Wronged and discriminated


That we live in a society which thrives on patriarchal mindset is clear when women suffer from sexual harassment at workplace but find it tough to get justice. Curiously, women like Priya Ramani, who have the courage to open up, are hounded and persecuted, showing that the pressure is on the victim and not the culprit. Perpetrators get away wielding their power, position and influence. Shoma Chatterji makes out a case. 

In a patriarchal society a woman needs to prove in court that she has been wronged mainly on grounds of her sex. Be it rape, molestation, eve-teasing or sexual harassment at the workplace, the scales are tilted against her. This applies more specifically to cases of sexual harassment at workplace than other crimes against women and girls. Because her complaint is against the perpetrator who is male and has position of power, affluence and influence!

On 13 August 1997, the Supreme Court directed the Centre and State governments to enforce 12 guidelines on sexual harassment at work. The court said it was the duty of employers in the public and private sectors to prevent harassment of women. The three-judge bench, headed by then-Chief Justice J S Verma, set the mandatory guidelines and directed all employers to “provide for resolution, settlement or prosecution of acts of sexual harassment.” The judges also named acts that constitute sexual harassment at workplace. This came as an amendment to the Industrial Employment Rules, 1946. The amendment came in response to Vishaka vs. the State of Rajasthan, AIR SC 3011. As per the amendment, any of the following acts would constitute sexual harassment:
1) Physical contact and advances
2) A demand or request for sexual favours
3) Sexually coloured remarks
4) Showing pornography to women employees
5) Any other unwelcome, physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.

The legal and judicial machinery skirted the issue of sexual harassment till this 1997 amendment mainly because the administrative system believed the problem did not exist; the other reason being sexual harassment defies definite definition. Sexual harassment could be through word, deed, gesture, or plain innuendo. “Anything that makes it impossible for the woman to work without compromising her dignity and self-respect would amount to sexual harassment” says Brinda Karat, Secretary, AIDWA (All India Women’s Democratic Association.) Problems arise because women shy away from voicing their complaints in public.

Priya Ramani chose not to shy away from going public. She did not name the perpetrator in her article during the high of the #MeToo Movement but the innuendo was so obvious that MJ Akbar sued her for defamation. The irony is the victim becomes the accused from circumstances arising out of two major factors. One is patriarchy and the other is power. Often both fuse.

On October 12, 2017, Vogue India published an article by Ramani titled To the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, as an open letter that begins with “Dear Male Boss.” Ramani described workplace harassment during a job interview in a Mumbai hotel room. On 8 October 2018, Ramani tweeted with a reference to her 2017 Vogue India piece, stating “I began this piece with my MJ Akbar story. Never named him because he didn’t “do” anything. Lots of women have worse stories about this predator they might share.” Soon after Ramani’s tweets, more women accused Akbar of sexual misconduct during his career as a journalist.

The incident dates back to 1993. The BJP Rajya Sabha MP sued her for defamation soon after. Akbar resigned as junior minister in the Modi government, after at least 15 women charged him with sexual harassment. Akbar, a veteran journalist, chose to sue only Ramani of defamation denying all allegations of sexual harassment. A Delhi court acquitted Priya Ramani in February this year. The court said a woman has the right to voice grievance several years after the alleged crime took place.

Broadly stated, sexual harassment is defined as any attention of a 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 propositions. A large number 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 with no guarantee this may not recur at the new place. The biggest drawback of sexual harassment 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. The onus is on the woman to prove the allegations of sexual harassment. Gita Karlekar, a young typist in a private firm in Mumbai, lost her job for refusing to have an affair with her boss. Her termination letter does not say so, but this is what she told the labour court. Despite several people vouching for her, the judge was not convinced. “Why would any man want to chase you?” he reportedly asked. Karlekar is one of just a handful of victims in India who have taken the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace to court. Activist Mukti Datta was allegedly molested by the then-union government minister Z R Ansari, when she met him to discuss a work-related issue.

Sunita Haldankar, a school teacher, was allegedly molested by the Goa speaker in his cabin at the secretariat. Tasneem Sheikh, a college lecturer in Mumbai, lodged a criminal complaint against the head of her department for “misbehaviour.” Chaula Karuva, the public relations officer at the Gujarat Tourism Development Corporation was dismissed for lodging a formal complaint against the misconduct of her IAS officer boss. She took the case to court. After eight years, the Gujarat High Court ordered her department to reinstate Chaula with full back-wages. Her boss was transferred following an inquiry. She returned only to discover that the IAS fraternity continuing to harass her for crusading against one of their own people.

During the earlier DMK rule, a joint director in the agricultural ministry, Tamil Nadu, India, married and in his late 50s, often misbehaved with his female colleagues. He would force them to share details of their private lives and their intimate secrets. The AIDWA raised the issue with the minister for agriculture through Marxist MLA Pappa Umanath. She was told that “a man of 55 is harmless” and was urged to drop the complaint. When the AIDWA took the matter to the then Chief Minister Karunanidhi, he promptly got the officer transferred. The Tarun Tejpal case is now in the public domain.

Most women victims do not have the means and support Rupan Deol had, since she herself was an IAS officer. It is common knowledge that Deol was pressured to drop the case because her molester, KPS Gill was known to be a super cop, almost a national figure, whose image could hardly be tarnished.

The pressure is on the victim and not on the culprit. That is tantamount to misuse of power. A woman occupying or likely to occupy a high position or being successful in her profession as a journalist/banker’ corporate honcho is often envied. There is enough space for both men and women so the fear in men about successful women is inexplicable. It is time for more Priya Ramanis to come up and shout from the rooftops.

Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.