Time to say ‘enough’ to sexual harassment

Men say they are scared by this new environment. Far too many women have lived in fear of the old environment. It’s time to pack the dinosaurs off to the museum, writes Namita Bhandare.

columns Updated: Jan 18, 2014 00:53 IST
Sexual harassment,sexual assault,crime against women

I hear a great lament these days.

Aggressive women are killing romance in the workplace with their flurry of complaints (young corporate executive)

Come on. He put his hand on her back. And that’s sexual harassment? (older lawyer)

Really? You can just name and shame a senior judge and damn his reputation forever? (even older lawyer)

Farooq Abdullah’s fatuous comment — “I’m scared to talk to women these days,” – caused such an uproar that he was forced to apologise. Yet, his comments are finding resonance amongst a growing group of entitled men: Women are going too far.

Are we? Let’s put in some perspective. First, the ‘flurry’ of complaints. One journalist makes an allegation that leads to the arrest, after a police investigation, of Tehelka founder Tarun Tejpal. Another intern makes an allegation against the West Bengal Human Rights Commission head AK Ganguly.

A three-judge Supreme Court panel finds evidence of an unwelcome sexual nature but says it can’t take action since he was not a judge when the encounter took place. In the outrage that follows, Ganguly resigns.

Now another lawyer has made allegations against another judge, dating back to when he was in the Supreme Court and she was his intern. The judge has been issued notice by the Supreme Court but has also won a high court injunction against further reporting. The Supreme Court will continue its hearings.

“Women have repeatedly turned to the courts to safeguard and uphold their rights,” says lawyer Vrinda Grover. “We seek to uphold, not undermine the dignity of the courts.”

Do three high profile cases, two of which have prima facie evidence of wrongdoing, make a ‘flurry’? Will more complaints be filed? If sexual harassment is against the law, I say, open the floodgates.

Second, the issue of misuse. In an interview to me early in 2013, it was Justice Ganguly, ironically, who said: “Every law is misused. Even taxation laws are misused.” The solution is not to chuck out laws. The solution is to tighten perjury and punish women bringing false complaints while ensuring genuine cases get redress.

Third: Why is she complaining now? Hearing the second intern’s complaint, the Supreme Court asked this question. The answer is complicated. First, in the absence of institutional mechanisms — 16 years after Vishaka, even the Supreme Court didn’t have an internal complaints committee as mandated by its own order — where were women to go?

Also, it’s never easy to speak up. Victims of domestic violence endure years of torture before saying enough, if ever they do. Rape survivors encounter hostile questioning when they go to the police. And society is only too happy to play blame-the-victim: She must have provoked it, she is looking for a quick ticket to ‘fame’ etc. Given the inevitable backlash, how much courage do these women summon when they decide to speak up in a system that reeks of patriarchy?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is hardly new. As a rookie reporter, I handed in my resignation after only one month of working at a newspaper because the editor was, well, a ‘lech’. We didn’t have the protection of the law and we didn’t even have the words to express what was done to us. Hell, I never even questioned why I had to serve three month’s notice before they would let me go.

Today’s generation of women entering the workplace is articulate, aware and certainly less prepared to put up with the rubbish we tolerated.

To those who say these brave women are vitiating the environment and setting the movement back by years, I say, we’ll take our chances. And to those men — judges and lawyers included — who claim they will no longer hire women, I say: You’re in violation of the Constitution that guarantees fundamental rights of equality to all women.

Men say they are scared by this new environment. Far too many women have lived in fear of the old environment. It’s time to pack the dinosaurs off to the museum.

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jan 18, 2014 00:48 IST