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OP-ED: The cynical extinguishment of #MeToo in India

  • Published at 09:01 pm October 15th, 2020
India Violence against Women Rape protest
Reuters

When women speak of sexual harassment they aren’t believed -- that hasn’t changed

Two years since the global #MeToo movement sparked off in India, when actress Tanusree Dutta publicized her (previously filed with the Cine & TV Artists Association) complaint that veteran actor Nana Patekar had sexually harassed her, a Delhi courtroom decision illustrates how complicated it is to effect change. 

In this context, no case in India is higher profile than the defamation suit filed by MJ Akbar -- the editor-turned-politician -- against veteran journalist Priya Ramani. 

In 2017, Ramani had written an open letter in Vogue India, addressed to “Dear Male Boss.” She recounted that when she was 23, an un-named 43-year-old superior summoned her to his hotel room for an encounter -- “more date, less interview.” 

In October 2108, she identified that man as Akbar. Soon afterwards, 14 other women added their own testimonies, describing everything from inappropriate touching to rape.

Of all these accusers, Akbar singled out Ramani -- his calculus for doing so remains unclear -- and sued her for “knowingly tarnishing his reputation.” 

Those legal proceedings have been crawling towards culmination at the Rouse Avenue Court in New Delhi, right up to and including the final arguments. But earlier this week, magistrate Vishal Pahuja dropped the bombshell that his court isn’t competent to hear the case after all. Everything is back to square one.

“The timing of this decision certainly seems curious,” says Namita Bhandare, a journalist who writes on gender issues (disclosure: She knows Ramani well). She told me: “When suddenly, on the verge of a verdict, the judge raises a question of jurisdiction on the basis of a 2018 Supreme Court notification, you have to wonder if there is more to this than meets the eye.”

Bhandare says: “If you go by some of the most prominent cases that should have been litmus tests to examine the efficacy of our law against workplace sexual harassment, the answer is pretty depressing.

“RK Pachauri died before his case could reach a verdict. Tarun Tejpal’s case is plodding along in a Goa court, where the complainant had to ask the Mumbai High Court to restrain his counsel from asking her the most deeply offensive questions in open court. 

Ranjan Gogoi is sitting comfortable in our House of Elders. Priya Ramani is the last woman standing. That is why the verdict in her case is critical to the future of women’s work in India, and to the future of justice for women in India.”

This is a crucial point, because “India’s female labour force participation rate is dismal. Among G20 nations, only Saudi Arabia is worse. Largely, it’s because Indian women bear an inordinate burden of unpaid care work. Of course, this gendered expectation of what is women’s ‘work’ stems from patriarchy, and unless we begin the really hard work of dismantling it, unless we actually begin believing in our constitutional status as equal citizens, you can bring in all the laws you want, but nothing will change. But does a parliament where only 14% are women even want to dismantle patriarchy?” 

Bhandare says: “In my time, we functioned within a shared sisterhood whisper network -- he’s a creep, be careful. We didn’t even have the language to describe what was being done to us. #MeToo broke that silence. It would be a tragedy if one of the earliest breakers of that silence, Priya Ramani, has to pay the price.”

What happened this week indicates the cost of speaking truth to power. “Among the many reasons why women hesitate to name their harassers, or approach due process, is the lack of assurance on the surety of justice,” says Rituparna Chatterjee, the independent journalist and gender rights activist who curates the #MeTooIndia handle on Twitter. 

Chatterjee says: “When women are disbelieved and asked ‘why didn’t you file an FIR?’, it’s best to understand how the processes are stacked against them, to exhaust and drain them. The fact that women such as Priya still have courage and resilience is just amazing.”

There have been definite gains from #MeToo. Chatterjee listed some, but admitted “the sheer lack of intent by policy and law-makers and patriarchy that is so entrenched in these institutions makes the process of change extremely difficult. Only a brutal rape moves a country to claim women as ma and beti. When women speak of sexual harassment, they aren’t believed. This hasn’t changed, and won't till we change as a culture to understand the causes of violence and teach our sons better.”

In fact, all these are the reasons Ramani spoke out in the first place. In an unforgettable keynote address at the 2019 Goa Arts + Literature Festival (disclosure: I am its co-curator along with the eminent Konkani writer Damodar Mauzo), she said: “No country can be a superpower if half its potential workforce feels unsafe at work. I spoke because women before me spoke up. I spoke so people after me can speak up.” 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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