The #MeToo movement captured the imagination of the whole world through social and mainstream media epitomizing a shambolic morass. Historically, # Me Too was created by Tarana Burke so as to let other survivors know ‘they are not alone’ and to create solidarity with the victims. However, this microcosm figured in a grander form in our civilizational landscape.
Revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein led us to believe that pervasive sexual harassment or discrimination does exist nearly in every sphere. The story of empowerment and equality often gets rubbished in many organisational systems headed by predatory bosses. In our social settings, rape and other forms of sexual abuse are some of the underreported crimes due to social stigma, mental trauma and self-doubt attached to the victim.
The choice of silence over action centred on the epic of Mahabharata, the people who mattered just maintained a stony silence when Draupadi was being disrobed. The Me too hashtag explodes story after story of the dehumanising conduct of some males against their female counterparts. Many women at their workplace are constantly struggling to ward off unwanted physical contact, redirecting sexually-oriented conversation, repeatedly turning down propositions from co-workers or bosses, but they have to work. In fact, gender inequality is more prevalent due to bias and not due to differences in behaviour.
The barrage of allegations of sexual misconduct against a Union Minister leading to his departure from the Union Cabinet clearly indicates that misdeeds are bound to hound us at some point of time. This episode might weaken the tendency to avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the gravity of the situation, or attempt to ignore, forget, or endure such predatory behaviour.
This on-going Me-too reaction might encourage more women to get out of their traditional inhibitions like fear of losing their job, fear of not finding an alternative job, fear of being passed over for promotion, fear of losing their credibility, fear of being branded as a troublemaker, fear of their physical safety and so on. Sexual harassment cuts across all industries, Bollywood, politics, media, tech, and service industries and so on. Hopefully, such fearlessness may herald a healthier and dignified environment in workplace.
As the avalanche of allegations pulls down some public figures, a common question being asked in public spheres is why did not they complain earlier and are doing it now? Perhaps, the answer is simple – there was lack of awareness at that point of time, dominant fear of getting disbelieved by the society, fear of getting labelled as opportunist, fear of threat from the harassers, fear of losing jobs and careers and perpetrator’s position of power and so on.
In the midst of what seemed to be a nationwide awakening to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, it is high time our workplaces were made safer and congenial for our womenfolk. Sexual harassment is no longer a private matter for a woman, instead, it is similar to any other crime, since it affronts the values of a just society.
Indian corporates, educational institutions and media houses are on a slippery slope; there is yawning gap between “is” and “ought” – many organisations have not even formalised the mechanism to deal with workplace-related harassment complaints. They have failed to catch up when it comes to sensitising the workplace on gender issues. Even in several government offices, the implementation of Vishakha guidelines have been too ritualistic.
There are complaints committees but in many offices these are non-functional. The complaints committee members often side with the predatory bosses rather than with the victim. Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, the new incarnations of Vishakha guidelines, has failed to make the desired impact. Similarly, Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013 that seeks to tackle the cases of sexual harassment with harsher punishment has been riddled with complex procedural bottlenecks creating a huge barrier to access to justice.
#Me Too or other forms of “consciousness- raising movements” against sexual violence highlight the limiting effects of law and legal discourse in public. These crimes occur primarily in private settings and without any witnesses beyond perpetrator and victim, hinging any verdict almost exclusively on physical evidence which places the victims in the darker side of justice. At times, these barriers make the victim forego any attempt to seek legal redressal.
The focus of law needs to be on the narration of victim’s experience during interaction with legal actors and cognisance needs to be based on such articulation and range of settings instead of putting too much stress on physical evidence. Paradoxically, in some circumstances, the force of law is to undermine the goals and benefits of consciousness-raising approaches, resulting in the continued silencing of sexual violence and its victims. There is an urgent need to disaggregating sexual violence from the so-called legal standards and a fresh benchmark is required to be fixed so as to reproduce the issue confirming to the new standards.
The new cycle of outrage seeking workplace equality and comfort has to transcend to other spheres of society. The #MeToo movement poses a challenge to the formal legal frameworks which are facing de facto constraints on many counts and is likely to have a much-desired trickle-down effect in our social and political landscape. Yet, some of the intriguing aspects of the ongoing social torrent demand some answers.
What about false allegations? What about the due process? What about the trauma that men have faced? What about the ordeal of the women working in the unorganised sectors? It is hoped, this embryonic movement will strike a balance between predatory acts and false accusations. However, the solution lies in women to be more verbal since society often fails to understand their “nonverbal cues”.
The author is a Supreme Court Advocate.