Ranjona Banerji: All sexual assault is assault. And it all needs to be condemned and action taken

12 Oct,2018

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Since I last wrote, the MeToo movement has grown in size and power. As far as the media is concerned, one of the biggest and most infamous sexual predators, BJP MP (formerly with the Congress) MJ Akbar, has been named by some very senior journalists. Akbar is one of India’s most famous and celebrated journalists, editors and authors. He helmed Sunday magazine and started iconic newspapers like The Telegraph and Asian Age. A huge role model for many and this star power, sadly and undoubtedly, helped him to bamboozle and assault many young female employees.

The “bad date” stories, which many older women had objected to have reduced (although to my mind, they are part of a male prerogative pattern and ought not to be dismissed) and now senior journalists like Priya Ramani, Ghazala Wahab, Suparna Sharma, Kanika Gahlaut (these are just a few) have spoken out about their own experiences with Akbar. Unfortunately, at the same time, some of India’s most well-known female journalists, more so Seema Mustafa and less so Tavleen Singh, old friends of Akbar’s, have tried to justify his behaviour and blame women for “giving in” or “encouraging” him as it were. Mustafa had also earlier attempted a defence of Tarun Tejpal, after he changed his “tormented” bombastic apology for assault into a defiant innocence.

The “argument” keeps circling around young women who “bat their eyelashes” so poor men with no possibility of self-control have little option but to assault them. It is a most absurd patriarchal argument. Even worse is the “logic” that since the current MeToo movement is largely urban and largely about workplace harassment, it is doing a disservice to the plight of rural women and of babies who are raped. This argument is actually disgusting. It diminishes all women, it trivialises arrant workplace abuse by this form of appalling “whataboutery”. All sexual assault is assault. And it all needs to be condemned and action taken. This is like saying one cannot investigate murderers in cities because no one is bothered about murders in villages. It makes no sense at all.

However, it does speak to the thread of patriarchy, which men and women are both susceptible to, that runs through the media today, in spite of the huge strides forward that women have made. It is particularly painful to young women that those very women who were role models once are now mocking their pain and their experiences.

This does not mean that there are no nuances at work here. We can get very caught in up this “instant outrage or else” atmosphere that marks the age of social media. But there are men and women who know the accused, who maybe be related or married to them and it is possibly unfair them to react in quite the same way as the rest of us. Right now, their reactions grate on our angry ears; but while we may not sympathise, but we must acknowledge the predicament. Not all women are going to jump up and divorce their accused husbands because we say so. I am not even sure that this demand (by implication) is fair.

But it is also time to call out all those who hark only on the legal aspects of sexual harassment in the workplace, and then fall back on jurisprudence arguments. The reality as all of us in the media know is that all too often nothing happens, we carry on, we put up, we whisper and gossip, no one comes forward and the abuser gets emboldened. It is definitely likely that all this is repeated in other workplaces as well.

The Vishakha guidelines and the stringent changes made to it are now legal requirements but from all accounts these Internal Complaints Committees are token gestures and not always properly constituted. This has to be the first demand by all employees.

And then the question of legal punishments. I would like to end with the opinions of Smita Chakraburtty, an academic who works on prison reform and is currently working as Honorary Commissioner of Prison, appointed by the Rajasthan High Court.

“For all the people who are speaking of criminal proceedings, evidence against harassers, due process (though I’m an absolute supporter of due process). I have visited over 200 prisons in the country and have met over 40,000 prisoners till now (on-record), across a few states. Yet I have never met a prisoner who was in prison for sexual harassment charges. Also, hardly ever met a powerful man in prison for sexual harassment charges (please realise there is world beyond Tarun Tejpal too). Met prisoners with rape, murder, rape and murder, or dowry death, charges only. That too hardly any of these prisoners come from even middle class backgrounds, forget about business families etc. But does this mean that sexual harassment doesn’t happen?

“Again, I enter male prison without any prison guards. I remain inside over-crowded prisoner barracks without the guards or even an assistant accompanying me. But felt safe and continue to feel so inside a prison. Does this experience of mine mean that the men I meet inside prison have never indulged in sexually harassing a woman?

“I was discussing this with a friend of mine yesterday who has been practising criminal law for over 30 years now. We just couldn’t put our heads around how to legally tackle this issue of sexual harassment in the court of law. But feel this #metoo moment was long due.”

Food for thought and action here.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are personal

 

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