The battle for gender equality in an era of machismo politics

The rise of fundamentalism, chauvinistic nationalism and macho leadership has made defending women’s rights that much harder, I report from Bangkok at the Beijing +25 review.

BRICS leaders at the G20 Summit, November 2015/Creative Commons

Away from the tight-lipped silence of government officials locked in negotiations, some 150 people sat huddled on the floor outside one of the cavernous conference halls of the United Nations (UN) building in Bangkok. The group was plotting and planning steps to take at the Beijing +25 review, a conference held to take stock of where the world stands on promises made on gender equality 25 years ago.

The mood of civil society organizations (CSOs)—meeting on the floor because there wasn’t a room available to them—was combative. After initially being locked out of the negotiation process, they had managed to get in—but only as observers. “Negotiations are never so hush-hush,” said Subhalakshmi Nandi, director, policy analysis, International Centre for Research on Women, Asia. “It’s common practice to have CSOs in the negotiating room.”

Government officials, deadlocked for 24 hours straight, quibbled over the words of an all-important outcome document that would be parsed for their country’s stand on gender rights. Premised on what this document might contain or omit, plans were being hatched on how best to protest: singing, chanting, holding signs, or even a walkout.

The anxiety of 230 CSOs from 35 countries in the Asia-Pacific region had been palpable since their arrival in Bangkok on 24 November for three days of stock-taking.

A Year of #MeToo: What it Achieved, and didn’t

A conversation that began after the 2012 Delhi gangrape has grown louder. We may be miles away from a world free of sexual violence, but we are certainly a few notches closer.

Pic taken by Namita Bhandare during the 2013 protests in Delhi

So, was it worth it, after all? One year after India’s MeToo movement, it isn’t out of place to paraphrase TS Eliot’s existential question.

On the face of it, there is plenty to be depressed about. A law student who has accused former minister Chinmayanand of raping her had to threaten suicide over the failure of the State to act. Police action was much delayed, though the accused has now been arrested.

The Bombay High Court has quashed a 2004 sexual harassment case against angel investor Mahesh Murthy, since the delay is not “properly explained”.

Actor Aamir Khan, who, in 2018, stepped down as the producer of Mogul after the director, Subhash Kapoor, was accused of sexual misconduct, is back in the film playing the lead. Khan says he was troubled that his decision might have cost Kapoor his “right to work”.

In October 2018, unshackled from decades of silence, an army of women in India joined a global outpouring against sexual harassment. This movement across 195 countries, expressed via 25 or so sister hashtags (#BabaeAko in the Philippines; #SendeAnlat in Turkey), garnered over 36 million impressions between 2016 and July 2019, found a United Nations report, “What Will it Take?” It “enabled conversations and connections that together have shaken hitherto stable systems of abuse and power”, notes the report.

“MeToo is a protest movement, doesn’t always lead to change”

Justice Sujata Manohar at the National Commission of Women office, New Delhi

I spoke to Sujata Manohar, the Supreme Court judge who wrote the judgment on workplace sexual harassment guidelines two decades ago, on what she thinks of a contemporary movement.

New Delhi: 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:

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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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.

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