India Today - - INSIDE -

There are times when you can feel the rage and an­guish in the air, at least from a cer­tain sec­tion of so­ci­ety. It is the voice of the ed­u­cated In­dian woman against the deeply en­trenched male­dom­i­nated cul­ture at the work­place. Her mo­ment to speak out against the re­pres­sion of many decades has ar­rived. Like many spon­ta­neous up­ris­ings, it started rather in­nocu­ously this Septem­ber with ac­tor Tanushree Dutta ac­cus­ing her col­league Nana Patekar of sex­ual ha­rass­ment on a movie set 10 years ago. It lin­gered in­con­clu­sively in the pub­lic space for a fort­night till it em­bold­ened other ag­grieved women to come out with a tor­rent of ac­cu­sa­tions against their tor­men­tors. In a mat­ter of days, it has swept away stand-up comics, fa­mous di­rec­tors, a pow­er­ful ed­i­tor-turned-min­is­ter, se­nior jour­nal­ists, an em­i­nent au­thor, a pop­u­lar singer, a film lyri­cist from the South and a well-known ad-man. This is only the be­gin­ning. It is build­ing up to a tsunami. It is our Har­vey We­in­stein mo­ment, where the per­ver­sions of one man broke a dam of re­pressed out­rage in Amer­ica against sex­ual abuse to usher in what has come to be known as the #MeToo move­ment. This phe­nom­e­non is now un­fold­ing around us in In­dia.

The rea­son for the vo­cif­er­ous pub­lic out­burst of women is that they never saw the po­lice or the ju­di­ciary as a re­course for re­dress. The process shamed the vic­tim more than the per­pe­tra­tor. Fur­ther­more, many of these in­stances hap­pened at a time when work­places were not as sen­si­tive to the safety of women, and so­cial me­dia was nonex­is­tent. A con­ser­va­tive so­ci­ety was a fur­ther de­ter­rent to go­ing pub­lic, forc­ing the rage con­sum­ing the vic­tim to re­main sup­pressed. Be­sides, the power struc­ture in most work­places is dom­i­nated by men, and the vic­tims are mostly young and vul­ner­a­ble women. The men are in po­si­tion of au­thor­ity and pre­sum­ably there be­cause they are ta­lented and valu­able to the or­gan­i­sa­tion. A com­plaint by a sub­or­di­nate in the ab­sence of due process is most likely to be dis­missed. Like one preda­tor said to one of his prey: “It’s not easy to lose the head.” Hence, the si­lence of the lambs.

Now, with greater con­scious­ness and sen­si­tiv­ity to­wards gen­der equal­ity and with the help of so­cial me­dia, the re­pressed rage of the vic­tims has found an out­let through nam­ing and sham­ing their per­pe­tra­tors. It’s a cathar­sis for the vic­tim and per­haps the so­ci­ety too as we con­front the evil that re­sides in many of our coun­try­men.

This be­ing the spring of the move­ment, there is relief and re­joic­ing in many quar­ters, but there is much that is less than ideal in #MeToo: for in­stance, its stan­dards of proof. The move­ment just goes by the court of pub­lic opin­ion. A man per­sis­tently tex­ting an un­wel­come ro­man­tic or sex­ual over­ture is tarred with the same brush as some­one who vi­o­lently as­saults his em­ployee. There is hardly any de­bate on what the con­se­quences should be in var­i­ous cases. Some ques­tion the va­lid­ity or el­e­ment of ex­ag­ger­a­tion in all the fin­ger-point­ing.

There should be no mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion by ei­ther side and it is im­por­tant for a com­pany to pro­tect the dig­nity and in­ter­ests of the com­plainant and the re­spon­dent. For­tu­nately, the law has now laid down a pro­ce­dure on how these cases are to be dealt with.

At the same time, pub­lic dis­course around the world and in In­dia has started to treat sex­ual ha­rass­ment, abuse and as­sault as a se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tion. Sex­ual in­ter­ac­tions at the work­place in­clude a wide range of be­hav­iours such as flirt­ing, ban­ter­ing, sex­ual jokes, touch­ing, con­sum­ing pornog­ra­phy, dat­ing, af­fairs, live-in re­la­tion­ships and mar­riage. Where does con­sent end and co­er­cion be­gin? How per­va­sive is con­sen­sual sex­ual ac­tiv­ity in the work­place? How do work­ers and or­gan­i­sa­tions dis­tin­guish be­tween wanted and un­wanted sex­ual be­hav­iour? Will this stop em­ploy­ers from hir­ing women?

In re­cent months, we have seen many pos­i­tive blows be­ing struck for gen­der equal­ity. From mul­ti­ple Supreme Court ver­dicts strik­ing down triple ta­laq, up­hold­ing the mar­riage of Hindu women by con­sent, their right to in­herit prop­erty to the right of women of all ages to en­ter the Sabari­mala shrine. As more women en­ter the work­force and break glass ceil­ings in var­i­ous pro­fes­sions, it should bring about a change that will re­duce sex­ual ha­rass­ment at the work­place.

Our cover story, #MeToo, The Up­ris­ing, put to­gether by Ex­ec­u­tive Ed­i­tor Da­mayanti Datta, Se­nior Ed­i­tor Sh­weta Punj and As­so­ciate Ed­i­tor Chinki Sinha, ex­am­ines the is­sues that have emerged in the wake of this up­ris­ing.

The present move­ment might re­sult in some col­lat­eral dam­age, yet it needs to be wel­comed, warts and all. Ul­ti­mately, it will bring about wel­come changes in the work­place, re­sult in greater sen­si­tiv­ity to­wards women, en­sure dig­nity and se­cu­rity in their place of work. Also, the onus is on the em­ployer to cre­ate a safe work­ing space for every­body. Most im­por­tantly, men have to adapt their be­hav­iour to the new en­vi­ron­ment. If they don’t, as the #MeToo move­ment says, your #Time’sUp.

Our May 30, 2005, cover

(Aroon Purie)

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