{Majlis Legal Centre} Taking MeToo past the confines of social media by Flavia Agnes The Tribune Oct 19, 2018

Taking MeToo past the confines of social media

Flavia Agnes

Why now? At that time, there were no internal complaints committees and the idea of approaching the police was scary. Does this mean that the incidents did not occur? The lesson learnt is that women have to stake a claim. They will not be given their rights on a platter. They have to snatch them from a patently patriarchal system of corporate governance.

So finally it has happened. The Minister of State for External Affair,  MJ Akbar, had to step down from his official position.  Whether it was his decision or whether he was pressured by the party bosses to do so, we will never know.  Whatever may be the reason, it is a welcome move.

It is a moment of triumph  not only for the 20 senior journalists who came out strongly against him in a joint statement and to those who graphically described the extent of their abuse which they suffered as his subordinates, but a landmark victory  for the women’s movement in India.

The message has gone out loud and clear. A Union Minister cannot hold office when such allegations of sexual misconduct are piled up against him.  This is a message that has gone out globally.

It was a litmus test for the government which has been flaunting its pro-women programmes such as “beti bachao, beti padhao” and “ujwala”, and the more recent ordinance criminalising triple talaq, to save the “poor Muslim women”.

The government took its own time. There was no statement from women like Sushma Swaraj under whose ministry MJ Akbar worked. The Prime Minister and the party bosses kept mum and even allowed him to remain in office until he filed a case of criminal defamation against the first person who had accused him, using his political clout in an uneven court battle. As an anchor in a TV talk show commented, 97 lawyers against one individual. But as Priya Ramani, against whom the case is filed, said, ‘truth is the defence’.

This will open up the doors for more women to come out against their bosses and seniors at the workplace and hopefully will lead to a healthier workplace environment ensuring dignity of women.

The lesson learnt is that women have to stake a claim. They will not be given their rights on a platter. They have to snatch them from a patently patriarchal system of corporate governance. But it is possible to dent this structure; it is possible to bring in fresh air. It is possible to bring in gender equality and protect women‘s dignity at the workplace.

Yes, they were strong women. Yes, they occupy influential positions today. Yes, a poor woman working as a contract labour will not be in a similar position to resist the even more blatant sexual overtures from her supervisor. Yes, it is possible for women to file such cases and tarnish the image of their bosses without due process. Yes, even accepting all the limitations, we need to rejoice this moment.

The 1997 Vishaka guidelines issued by Justice JS Verma were historical but its impact was marginal on corporates. Even within government offices most women did not register complaints as the complaints committees were non-functional or it was very easy to gang up against the employee when a senior boss was involved.  The private corporates did not bother to set up complaints committees.

Then in 2013 we got the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act. Even this did not have the desired impact.  But now hopefully these committees will begin to function.  They will invite an external member, an NGO person or an expert on the issue, to be part of this committee. And if there are lapses, the #MeToo movement will still be around to expose the lapses. These are the concrete gains of this campaign.

The storm, which started with Tanushree Dutta’s allegations against Nana Patekar three weeks ago has turned into an avalanche. While denting the patriarchal base of our industries, institutions and public offices, it has spilled into the legal and political domains. We cannot predict what the legal battle will entail and how long it will go on from one court to the other. All eyes will be on the court and many legal issues will have to be gone into.

It was obvious that the #MeToo movement could not stay confined within the comfort zone of social media, of ‘naming and shaming’ with first person narratives of violations. However, we cannot undermine it as it was a bold step, as a woman who exposes her violator with the intimate details of the abuse which may involve naming body parts and graphically describing the type and extent of abuse in the social media, have more to lose than the person named. The courage of their convictions led many to lend their voice to the steadily galvanising movement which created ripples in the placid waters of several of our institutions, and touched even the NGO sector.

There are signs that some changes will be brought about within the film industry.  The big banners are in the process of hurriedly setting up internal complaints committees (ICC) (which they should have done a long time ago). Many women directors have come out with a statement that they will not work with actors who have been accused of sexual misconduct. The comedy group AIB has decided to de-list every video featuring a former member, Utsav Chakraborty, who is accused of sexual harassment by several women. Some Bollywood projects such as “Housefull 4” and “Mogul” are facing an uncertain future with their stars making a public statement that they will not work with those accused of sexual harassment.

Media houses were the worst hit and heads began to roll. After women complained against the Resident Editor of the Times of India in Hyderabad, K.R. Sreenivas and the Hindustan Times journalist  Prashant Jha, they had to step down. While some rubbished the allegations, Chetan Bhagat and Rajat Kapoor issued an apology.

Why did they not complain earlier? Why are they coming out now two or three decades later? The answer is simple. As one journalist succinctly stated, “At that time, in early nineties when many of these incidents had taken place, awareness about sexual harassment was lacking. There were no internal complaints committees. The idea of approaching the police was scary.  We did not even have the backing of our families.  Does this mean that the incidents did not occur?”

The naming and shaming device is a result of the failure of our criminal justice system to redress their grievances. The women will be asked for proof. But as the law on sexual harassment at the workplace stipulates clearly, it is not the acts of the abuser but the perception of the violated that is relevant. And it is here the graphic details contained in the personal narratives posted in the social media will come to their aid.

Flavia Agnes is a Women’s rights lawyer


Majlis Law