The courage to speak up

Can we even begin to understand the courage and grit it takes for a woman to speak up against her sexual assault? In a climate that is changing, we still continue to shine a spotlight on the victim, not her predator. My column in Hindustan Times:

The complainant in one of India’s most high profile sexual harassment cases is telling me about the price of speaking up. A hostile work environment, mental stress, failing health, long and costly litigation and, despite it all, loss of a job, says the woman researcher who filed a complaint against RK Pachauri in February 2015 when he was still boss at TERI.

“Even today I worry about entering an office room and am scared to open my email,” she says.

Three years later, trial is yet to begin. But, says the researcher, “Sexual harassment by powerful bosses continues because we have a culture that turns a blind eye to it.”

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Beyond #MeToo, there’s #WeCount

In Hindustan Times, I argue that the goal of India’s #MeToo movement is not the taking down of a few predatory bosses but a new deal for women at work. 

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.

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It hurts a village

In my Hindustan Times column, I look at a state that has, despite having India’s worst gender indices (sex ratio at birth, crimes against women, including gang-rape and stalking), there is a high level of ambition and aspiration amongst young girls and women. Yet, when there’s a gang-rape of one woman, it impacts and restricts the mobility of the other women and girls in the village. 

The first-year BSc student was on her way to coaching classes to prepare for the railways entrance exam. She was abducted, drugged, gang-raped and then dumped back at the bus stop from where they had taken her.

The crime touches so many aspects of what it means to be female in Haryana.

Clearly, there is aspiration and ambition as a new generation of girls surges ahead in sport and education, the Phogat sisters as flag-bearers. In classrooms, 45.8% have completed 10 years of schooling, well above the national average of 35.7%.

“The girls are motivated to study and do well in life,” says UNDP’s state project head Kanta Singh who looks after skilling programmes in Haryana and NCR.

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Women should lead the way in rebuilding Kerala

Today, we know that while floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes, and tsunamis do not discriminate on the grounds of caste, religion or gender, their impact is profoundly discriminatory. Studies have shown that it is women (and the poor and marginalized) who bear their heaviest burden.

When Swarna Rajagopalan, a political scientist who specialises in gender issues, mentioned the g-word at a meeting to discuss natural disasters, she was told curtly: “This is not about gender. It’s about an emergency.”

That was 10 years ago.

Today, we know that while floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes and tsunamis do not discriminate on the grounds of caste, religion or gender, their impact is profoundly discriminatory. Studies have shown that it is women (and the poor and marginalised) who bear their heaviest burden.

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Hell house ‘shelter’ horror

Muzaffarpur is emblematic of the large-scale systemic abuse of institutionalized children that we choose not to see.

One fought with her stepmother and ran away from home. Another was sold into prostitution and rescued in a raid. And a third was brought in by her mother who was too poor to feed her.

The girls who end up at shelter homes are, very often, nobody’s children; society’s most vulnerable. They have no one to ask, are you okay?

Not even the State whose job it is to protect them.

While the scale of horror at the state-funded hell house shelter in Muzaffarpur run by the politically connected Brajesh Thakur is staggering — 29 of 42 minor girls reporting rape, torture and being drugged — it is not unprecedented. Continue reading “Hell house ‘shelter’ horror”

Worst, second worst or 5th worst doesn’t matter. India is bad for women.

In Hindustan Times: Frankly, I find this business of ranking ‘worst’ countries to be tedious. To be bad is bad enough; better or worse is an academic argument.

That report, the one that damns India as the worst country in the world for women, came out in a week when one of the country’s most powerful women, our external affairs minister, was being trolled for transferring a passport official who had allegedly exceeded his brief over an interfaith marriage.

Of course, we’d like to believe that our women and girls are completely in charge of their lives — in charge of who to love, where (and whether) to study, what career to pursue and, even, to be born. Right?

So forgive me if I’m not joining the chest-beating mob howling in outrage over the Thomson Reuters Foundation perception survey that places India below Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.

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The bigot in my drawing room

In Hindustan Times: Atul Kochhar is the symbol of a far more widespread problem – the normalization of prejudice against Muslims.

I run into my college friend after a gap of some years. Post the usual small-talk, she wants to know my views on the tolerance/intolerance debate. I tell her I am worried about the erosion of this country’s social fabric in recent years.

Elaborate, she says.

Muslims, I tell her, at least the ones I speak to, are scared of living in this new India. They worry that they are being watched all the time. They worry that the mutton they cook at home could at any minute turn into beef and this would have deadly consequences for them. They worry about their children. They are just scared.

Good, she says. They should be scared. Continue reading “The bigot in my drawing room”

What makes us human? The right to love

In Hindustan Times: I argue that Section 377, which criminalises sex against ‘the order of nature’, should be scrapped because it is past its use-by date, conforms to outdated values of marriage and family and is a blatant violation of human rights. 

When Padma Iyer’s son, Harish, told her he was gay in the early 2000s, LGBTQ was a jumble of letters that meant nothing to the conservative Tamil mom. But she remembers telling him, “Don’t tell your father, and don’t let the relatives know.”

She says: “My instinct was to protect him. I could accept him but was afraid my family would not.”

Today, Padma Iyer is on TV and on YouTube explaining Evening Shadows, a crowd-funded film by Sridhar Rangayan about a mother from a small town whose gay son comes out to her.

“So many parents ask me for advice,” says Iyer. It was for these parents that Rangayan launched Sweekar, a support group, in December 2016.

But the sad truth is that many LGBTQ face violence from their own families. “The parental family most often perpetrates domestic violence faced by lesbians,” finds a 2003 report, The Nature of Violence Faced by Lesbian Women in India, by Bina Fernandez and Gomathy NB of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). This violence includes verbal and physical abuse, confinement and coercion into marriage.

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