The stickiness of sexual harassment - Hindustan Times
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The stickiness of sexual harassment

Dec 22, 2023 10:14 PM IST

How is it that men in power continue to enjoy such impunity?

To understand how little has changed for women fighting workplace sexual harassment consider how the year began, and how it is drawing to a close.

BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh with supporters after UP Wrestling Association Vice President Sanjay Singh became the new President of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), in New Delhi(PTI) PREMIUM
BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh with supporters after UP Wrestling Association Vice President Sanjay Singh became the new President of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), in New Delhi(PTI)

January began with a wintery and unprecedented public protest by India’s most decorated wrestlers against alleged sexual harassment by their federation chief. Then, last week, a dramatic open letter by a junior woman judge asking the chief justice of India for permission to end her life over what she calls a failure to ensure a fair inquiry into her charges of sexual harassment by a senior judge, seemed to confirm the stickiness of workplace sexual harassment, especially where it concerns powerful men.

These are not ordinary women: The countless domestic workers who deal with everyday groping, the nurses in hospitals who listen quietly, the interns in the shiny office who whisper about the handsy boss. These are women in positions of authority who’ve fought the odds to be where they are. Is their expectation for justice so very misplaced?

At this week’s wrestling federation elections, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the six-time Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament from Ayodhya, the man at the heart of the scandal, is jubilant over the 40-7 victory of his loyalist Sanjay Singh. He’s making no secret about who will continue to run things, promising magnanimously that there will be no vendetta against those who spoke up against him. “I quit,” says a frustrated Sakshi Malik. The case against Singh is still on, the judge hearing it has been transferred.

Meanwhile, the Chief Justice of India and the National Human Rights Commission have taken note of the judge’s letter that talks of how during a previous posting, a district judge and his associates harassed her and asked her to meet him at night. She lodged a complaint with the chief justice of the Allahabad high court in 2022. Nothing happened. In July 2023, she filed a complaint with the high court’s internal complaints committee. It took six months and ‘a thousand emails’ to even start an inquiry which she calls a ‘farce and a sham’ with the subordinates of the district judge against whom she had complained turning up as witnesses. Her plea to have the judge transferred during the inquiry was ignored. And on December 13, the Supreme Court refused to entertain a plea filed by her since the inquiry was ongoing.

“All I wished for is a fair inquiry,” she notes.

Workplace sexual harassment persists precisely because of this sense of impunity enjoyed by men in power.

It should not require this much courage from a handful of women to fight against a loaded system that shows again and again such disregard for public opinion. “Impunity cannot end unless you hold men in power to account,” says senior advocate Vrinda Grover. But who will do this? More than gender handbooks and catchy slogans about betis and behens you need leadership that signals zero tolerance.

In 2019, when India’s #MeToo movement exploded, what was evident was not just the fact that so many women came forward to speak up—often with evidence and screenshots—but the ease with which the powerful men named by multiple women survived, and thrived. Some filed defamation suits, and others just lay low waiting for the tide to turn, which it did.

Nothing exemplifies the blatant protection of this impunity more than the 2019 ‘inquiry’ into charges made by a junior employee against the then chief justice of India Ranjan Gogoi. This inquiry was conducted by Gogoi’s peers, behind closed doors, and swiftly exonerated him. Its findings have never been made public. Post-retirement, Gogoi landed in the Rajya Sabha.

It’s a cold lesson for the women who do speak up—and, amazingly, they still do. India’s largest companies show a 101 per cent rise in cases for the year ending March 2023, according to Forbes. But of the 772 complaints filed in 2023, 147 were still pending.

A patriarchal society believes that public space belongs to men. And so, women who step out of the Lakshman Rekha of their domain, the home, should be prepared to put up with groping on the street, in public transportation, and at the office. Creepy boss? Well, you should have stayed at home. That’s the message going out to India’s aspirational girls.

In the end, we are just too few in the workplace to count. With a sanctioned strength of 1,114 high court judges, just 111 (10 per cent) are women. In the Lok Sabha where women MPs are 14% (and much of the Opposition has been suspended), it took a BJP MP Jaskaur Meena to point out that women were not being given enough time to speak on the crucial criminal law Bill.

Protesting against the disproportionate time allotted to men she observed: “It is a great crime to sit after suffering injustice. It is our duty to punish, even a friend, to ensure justice.” For women all over, that’s a truth they know only too well.

Namita Bhandare writes on gender The views expressed are personal

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