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Why this law is not what I need

delhi Updated: Nov 13, 2010 23:47 IST
Lalita Panicker
Lalita Panicker
Hindustan Times
Lalita Panicker

In the days when I was a Don Quixotic feminist tilting at the windmills of gender injustice, I found that I had been chosen to be part of the sexual harassment committee in my previous workplace. We were five women on the panel and within days, a case had come before us. Approaching the situation with Torquemada-like zeal, we cross-examined the 'accused'. The woman concerned was in no doubt that she was a victim of sexual harassment, something we were only too willing to accept.

But in the end justice got the better of feminism and the case was found to be certainly one of gender discrimination but not one of sexual harassment. There were no two ways about the truth. Which is why I wonder how much even the so-called enlightened women among us have understood about the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill.

There are, of course, many things wrong with the Bill like excluding domestic workers. It recommends the formation of committees like the one I was on in any workplace that consists of 10 or more employees and local committees in organisations that employ less than 10 employees. The latter is not likely to happen in a month of Mondays. The former applies to working women like me. It is not my contention that there should be no legal teeth to sexual harassment at the workplace.

But as I see it, the greatest threat that career women like me face is not some nudge nudge wink wink locker room talk by juvenile male colleagues. That is not something women like me cannot deal with. If it goes further into physical abuse, there are enough laws to protect us, not to mention employers.

But the more pertinent and nagging issue is that of gender discrimination. I would much rather have a redressal mechanism to ensure that I get my due if I am working my fingers to the bone while the knucklehead male co-worker leaves me in his dust because he has a better ability to bond with the boys after work. I have often found that if a woman says she needs a day off to attend to her child's PTA, the general reaction is 'Oh, there she goes bringing her domestic problems to work.' But when an intrepid male colleague does the same, it's 'what a caring father' as if somehow the sacrifice of a day off is a noble gesture for one parent and some sort of malingering for the other.

Arguments that the law will vitiate workplace relationships are specious. There are acceptable forms of conversation and discourse and there are no two ways about it. Locker room talk is not likely be thought of as a hoot by many women and if the law stops the men who think it is fine to swear and engage in other bodily gestures in public, we have a lot to be grateful for.

By and large, working women in the organised sector are not little old ladies who need to be protected. Yes, the law should be there should the case arise that a male colleague persists in making a nuisance of himself. But, there are few of us who are not up to slapping an errant colleague down with the support of other male colleagues, I might add.

By narrowing things down to only the sexual aspect, the field is wide open for harassment of other sorts, largely professional discrimination. This is the case of putting the cart way before the horse. The arguments that women might misuse this law are also a bit off the wall. It is highly unlikely that professional women are going to pillory a male colleague for sexual harassment when we live in a 'she must have asked for it' world. But again the law has provisions against frivolous complaints.

So let's tackle gender discrimination at the workplace. Once we get that right, we can deal with the more subterranean issue of sexual harassment. Or perhaps, it will take care of itself once we have a level-working field.