‘I am the light’: Filmmaker Leena Manimekalai on the #MeToo movement

Poet and filmmaker Leena Manimekalai had moved the Madras High Court, challenging the impounding of her passport over criminal defamation case against #MeToo allegations.
Poet and filmmaker Leena Manimekalai. (Photo | Special Arrangement)
Poet and filmmaker Leena Manimekalai. (Photo | Special Arrangement)

CHENNAI: "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open"- Poet Muriel Rukeyser (1968)

When I came across the tweet in October 2018, “If all the women who have sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me Too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”, I immediately wanted to share the grief, be part of the collective action and show sisterhood for fellow women, who have lived experiences of sexual violence. It felt powerful to know that I am not alone. I spoke up. I called out my harasser in October 2018. I believed that I finally got to exercise my quintessential exercise of free speech on sexual harassment. I have spoken truth to power through my films, poetry, work of fiction, and activism. But I never had the courage to speak about my own lived experiences, especially on sexual abuse. #MeToo gave me agency.

Not a day, since #MeToo, has passed without me thinking what if we swap the words ‘sexual harassment’ with ‘attempt to murder’. When a man broke your trust and tried to abduct you forcefully, he did attempt to murder your dignity, spirit, emotional stability and made you feel less human as a female. If I had used the word “attempt to murder” instead of “sexual harassment”, I might not have got the sudden notice from my landlord to exercise the exit clause and pre-close the rental agreement. It is not at all easy for a single, non-Brahmin, non-vegetarian, backward caste, self-employed woman to rent a decent apartment in Chennai. Media outrage, sensational reporting in vernaculars and the unwarranted attention made finding a roof above my head almost a mission impossible for months. Landlords did Google-profiling along with their caste-class-gender-employment-marital status scrutiny, which made things worse. It took six months to find a female landlord, who thought I spoke for her too.

In the press meet that South Indian Film Women Association had organised with #MeToo voices, along with singer Chinmayi and others, vernacular journalists repeatedly asked me to recount what happened inside the car, even after I had posted a detailed testimonial on my social media handles. I became meme-material when I simply refused to oblige and asked the journalists to do their homework. But I realised later that this media trial was just the beginning. Every single person who I came across after #MeToo felt they were entitled to ask me to describe “what happened inside the car”. They either looked at me or looked away from me but not without their keyhole questions on my testimonial, making me feel like a star in a porno film. The (unfair) spotlight was making me feel like a burnt vessel. The visibility was all about invisibilizing. Suddenly, my existence was about what happened to me when my tools to fight sexual abuse were mitigated but not about what I became after that — as a poet and filmmaker. The impunity around felt like honour killing in slow motion. Friends and networks disappeared as though they had a revelation that I am this new outcast, born out of the sexual harassment bag.

My harasser had called me a “slut”, “an attention seeker”, “a pig”, “a failure in personal life since I am a divorcee”, “mental”, “a fake feminist”, “a pornographic poet”, “an anti-social rebel”, “a pervert homosexual”. Tamil media happily published it without any hesitation. They did not even care to publish my original testimonial. He (my harasser) impressed the press by asking questions like “Will any ‘good’ Tamil woman board a car with a stranger, who she had met two hours ago”. After a wild spree of character assassination, he went on to file a criminal defamation case in 2019. His legal complaint is a classic example of how normalised ‘slut shaming’ is, in our society reeking with misogyny, and how one can go to court  with it to file criminal defamation against who he is shaming. His petition is all about covering his predatory behaviour by misleading the court, and to prejudice the judge with my anti-establishment views, political opinions, queer identity, sexuality, radical feminist poetry, my way of dressing, my work of translations, my social media posts, framing me as an anti-national-urban-Naxal-Maoist-pervert- dangerous person. Yet, the court recorded the petition and sent the summon.

In a country that has Article 19 in its constitution to protect the free speech of citizens, my right to free speech on my own experience of sexual abuse as a woman faces stigma, ostracisation and isolation while a man’s free speech, who is named by more than one woman for his predatory behaviour, is fully sanctioned to victim-shame, and protected by defamation laws.Three years, 40-plus hearings, miscellaneous petitions demanding travel ban, media gag and more and finally passport impoundment. This is how my harasser has weaponised the defamation law to destroy me for my truth. He could not stop himself even from writing directly to my University Offices in Canada asking them to cancel my visa. Thanks to my University’s legacy and progressive policies, my professors, my cohort, my Union are in total solidarity with me.

Since the impoundment of my passport, my second year as an international student of Master of Fine Arts MFA (Film) at York University, Toronto, with the prestigious Graduate Fellowship of Academic Distinction that awarded me with full scholarship is at crossroads now. I am not able to join the campus for my in-person classes and thesis research. My independently produced, crowdfunded, second feature fiction film, Maadathy, an unfairy tale — after its stellar run at the international film festival circuits — got invited for a North American Screening/Lecture Tour covering about 15 universities in the 2021 fall season. But I am restrained from my travel. I have filed a writ at the high court and am waiting for my fundamental right to study, travel and livelihood to be restored.

Silencing of women is as old as civilisation itself. One of the only acknowledgements of the widespread and long-standing legal, political, and cultural efforts to silence women appears in Justice Louis Brandeis’s concurring opinion in the Whitney vs California case (1927): “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burned women. It is the   function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” When Justice Brandeis invoked the fear of women and the burning of witches in Whitney, he was perhaps not aware of just how apt the reference truly was: for witch hunts reveal something extremely powerful about speech, namely, the intense fear men have of women’s speech. Whitney was sentenced to 14 years of imprisonment for her speech titled “Negro Problem in America” at the Women Civic Centre of Oakland.

So, I do not know about winning. But I know about fighting till the end. I will stay and I will not shut up. Few days of darkness will not make me blind. Because till I have the love and solidarity of my fellow women and men, who believe in the world that can be more kind, respectful, equal and less cruel, I am the light.

(As told to CE)

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