Social media is simply not an adequate platform for collective soul-searching. For that, we need live in-person discussion. From my experience, I know that structured, live discussions about gender discrimination work. Video Volunteers has helped 63 men and women in rural India—men like Ramlal—to lead more than 300 such discussions in the last 18 months across 13 states of India.
None of them had much of an idea of how to lead a gender discussion, and all were fairly nervous. We gave Ramlal a series of videos that some of our 250 community correspondents have made. Having visual aids helps the messages hit home. We gave him a discussion guide, seven days of live training, and access to mentors to help him understand how to break the uncomfortable silences and how to get people to speak up. In particular, we wanted to get past the “easy” answers—the kinds of answers, in fact, I saw from the male stars on the red carpet at the Golden Globes, the vague expressions of solidarity, the exhortations against violence against women, that left me and so many other female viewers unsatisfied. “Of course I know you think sexual assault is wrong!” I wanted to shout at the TV screen that night. “But what else are you willing to give up?” At VV we are purposefully focusing much less on violence against women, and much more on its root cause, patriarchy and internalized misogyny. Because that is the truly difficult conversation. How do we get men to give up a system that has benefited them for millennia? How do you get people to give up a privilege? This is the really hard conversation, and this is where the #MeToo movement needs to go next. It needs to move into tackling other major aspects of gender discrimination.
Ramlal’s discussion club does go into difficult areas. It has touched on sexual consent several times. He says the group’s converation on marital rape went around in circles for a while. Most participants believed that men had complete right over their wives’ bodies because by marrying her, they had in fact “bought” her. Only a couple of young men strongly felt that both partners had an equal say in choosing to have sex. These are somewhat chilling thoughts to admit to, even in rural India. Would anyone ever admit these thoughts unless they were in a safe space? And can the Internet ever be that safe space?
Gender discussion clubs like these are part of a tradition in India that started nearly 50 years ago. When well-meaning urbanites started going into villages to empower women, they began with literacy groups, which morphed into self-help groups. All are discussion-based, aiming to help women find their voice on issues of sexual violence or asserting their rights to be treated equally. Most groups focused on women, but in recent years as the field of engaging men has grown, more have come to involve men.
There are some questions we need to start asking ourselves. How do we get men to start talking about sexual harrassment and discrimination offline? Is there a role for formal spaces? Will it even happen without formal spaces? These questions can be explored both by those who work professionally on raising people’s consciousness, such as teachers and feminists and NGO workers, but also by men and women—who need to start stretching themselves, bringing up things that make them uncomfortable, and figuring out how they can change attitudes of the people around them. Ultimately, the only way it will happen is if men start setting an example for other men. To an extent, in the urban universe we have lost the spaces for structured, reflective group discussion, and we should be concerned about this. When I bring city folk to a village video screening, they usually comment how unusual it is. Some 300 people watch a film, pass a microphone around in the dark, and a moderator ensures that as many people from the marginalized communities (women, or Dalits, for example) speak up.
An American supporter of our work commented to me at one of these screenings, “Democrats and Republicans don’t have any space like this, where they come together to really listen to each other. Instead they make do with Fox and CNN and the Twittersphere. We need these spaces.”
As we drove back from the village that night, I thought more about what these spaces represent. I don’t mean to romanticize village life. I certainly don’t want to gloss over the politics and centuries-old feuds that often poison conversation in India’s rural areas. But the fact remains that in our global cities people now rarely come together for live conversations in physical spaces, on difficult topics, with people unlike them. I am wondering what it will take to start these conversations. Can we start them in bars? At dinner parties? In our offices? On school playgrounds? Who can facilitate them? What would such a movement look like? What arguments will most resonate with men to start to change attitudes? If you have ideas, please share them. Let’s have a conversation about having conversations.
Jessica Mayberry is the founder and executive director of Video Volunteers, an organization she founded after spending a year training rural Indian women in filmmaking as a fellow of the American India Foundation. A TED Fellow and a Fellow of Echoing Green, an organization that invests in social entrepreneurs with high-impact solutions, in 2009 she was recognized as an Architect of the Future by the Waldzell Institute of Austria, and in 2010, as an Outstanding Young Person by the Junior Chamber International Osaka. Prior to starting Video Volunteers, Jessica worked in television news in New York.
Video Volunteers is an international media and human rights organization founded in 2003 that promotes community media to enable citizen participation in marginalized and poor communities around the world. It was founded by Jessica Mayberry after she spent a year as a fellow of the American India Foundation training rural Indian women in filmmaking. She works closely with co-director Stalin K, an award-winning Indian documentary filmmaker and community radio activist.
Video Volunteers provides disadvantaged communities with the journalistic, critical thinking and creative skills they need. VV’s models for locally owned and managed media production teach people to articulate and share their perspectives on the issues that matter to them on a local and a global scale. Video Volunteers amplifies the voices of marginalized communities in India so they can report their own stories and create change in their communities.
The problem they address is that on any given day only 2 percent of media content relates to rural areas, despite the fact that is where 70 percent of the population lives. The result? The poor are often excluded from development discourses, and bad decisions get made. VV’s network brings tremendous diversity to the media, which is crucial to a vibrant democracy. More than four million people have been impacted by VV’s work, which has won numerous awards.
Among their first projects was one in 2005 training former child brides in Andhra Pradesh to make a video about child marriage. Most women in that region had experienced child marriage and domestic violence, but the community never deemed these things important enough to discuss.
Twelve years later, after producing nearly 4,000 videos either by or about women, they published a book describing “some of the most courageous and thought-provoking content” their “community correspondents” have created. The correspondents—pointing their cameras in directions others rarely bother to look— documented unusual, inspiring and heartbreaking stories about gender in India. Topics covered include maternal health, good governance, and violence against women, among others. Interspersed are profiles of women community correspondents, and reports from the gender discussion clubs they’ve been running in 67 districts, thanks to a grant from the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in support of Khel Badal, their campaign to dismantle patriarchy.
Over the last two years, they have dug deeply into a few key questions, including: What kinds of conversations about patriarchy are needed today? And how can we encourage men and women to have ever more personal, challenging and groundbreaking dialogues about gender?
As more and more women around the world speak up to share their stories in the #MeToo movement, the urgency for such honest conversations has never been greater.