Sunday, November 24, 2013

Another kind of violence

This column was written two days before the Tarun Tejpal issue broke and took over all discussion on sexual assault and harassment.  To read what I wrote after it, look at the next post, my column on The Hoot website.

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 24, 2013

As for the perpetrator, there are many who will give him a character certificate. Photo: AP
As for the perpetrator, there are many who will give him a character certificate. Photo: AP

Let us talk about sexual harassment. It is an uncomfortable subject. No one wants to talk about it. Yet every woman in a mixed workplace knows that this is a daily hazard; one that she has to learn to negotiate. Sometimes, it goes beyond being tolerable. And that is when women protest, they speak out, they report the crime.

What happens then? In most cases, it is the woman who is questioned. Is she reading too much into an innocent gesture or remark? Is she being vindictive? After all, no real harm was done (meaning, she was not sexually assaulted or raped). So why raise a hue and cry, she is always asked.

As for the perpetrator, there are many who will give him a character certificate. No one can believe that a person of such sterling character can do such a thing. So, they conclude, it is the woman’s fault. Either she is making it up, or she “invited” this unwanted attention.

This uncomfortable subject has once again become a talking point after a young woman law graduate accused a retired Supreme Court judge, under whom she interned, of sexual harassment. The incident took place last December in Delhi, ironically at a time when everyone was incensed with the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in the same city. Why is this case more important than other cases of sexual harassment?

First, the charge is against a Supreme Court judge, even if he has retired since the incident. Another intern, similarly placed, wrote the following on a social networking site: “The funny part is, it was very likely that I would have been the person in SJ’s place. I’ve been at the receiving end of unsolicited sexual advance more than once, and so has she (SJ). And we kept attributing all the signs of leeriness to our hypersensitivity to such situations, mistrusting our instincts. We discussed innocuously said off-colour remarks and dismissed their creepiness because we really respected him (the judge), and the possibility seemed at odds with everything we knew about him, his ideas about feminism, patriarchy, social justice...” These remarks illustrate what most women think when confronted with such a situation.

Secondly, it highlights the casual attitude towards sexual harassment that prevails. In the hierarchy of violence against women, sexual harassment is placed very low. As a result, even institutions like our courts have not paid cognisance to the very rules that they have instituted. We must remember that it was the apex court that passed what are known as the Vishakha guidelines on sexual harassment in the workplace in 1997. It was this initial intervention by the apex court that paved the way for the passage of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, earlier this year. Now by law, it is mandatory that committees be constituted to hear sexual harassment complaints in all establishments, including the courts.

While the Supreme Court has responded to the complaint by setting up a three-judge committee to look into it, this does not, as Additional Solicitor General of India, Indira Jaising, pointed out in a magazine article, conform with the provisions of the sexual harassment law. According to the law, a committee investigating a charge of sexual harassment must include an outsider. The three-member committee consists of judges.

Of course, we cannot single out the courts on this issue. If a survey were done of institutions across the country that have not followed the provisions of this law, the list would be long. Among others, it would include most media houses.

At a time when there is an increasing focus on violence against women in the public space, it is essential to realise that sexual harassment at the workplace is also another kind of violence. It might not always lead to physical harm. But it destroys a woman’s sense of self. Women who speak out against sexual harassment are rarely believed. Quite often, their colleagues turn on them, blaming them for unnecessarily rocking the boat. In the ultra-competitive environment in which most professionals have to work, no one wants to rock the boat. Thus, for every complaint that comes out in the open, there would be dozens that never see the light of day.

Both women and men will begin to have faith in the law if the upholders of the law demonstrate their own commitment to it. This is why this particular case has a wider significance. 

(To read the original, click here.)

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