Monday, October 22, 2018

Sexual Harassment: The more things change, the more they remain the same

With all the stories of sexual harassment, sexual assualt and inappropriate behaviour by men that are pouring out on social media as part of #MeToo, I was reminded of an article I wrote in 1989 on the subject in Times of India.  

This came to mind when I read the interview with Rupan Deol Bajaj, an IAS officer who was publicly molested by a celebrated police officer, the late KPS Gill, famous for his ruthless putting down of the Punjab insurgency.  Bajaj fought a protracted legal battle against Gill, that she finally won.  But her coming out at that time, when there was no social media, drew attention to the reality of sexual harassment even of powerful women like her.

This article, which appeared before the days of the internet, provoked some strange responses from my male colleagues of that time.  The senior editor, who looked after the edit page, wrote to me after it appeared, that he was surprised to see me writing on such a "tired old subject".  To which I sent back a sharp response, by way of a typed letter as there was no email then, reminding him that women did not think of this as a "tired old" subject even if men did!  Of course, the editor of the paper rapped me on the knuckles for being so cheeky with a senior colleague!

Just for interest, I am reproducing the piece which was published on July 8, 1989 in Times of India on the edit page.

There is one subject which even the most liberal amongst professional men and women prefer to avoid thinking about, leave alone discuss.  That is the uncomfortable fact of sexual harassment in the workplace which thousands of women accept silently as an occupational hazard.

A woman who so much as mentions this unmentionable subject is likely to be called rigid, militant, lacking a sense of humour and, worst of all, a "feminist".  In any case, the majority of women who object to the constant innuendos, propositioning and other forms of harassment reserved for their sex learn to smile their way through life.  The joke, of course, is most often at their expense.  But they believe there is no option.

If a woman holds a fairly senior position in an organisation, she may encounter nothing more than a few off-colour jokes or unnecessarily personal comments about her looks or about what she is wearing during a business meeting.  But, if she is lower down in the hierarchy, for instance, a secretary or a receptionist or a telephone operator or even a sub-editor in a newspaper, then she must learn to bear with much more.

This issue comes into focus everytime a woman picks up the courage to counter it.  When a senior IAS officer, Mrs Rupan Deol Bajaj, objected publicly to the behaviour of the Punjab director-general of police, Mr. K. P. S. Gill, at an official party, predictably she found few supporters.  It was suggested that not only did she lack a sense of humour and was too easily offended but that she was actually playing into the hands of terrorists by casting aspersions on the character of someone so central to national security.

Mrs Bajaj's case is now history.  But it illustrated only too graphically the problems that even a woman in as senior and powerful a position as she is will face if she dares to raise this most uncomfortable of issues.

More recently, Ms Tasneem Sheikh, a lecturer in a Bombay college, has once again drawn attention to this problem by filing a police complaint against the vice-principal of the college where she worked as a lecturer, for allegedly harassing and molesting her.  She bore up silently to several months of propositioning and finally decided to go public when the man allegedly made physical advances towards her.

Tasneem's reward is considerable sympathy from other women, who know what her stand represents, but not much else.  She has lost her job, has had to face the predictable questions about her own character, is facing a one-man inquiry set up by Bombay University to investigate the incident and is awaiting a decision on a case she has filed in the Bombay High Court. It is significant that, like others, Tasneem too first hoped that the issue would be sorted out following a private discussion with the principal of the college. Only when that approach failed did she go to the police and subsequently to the court.

Just as the question of the depiction of women in the media was considered a relatively minor issue until a few years ago but has now been accepted as integral to the struggle to enhance women's status in society, so also the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace will have to be faced squarely by women's groups and others concerned about women.

The issue is trickier than the more obvious ways in which women are ill-treated and harassed. How do you define sexual harassment? It is not just a question of physical assault on women.  The definition should include the constant verbal attacks in the form of innuendos and remarks which are aimed at a person merely because she is a member of the female sex.  It is true that there are similar attitudes reflected towards people of different communities and castes.  But most often, such remarks are made when a person of that particular group is not present for fear of causing affront.  But it is taken for granted with women that they will not fight back.  And, if they do, they are likely to be faced with an even stronger barrage of such remarks.  So many prefer to hold their peace.

Also, if women demand stringent safeguards against behaviour which demeans their status, could it not be used against them to limit their employment opportunities as has already happened with the provisions in the Factories Act which are especially designed for working mothers? Even big industrial houses are limiting the number of women they employ as managers because they do not want to be forced to abide by provisions such as providing creches if they employ more than 30 women.  In their view, employing women is a more expensive proposition and their numbers should, therefore, be kept below the statutory figure which mandates such provisions as creches.

Such a problem cannot be solved by law alone as it reflects the most fundamental prejudices against women that persist despite efforts to bring about an attitudinal change.  While a woman, who dares to make an issue of sexual harassment at work, can take recourse to certain exisiting provisions in the law, such as section 509 of the Indian Penal Code which considers any "attempt to outrage the modesty" of a person/woman a crime, in the long run only a sustained campaign to fight for women's dignity in every respect can make a difference on this question.

Here the role of women, especially those who are in positions where they can afford to raise their voices without fear of losing their jobs, is crucial.  Too often, women have attained high office by diluting their convictions on these issues and by distancing themselves deliberately from those of their sex who are openly fighting for the rights of all women.  That is why you constantly hear prominent women, even those who are onsidered progressive, hastily assuring their audiences, "I am not a feminist".

The issue is simple.  Women are demanding the basic right to be treated with dignity at home and at work.  This right is granted to them by law. Surely society should safeguard this right. 

1 comment:

Raghavan S said...

Is the attack on Ms Rupan Bajaj by Shri K P S Gill an example of sexual harassment? In a way the answer is NO.

K P S Gill had reached a state of inebriation in a party in which Rupan Bajaj was also an invitee. Just when Rupan happened to pass through very closely through Gill, he thrashed on her back even as he was unstable. Feeling demoralized in front of guests, majority of whom were men with only a handful women, Rupan left the party immediately. Others thought of her to have left in anger but she bounced back within minutes with a posse of police officers only to register a case against K P S Gill for outraging the modesty of woman.

The case continued for 8 years and finally Gill was proved guilty. The judgment also had a mention that in such parties, women need to look after their safety, foremost being on attendance and secondly on the need to stay till the end when behavior of those hobnobbing changes erratically.

Had it been any woman in the place of Rupan Bajaj, the lash would have been no different. Law provides women their right and state provides security. Inside a party, it is the women who have to take care of their own safety. Blaming men who are bound to misbehave while high is an induced and involuntary action and not sexual harassment.