Not just about #MeToo, it’s also about #WeCount

Now is the time to ask for workplaces that value women and recognise that diversity is not just a nice sounding word

The resignation of minister of state for external affairs MJ Akbar might seem like a victory for the #MeToo movement, but it’s far too premature for any celebrations(Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

The resignation of minister of state for external affairs, MJ Akbar, might seem like a victory for the #MeToo movement, but it’s far too premature for any celebration.

The former editor is accused by at least 20 women of a range of inappropriate behaviour from interviewing potential new recruits in his hotel room to sexual assault. He has denied the accusations and sent a criminal defamation notice to the first of his accusers, journalist Priya Ramani.

Akbar is not the only one to have been stung by India’s October Outing, which has, so far, been organic, volatile and apparently unstoppable.

In contrast to the government’s silence over its minister, the private sector has scrambled to act. A film company has folded up, comedy videos by offenders have been scrubbed from websites and media houses have launched inquiries, sent the editors who’ve been accused on leave and mandated sexual harassment workshops for employees.

Workplaces have as much at stake as do women. The issue is not the taking down of a few predatory bosses and entitled celebrities. The issue is a New Deal at work.

Zero tolerance for workplace sexual harassment must be a given because it is the law and because it is the right thing to do. Yet, never has the gulf between the lived experiences of men and women been wider. My many male friends, even those I consider enlightened, have been shocked at the stories that are emerging. Even more shocking to them is the everyday reality of women at work.

India’s women already fight huge battles just to study and have careers. Every step is a struggle.

There are so many existing barriers to women’s employment, from family-imposed restrictions to a disproportionate share of unpaid care work, including cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly. Add to this the tricky terrain of the workplace.

It’s bad enough for women to deal with an office culture that includes endless meetings, needlessly long hours and networking opportunities at offsites and office parties. And then there are bosses with roaming eyes and hands. Many prefer to just quit and only 70% of all sexual harassment cases are even reported, according to a survey by the Indian National Bar Association.

Despite these barriers, now is the time to ask if we can dare to aspire for more. Not just for workplaces that are compliant with the law — surely that we take for granted — but for workplaces that value women and recognise that diversity is not just a nice sounding word; for workplaces where women are heard and valued; for workplaces where we can work with dignity without being belittled by male colleagues. That is the goal.

In a few weeks from now, a new cycle of outrage will begin. Long-drawn legal proceedings will eventually be relegated to a paragraph in the news, if even that. What must remain is women’s quest for workplace equality, not just as #MeToo but as #WeCount.

Namita Bhandare writes on social issues and gender

The views expressed are personal

What made India’s #MeToo possible

In Foreign Policy, I write on workplace sexual harassment from Bhanwari Devi to the resignation of M.J. Akbar, what’s changed over the years and which way India’s  #MeToo movement is likely to go. 

For close to two weeks now, many of India’s women, particularly in the English-language media and entertainment businesses, have taken to social media to call out sexual predators: bosses who had demanded sexual favors, men who had sent unsolicited explicit photographs, and stars who had interacted inappropriately with underage fans. Among those caught up in the torrent of accusations have been editors, directors, actors, writers, stand-up comedians, an image consultant, and a minister in the current government.

In some ways, the groundwork for this movement was laid in the 1990s. Early that decade, the state government of Rajasthan hired Bhanwari Devi, a social activist, to join an ongoing campaign against child marriage. Some locals, however, were not happy. In 1992, as “punishment” for her vocal condemnation of the marriage of a 9-month-old girl to a child from the same village, Devi says that she was raped by two men while three others held her down. The men denied the charges.

When the case came up for trial in a lower court in 1995, a judge ruled that “since the offenders were upper-caste men and included a Brahmin, the rape could not have taken place.” Devi, you see, was from a lower caste. The judge’s implication was that no upper caste man would “defile” himself by touching a lower-caste woman.

Weeks of marches and protests followed. And soon, a group of nonprofits came together under the name Vishakha. They petitioned the Supreme Court to create a legal framework for justice for women who had been sexually assaulted in the course of their work. In 1997, India’s highest court set specific guidelines that, for the first time, defined sexual harassment. The definition included not just physical contact but also sexually loaded remarks and comments.

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My #MeToo moment goes back 30 years, and it still makes me angry

In The Print, I write about the current movement against workplace sexual harassment that for me has summoned up old ghosts and taken me back to my own #MeToo moment 30 years ago. Has nothing really changed? Or is it that a new generation of women journalists are telling predatory, entitled male bosses to back off?

My #MeToo moment goes back some 30 years. I was a young reporter in a new job in Mumbai and was visiting my parents who lived in Delhi. My new editor happened to be in town and the three of us – the New Editor, another journalist and I went out for dinner at a restaurant in Hauz Khas Village.

After dinner, in the car on the way back home, New Editor made his move in the back seat. I pushed him off but he kept coming back at me. I didn’t feel threatened or I would have yelled – there were two people in the front after all, the journalist and the driver, oblivious to what was happening. As New Editor, a tiny man with big hair, kept making ridiculous kissy faces, I had to fight the urge to laugh.

Back in Mumbai, I did speak about the incident, not that I was traumatised but as a ‘can you believe this ridiculous man?’ kind of way.

Word got around to New Editor who summoned me to his cabin. “You shouldn’t talk about it because people will think you are showing off,” was his gratuitous advice. I was not just angry but deeply insulted. Showing off about what? I left his cabin, walked straight to my desk and wrote out my resignation.

Continue reading “My #MeToo moment goes back 30 years, and it still makes me angry”