Sexual harassment at the workplace is a reality that sustains for Indian women across all sectors – rural and urban, class, status, education and caste, primary, secondary and tertiary sectors, including indigenous and organised sectors. It is structured into the social system ruled by patriarchal conditions, and we are aware of this reality. Elements of the social system seep into the work sector too, and men as well as organisations take it for granted that the woman will be willing to walk that extra mile to hold on to the job.
Complaints have been made, laws have been passed, cases have been filed, a few won by virtue of the importance of the complainant, and/ or wide media coverage. But this devil continues to dog us right through time, space, and person. Specifically, it was the Harvey Weinstein scandal that lifted the lid on this terrible crime which involved blackmail of every kind–emotional, psychological, financial, and of course, physical too.
Most women who are victims of sexual harassment do not have either the means, or the support that someone like Rupan Deol had, since she herself was an IAS officer. Yet, it is now common knowledge that Deol was under constant pressure to drop the case because her molester, K.P.S. Gill, was known to be a super cop, almost a national figure, whose image could hardly be tarnished. Juxtaposed against this is patriarchy’s tendency to trivialise any issue that involves the humiliation, oppression and insult of women. The pressure, like in any rape case, is on the victim, and not on the culprit. This is a living example of misuse of power, a modern-day sin. Is it perhaps, also envy, of a woman occupying a high administrative post, that still has room at the top?
Defining sexual harassment
Broadly stated, sexual harassment is defined as any attention of sexual nature in the context of the work situation, which has the effect of making a woman uncomfortable on the job. It can manifest itself in looks, jokes, gestures, bawdy remarks, or plain proposition. A large section of women employees face sexual harassment in varied degrees. Some are presented with the unpleasant alternative of putting up with it, possibly giving in to it, or looking for another job or a less attractive posting, without any guarantee that the same thing would not happen at the new place. The biggest drawback is that its threat keeps many women out of certain occupations and places where such behaviour is implicit in the very nature of the job itself.
However, before jumping to attack the system that, despite legal avenues, continues to flourish at the cost of women and ‘advantage’ of men, there are areas where women would prefer to keep silent and accept the sexual harassment as part of the job. A daily-wage labourer at a construction site is forced to sleep with the overseer because if she does not, she will be wiped off the roster. She has children waiting to be fed and clothed and sheltered. Is she consenting to the harassment? In literal terms, she is, but in moral terms, she is not. Her choice is between giving up her daily-wage or contractual job and sticking to it. If she sticks to it, her values have been compromised. But her children will be fed and clothed. If she quits, her children’s lives and her own, are placed at risk.
This can happen to a single woman working in a bank who has no support for her family, or, a top brass in a corporate organisation. Hospitals are a fertile ground for sexual harassment which sometimes becomes consensual. But when an ambitious woman greedy enough for a quick promotion to the next higher post finds that this is either followed or accompanied by unwritten compromises of sexual nature, and if she agrees to this compromise, then she has engaged in consensual sex because she gave first priority to the promotion, and less to her values as a woman. She had the option of quitting her job and finding another. But she does not take it. Research scholars have a tough time with their supervisors who often pressurise them for sexual favours, and they find it almost impossible to opt out because their research would remain incomplete, thus blocking their future in academia, forever. This is an impasse that is really tough to solve.
Nirmala Bhatt, who worked in a nationalised bank in Mumbai, endorses this. “We, as women, are conditioned by our families that if someone pinches us on the street, it is better to keep quiet. The same thing extends itself in our lives when we grow up and face similar or worse situations at the workplace.” Under existing labour laws, it is the responsibility of the employer to provide a safe work place and conditions that do not violate the physical and mental well-being of any employee. A work place that treats women as sexual commodities, forcing them to respond as such, clearly violates this provision, even if legal experts may not agree. Women who are seen to have slept their way to promotions are blamed and stigmatised for taking advantage of the clichéd weakness of men, absolving men of all responsibilities. Any woman who advances rapidly in her career on her own merit, is seen as reaping the benefits of the casting couch.
The threat of ‘or else’
Every single profession that engages women, with or without men such as domestic work, media, advertising, modelling, works on the unwritten assumption that if forced a bit, or a bit more, subtly or bluntly or sharply or with the invisible gun pointed to her head, every single member of the female sex will surrender to sexual demands. The “or else” is kept dangling in the air, the answer a given. Some professions are more open to a bartering for sexual favours for work, for higher pay, for a better role, for a big banner production house, for a promotion, than other professions such as teaching and medicine and banking. These are professions that demand youth, beauty and body or any one of these three.
Thus, there are invisible lines that remain unread where victims unwittingly lend themselves to sexual harassment and find it is too late to turn around and go back to square one. Let an example underwrite this argument. In her beautiful article – Harvey Weinstein and the Economics of Consent, Brit Marling writes (TheAtlantic.com October 23, 2017), “Acting felt like a noble pursuit and maybe even a small act of resistance. Hollywood was, of course, a rude awakening to that kind of idealism. I quickly realised that a large portion of the town functioned inside a soft and sometimes literal trafficking or prostitution of young women (a commodity with an endless supply and an endless demand).”
Marling rightly points out: “Once, when I was standing in line for some open-call audition for a horror film, I remember catching my reflection in the mirror and realised that I was dressed like a sex object. Every woman in line to audition for “Nurse” was, it seemed. We had all internalised on some level the idea that if we were going to be cast, we’d better sell what was desired — not our artistry, not our imaginations — but our bodies.” Young girls, and now, even young men who aspire for a career in films or modelling or politics, become cry-babies after the fact, screaming their lungs out about men in the industry – from the producer to the make-up man – of forcing themselves on these youngsters. The casting couch is structured into the construct of the careers described above. So, nothing comes of these complaints after the fact because the perpetrators, more powerful than their so-called victims, run scot free claiming that it was consensual sex, and there was no force involved.
Dhiman Dasgupta, a film scholar, author and one-time media person, gives us the other side of the story. He says, “This is not unique to films and television. In my 22 years with the media and advertising, I have seen the prominence of the (casting) couch. The last six years, I had been trying to become a writer. I have witnessed this in the publication industry. When I probed a bit more, I found that this exists in banks, real estate, finance, and across the corporate world. I have seen that a sizable section of women take advantage of this phenomenon. It would be very difficult to solve it by unionising it. In today’s world, the system has shown absolute disregard for the Philadelphia Convention which says “eight hours of work.” Most men and women I know in the corporates work for 12 hours, and that is the unwritten norm. Now, if you cannot protest against the violation of one global norm of human working condition, how will you protest against these extractive institutions that do not respect women’s issues? It is a problem where the white collared, in its obsession for growth as ignored alienation, has forgotten its crises of repression. The media filth pours out because of its so-called celeb status. Otherwise, it is all pervasive, exists across the spectrum in the world drained of sexual morality. We are truly a soulless world.”
“Sexual harassment of women at the workplace is an important instance of the oppression of women through sex and terror”, writes Sujata Gothoskar (The Sunday Observer, May 13, 1984.) “This combination of sex and terror is central to the oppression of women in the family, on the streets, at the workplace. This sexual aggression is not an aberration or some spontaneous act. It is part and parcel of a systematic and consistent strategy of men to dominate and maintain their power on women”, she sums up.