Even as there was a hope-filled verdict in Delhi, think of the two Dalit girls found dead in Unnao and you remember how much tougher it is for millions of women in India than it is for us (PTI)
Even as there was a hope-filled verdict in Delhi, think of the two Dalit girls found dead in Unnao and you remember how much tougher it is for millions of women in India than it is for us (PTI)

For India’s women, a week of hope — and anguish

The Priya Ramani verdict has shut down the debate on the most banal and common question asked of women: Why didn’t you speak up earlier?
PUBLISHED ON FEB 19, 2021 06:33 PM IST

This week, both reaffirming and disturbing in parts, has been important for Indian women. It has been a time for regaining strength and hope, but also a simultaneous reminder of how little changes, even when things do change.

The Priya Ramani win against the defamation suit by former Union minister MJ Akbar and the Unnao murders of two Dalit girls have bookended our conversation and our thoughts.

I was in the crowded courthouse when the Ramani verdict came — not as a reporter, but as a supporter. I don’t know Ramani closely, but given her courage, her willingness to be the subject of scrutiny, her decision to hold power to account, and her act enabling other women to speak up, I felt this was the least I could do when, really, she was fighting for us all.

Akbar, still a Member of Parliament from the ruling party, arrived flanked by a posse of policemen. Our hearts sank for a few minutes. Did the police presence indicate an adverse judgment? But if he had his troops, Ramani had a small army of women (and some men) to fortify her. And as it turned out, the judge, a man, reminded us of some home truths: The right to reputation cannot be at the cost of the right to dignity. A man of social status can also be a sexual harasser. And the most important one, for the MeToo Movement, women are entitled to express their “grievances”, at any forum and even after decades.

I could not help but think of Justice Pushpa Ganediwala, the Bombay High Court judge, who had declared that in the absence of skin-to-skin contact, a 12-year-old girl could not claim that she was sexually assaulted by a 39-year-old groper. That verdict came from a woman, and the Ramani verdict from Justice RK Pandey, a timely reminder that both misogyny and feminism can be gender-neutral.

More importantly, the verdict shut down the debate on the most banal and common question asked of women: Why didn’t you speak up earlier?

Let me, for the last time, attempt to tell you the multitude of reasons there may be. The power differential can make it frightening. The fear of consequences to your career is real. In many professional spaces, women are fighting twice as hard as men to get to the same place and get the same opportunities. If you then speak out about your experience of sexual harassment, there is every chance you will not be sent on certain assignments.

As women, many of us have internalised our lives as a prolonged version of boot camp, a sort of Darwinian call to toughen up or perish. As young women, we are terrified that men we consider our mentors can turn out to be monsters. We are yet to wrap our heads around one of the toughest existential truths — there is no connection between brilliance and decency.

Our ideas of consent have evolved and changed because feminism has pushed the boundaries. Think of Monica Lewinsky, for instance, and how in the 1990s, we all thought she made a choice to have an affair with the president of the United States. Today, we would put the onus of responsibility for that choice on the man who wields the power and carries the advantage of age. Today, we would wonder which 20-something woman could or would say no to the most powerful man in the world.

And finally, women don’t speak up in real- time, because look at what happens when they do. We celebrate the Ramani win because she was not punished for speaking her truth. And not because MJ Akbar has been punished. This is how low our expectations are.

And this is when we are women of privilege. But think of the Dalit woman who was strangled with her scarf in Hathras or the two Dalit girls found dead and tied up in a field in Unnao and you remember how much tougher it is for millions of women in India than it is for us.

One of the first stories I covered as a cub reporter was the gang rape of a Dalit woman, Bhanwari Devi, in Rajasthan. She was assaulted for trying to stop the child marriage of a one-year-old. Among the rapists was the child’s father. She took her fight all the way to the Supreme Court, from which were born the Vishaka guidelines, the mandatory workplace sexual harassment rules that we all know and practise today.

It will be 30 years in 2022 since the rape. Bhanwari Devi is still to get justice.

So, the next time you ask women why we do not believe in due process or why we do not speak up in real-time, you may want to pause and hold your silence.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and authorThe views expressed are personal

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