Justice Sujata Manohar: ‘MeToo is a Protest Movement, Doesn’t Always Lead to Action’

One of three Supreme Court judges to pass the path-breaking Vishaka guidelines on workplace sexual harassment, Justice Sujata Manohar spoke to me about India’s MeToo movement and its larger implications.   

Before the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of April 2013, there were the Vishaka guidelines passed by the Supreme Court in August 1997. Vishaka not only defined sexual harassment for the first time, but also included a broad sweep of offences from outright sexual assault to sexually loaded comments made in the presence of a woman employee. Relying on multilateral and international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the UN in 1979, it placed responsibility on employers to prevent or deter sexual harassment and set up processes to deal with and resolve complaints.

Vishaka acknowledged women as equal citizens in the workplace with equal rights to employment and opportunity. “The fundamental right to carry on any occupation, trade or profession depends on the availability of a ‘safe’ working environment. Right to life means life with dignity,” noted the three-judge bench of Justice Sujata V Manohar, Justice BN Kirpal and the late Justice JS Verma who would subsequently go on to head a committee suggesting legal changes and reforms in the aftermath of the gang-rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012.

In the light of India’s MeToo movement, nearly 22 years after Vishaka and six years after the law on workplace sexual harassment, what are some of the core issues that remain? Is the law working or is it adequate to address the continuing malaise? Justice Sujata V Manohar, the second woman judge after Justice Fathima Beevi to be elevated to the Supreme Court, spoke to IndiaSpend:

India has, in recent months, seen its own MeToo movement where women are naming men who molested or raped them on social media. How do you view this trend?

MeToo is a social movement. It is not a legal movement. It shows that now it is at least possible for women to complain of what they could not in the past because of social pressure and stigma. To that extent it is a sign of empowerment. That’s one way of looking at it. The second aspect is to see it as an attempt on the part of women who have in the past been harassed by men in positions of power to shame them and possibly have some action taken against them.

But, whichever way you look at it, it is not a legal movement and it does not lead necessarily to any action against the man. The idea is ultimately to see that some action is taken, whatever is available under the law.

MeToo has its limitations. A woman can be harassed by someone on the street, for instance, not necessarily by a person with whom she is working. So, it is not an answer to anything. It is only a method of protest against exploitation.

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Whitewashing women out of public memory

In Hindustan Times, I argue for the need to commemorate the memory of more women, whether by building their statues or naming roads or institutions after them. Why? Because it’s crucial to remember who we are as a people and that our legacy includes not just powerful men in public life but also women who, despite the odds they faced, still surged ahead.  

The conference room at the National Commission for Women (NCW), a statutory body that advises government on policies for women, is remarkable for one feature: The absence of women on its walls.

There are standard-issue portraits of the prime minister and president, yet when I recently pointed out that a few additional portraits of inspirational women might not be out of place, the suggestion was brushed off.

But why blame the NCW? Across India, how many women do we honour by naming streets after them or building their statues and hanging their portraits? Indira Gandhi gets an international airport. Rani of Jhansi is valourised in statues. Savitribai Phule’s portrait very often hangs along side that of her husband. Anyone else?

In New Delhi, women barely get more than a half dozen roads. There’s the artist Amrita Shergill, Gandhiji’s wife, Kasturba Gandhi, freedom fighter, Aruna Asaf Ali, and Mother Teresa.

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