Mumbai: Poet Shamir Rueben allegedly asked underage girls to send him nude photos
Many of the women who spoke out against slam poetry star Shamir Rueben were minors when he had made his advances. He would allegedly initiate graphic sexual text and would also ask some to send their nude photographs to him
On Wednesday, all hell broke lose in the poetry and spoken word community around 3.30 pm. Sakina Bootwala, 19, put a up status message on Facebook, accusing poetry star Shamir Reuben, 23, of sexually harassing her on another social media platform, called Ask.fm, when she was 16. Bootwala also attached screenshots of other women who had reached out to her, recounting being similarly abused by Reuben.
Poet Shamir Rueben
After Bootwala posted her well thought-out and articulated statement, she started getting messages from multiple women, who had similar experiences to share about Reuben. Most had communicated with him on Ask.fm, which encouraged questions to be submitted anonymously. Their interactions with him flowed in a similar manner: he initiated graphic sexual texting and asked the underage girls to send him nude photos. For some, it went beyond the internet, as they claimed he'd forcibly kissed them.
Many even sent screenshots of their chats with him to Bootwala, which she then put up online. When mid-day, spoke to Bootwala, she said had not imagined that his misconduct was this common and widespread – at last count she had received almost 60-70 messages, with more additions on the hour.
Seen as an inspiration
Before working with Kommune (started by actor Roshan Abbas, VJ Gaurav Kapur and musician Ankur Tewari), Reuben has been a vital part of content creation teams at Star Sports (story producer) and Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited (digital content writer).
Ishmeet Nagpal and Rochelle D'silva
In the poetry circuit, he was seen as an inspiration, especially for his issue-centric poems, much like his 2016 one titled 'I don't want a daughter anymore' which was dedicated to Nirbhaya. His social media stance on supporting women's causes like #MeToo, and being vocal about the respect women deserve, made his image as that of a feminist, one of the good guys.
Can't tolerate this
"Shamir had sold the good guy persona," says Aranya Johar, 19, Bootwala's close friend, who gained popularity for her 'A Brown Girl's Guide To Gender' video. It took Johar a year to convince Bootwala to come out in public with her experience. "It was not my story to tell, but I had been urging her for a year. Her sister is 16 now, and I just asked her 'Sakina would you be fine with Shamir talking to her like this?' and that line did it for her and she posted it." Johar admits to being livid, and says that the poetry space, often called a 'safe space', cannot be seen as a community that doesn't take action against perpetrators in their own midst.
Simar Singh of UnErase Poetry and Baljeet Singh Ghai of The Habitat
She added, "He was so popular that women have invalidated their own experiences – 'no, he seems like such a nice guy, maybe I misunderstood'. Even Sakina was told, 'no, he couldn't have done that'. Everyone was conditioned to believe he was a good guy. Nobody said anything, and that silence was almost like encouraging him." She is also insistent about the poetry circuit's no-tolerance stance. "Our target audience is 12-16. We just cannot tolerate this at all. It's our responsibility to provide safety."
Can't act without evidence
Balraj Singh Ghai of The Habitat at Khar, a popular venue for spoken word events in the city, said they have been shocked since the revelations came out, "We hope that the legal machinery decides what has to be done, because it is easy to character assassinate online these days."
"That being said, we think there has to be a middle ground. It's unfair to act without evidence, but no sympathy should be given to this. We need for this to be solved legally. But giving someone a stage is like giving them a pedestal, and so till their character is cleared, we can't do that. It's for their own good as well," said Ghai.
There is no excuse
Khushboo Balwani Rawal, who co-founded the Micro-fiction Fan Fest and had Reuben on as a panellist, said, "We have known Shamir for over a year and he has been nothing but extremely sweet and helpful. Not once did he come across as someone capable of doing what he has been accused of. He has been one of those good guys, until last evening. Although after this, our guard is up and we will make an effort to keep this community a better and safer environment for everyone. [However] We would want to hear his side of the story before we draw conclusions. There could be more or less to this, but we would want to know it all."
No space for Shamir
Other poets are clear that even though they are waiting for the legal machinery to kick in, right now, Reuben can't continue to be a part of the circuit. Poet Ishmeet Nagpal said misogyny and sexism have been common in the space. "Many male poets read poems that attack feminism, and even though for a while it rankles us, people eventually forget about the incident. Here, you really can't separate the art from the artist, and he shouldn't have space in this 'safe space'."
Simar Singh, the founder and curator of UnErase Poetry, is in a sad state right now, because Reuben was an "inspiration, the reason I got into poetry". "It's very tough to process. We need to ensure the right legal action is taken. As much as I looked up to him, I wouldn't be comfortable performing on a stage with him, or offer him a space anymore," said Singh. Another poet, Rochelle D'silva, said, "I am very thankful for the women who have spoken up and for everyone who has shown their support and solidarity. Not to take away from the outcome and what is going to happen now, but naming and shaming a predator or someone who has assaulted you is really hard to do."
A harder decision
But some have had a harder time making a decision. Poet Harnidh Kaur, who is hugely popular on Instagram for her hard-hitting words, and happens to be a close friend of Reuben, said that she would lose a friendship "because I value the idea of doing the right thing, much, much more." She put out a post asking women who have faced harassment by Reuben to come to her with evidence and statements, so they could all collectively go and file an FIR. In the end, the community seems unequivocally saying that Reuben will need to pay for his sins, at least for right now. As Singh said, "I saw this post by another poet on Facebook and it makes absolute sense - 'if we don't hold our heroes accountable, we won't have the right heroes'."
Shamir Reuben put up this post on Facebook, which said, "A lot has been said in the past day about me. If any of my messages or actions may have made Sakina or any other woman uncomfortable, I want to apologise profusely for any discomfort felt because of me. I genuinely do not believe my messages or actions would cause them hurt and I sincerely hope that I can be forgiven by all those I may have inadvertently wronged.
Several things said are an incorrect portrayal of past events during 2013-2016, and the messages shared form part of longer conversations. The women to whom I sent [those] messages were my friends, most of who I knew over months and even years, and messages between friends, when read out of context, often portray an incorrect picture of the true nature of events. These messages, when viewed today, are indeed inappropriate but were never intended to cause harm to any woman. I wish Sakina, and all the women who have spoken-up, well and I respect them for raising this important issue. Violence of any form against women should not be tolerated. But, I have not and never intended to harm or harass them in any way."
Consequences begin for Reuben
Since the post was put up, Story Fest Chandigarh has cancelled Reuben's appearance and Kommune has put up a Facebook status that read "Kommune recognises that posts have been shared about Shamir Reuben's past conduct with certain individuals. We acknowledge and respect the individuals who are speaking up about these issues. The allegations made are of serious concern to us, and constitutes unacceptable behaviour by any of our personnel. Pending enquiry into these allegations, Shamir's role at Kommune will remain suspended." When mid-day got in touch with Abbas, he said, "Kommune has made its stand clear and has suspended him pending investigation."
'Promise it will never happen again'
Sakina Bootwala told mid-day, "When I put up the post yesterday, I expected a backlash. Shamir has always said the right things to make everyone believe he is a nice guy. And if you look up to someone, you don't want to believe they did something like this. But the response has been overwhelmingly supportive. My phone hasn't stopped ringing. Most comments have been positive, except a few who have asked for evidence, and that's fine. I am not stupid to accuse someone falsely, and as we [continue to] see, so many more cases have come up. I really didn't think this issue would become so big, and that so many women would have had the same experience. Some of these girls were his friends and he hasn't even spared them. I just want him to publicly admit it, apologise and promise it will never happen ever again. He also shouldn't make anyone feel guilty about coming out with it."