As a lazy Holi day was winding down, women were thanking their stars at having escaped one more year of pawing and groping in the name of the festival of colours (or not). And a news story flashed of a woman having accused the founder and CEO of an online digital entertainment channel, Arunabh Kumar, of sexual harassment over a period stretching from 2014 to March 2016.
The woman calling herself the Indian Fowler posted a piece on the website Medium, naming herself after the woman who similarly reported widespread sexual harassment at Uber. By now several other women have come forward with claims of sexual harassment against the The Viral Fever’s founder.
The team at The Viral Fever (TVF) were prompt in their response. If is weren’t so sad in its attempt to intimidate the complainant, it would have been funny. They outright rejected the allegations, with no suggestion of any inquiry and instead, threatened “to find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice for making such false allegations.”
This is exactly the kind of intimidating behaviour that keeps women from pursuing issues of sexual harassment or assault. Pursuing sexual harassment cases comes at a high price for women, who are often putting their careers, jobs, and even reputations at risk. What responses like TVF’s show us is the absolute lack of belief or empathy that sexual harassment complainants face. It is for this reason that most women tend to ignore most instances of sexual harassment, or try to keep the cases as low-key as possible. They hope that keeping it quiet will lead to a quick resolution, or that the harasser will stop harassing them. However, that rarely happens.
In December 2015, when Maneka Gandhi requested that it be made mandatory for companies to reveal whether they have an Internal Complaints Committee to inquire into sexual harassment complaints of women employees, Finance and Corporate Affairs Minister Arun Jaitley turned her down saying “such disclosures may not be desirable.” Keep in mind that as of today there is no way for us to know if companies are complying with the mandatory rule for having such committees unless they come forward and disclose it themselves. If you are a woman working in a private firm you are pretty much on your own.
Recently social media was agog with the case of Martin Schneider who got talked down to, ignored and even propositioned by his clients when he accidentally switched email signatures with a female colleague. That’s sexual harassment for you.
As of today there is no way for us to know if companies are complying with the mandatory rule of having Internal Complaints Committees.
Sexual harassment at the workplace is not new. Sexism and misogyny follows women in all walks of life and has predictably followed us into our workplaces too. Not too long ago we did not even have the language to define or express that creepy feeling when a man stood too close, invading your personal space, or looked straight in the region of your chest while addressing you, or made sexually explicit jokes and you were expected to laugh along, because you wouldn’t want to be seen as stuck up, without sense of humor.
What Constitutes Harassment?
Sexual harassment at the workplace might vary from situation to situation. However, it includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, direct or indirect threats or bribes for sexual activity, sexual innuendos and comments, sexually suggestive jokes, unwelcome touching or brushing against a person, pervasive displays of materials with sexually illicit or graphic content, and attempted or completed sexual assault. Sexual harassment also includes sexually suggestive conduct that unreasonably impacts an individual’s employment or academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment for that individual’s employment
We have Bhanwari Devi to thank for all this, whose rape brought about the Vishakha guidelines for sexual harassment at the workplace. Before her 1997 case, if harassed at the workplace, most women had had recourse only to two sections of the Indian Penal Code, Section 354 that deals with the ‘criminal assault assault of women to outrage women’s modesty‘, and Section 509 that punishes for using a ‘word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman.’ Bhanwari Devi was a trailblazer, who was raped by the upper caste men of her village because she campaigned against the child marriage of a 1 year old girl.
She went on to file a case as the incident had occurred during her work as a part of the Women Development Programme was raped by the landlords of the community. As an employee she demanded assurances of safety while working. Her case led to the Vishakha Guidelines. This was then upgraded and turned into law. It is now The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
Whether it is policewomen at work or a laboratory assistant working in Delhi university or a colleague of R.K.Pachauri, women are harassed in professional situatuons, especially by men who hold power over them. What makes the situation worse is that since it is related to livelihood, there is a rampant culture of silencing women from speaking out, or “solving” the matter by forcing the woman out of a professional career altogether (when economically viable). This might lead to women hesitating before lodging an official complaint, as it is she who will get affected.
What You Can Do
It is only talking out loud about issues of sexual harassment at the workplace that can lead to a culture of zero-tolerance towards it. Ask questions of your employers, rally around other women at your workplace and demand an Internal Complaints Committee be set in place. You can yourself enroll for or ask others to join this certification course by NUJS on sexual harassment prevention and workplace diversity. Employing more women in the workplace too will result in change and accountability. It’s time to change the ‘dudebro’ culture of Indian professional circuits.