By Urvashi Butalia
So power wins again. Why should this be surprising? As women, we know by now that our protests will not be taken seriously, our complaints will be dismissed, our search for justice trivialised, and in the end, we will be left carrying the burden of guilt – and this for assaults on us!
Welcome to the world of sexual harassment. It’s a strange sort of thing to track: it can happen just in the nuance of what is being said, it can happen by word or gesture, it can unroll as a physical assault or violation, it can happen in innuendo, it can escalate through text messages, improper suggestions, and more. This is also what makes it so difficult to prove. But what makes it almost impossible to deal with is the fact that it consistently and constantly rebounds on the complainant.
Impunity, immunity, non-accountability, male bonding: that’s what the men enjoy. Guilt, shame, loneliness, non-employability: that’s what the women experience. It was not so long ago that, talking to a corporate acquaintance about a spate of cases of sexual harassment at the workplace that had made the news, he put a question to me: ‘Why do you women do this? Don’t you realise employers will become increasingly reluctant to take you on?’
The question annoyed me, but I was also puzzled by it. Why would employers be reluctant to take women on if they complain of sexual harassment, instead of working with their employees to understand how this vitiates the working atmosphere, how it results in losses in productivity, and how it strains human relationships? Indeed, why would employers not address the perpetrators of sexual harassment?
But I also understood where it was coming from: it’s the same kind of ‘solution’ that is put forward when people advise that women should stay at home so that they are not subjected to sexual violence on the streets. Never mind that much of this violence takes place in the home, but the skewed understanding of the phenomenon of male aggression and misogyny is that the perpetrators should roam free, but the victims, or potential victims, should be locked up. Would we think of this as a reasonable way to control any other crime I wonder?
This is probably what lies behind RK Pachauri’s recent elevation at The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri). His employers are not unfamiliar with the allegations against him, they’ve seen the evidence, heard the depositions, conducted their enquiries and while they’ve not exonerated him, they’ve done worse; they’ve upgraded him to nearly the most powerful job in the organisation. No wonder the woman who complained is despairing, and disgusted.
There is no doubt that in cases of sexual harassment the lines are not always clear cut and sometimes there can be confusion and ambivalence. Among the young today, especially middle class urban youth, male and female, talk about sex and sexuality is much freer than it was for, say, people of my generation. Desire is much more openly expressed, whether you be male or female, and this can sometimes make for ambivalence in understanding consent.
But what complicates the understanding of sexual assault is not this new openness. Rather it is the resilience of the old assumptions that refuse to go away. Somewhere deep down the strong belief remains that women mean ‘yes’ when they say ‘no’. Somewhere deep down there is also the assumption – and this is surely what Pachauri’s behaviour shows – that the person to whom you are addressing your (unwelcome) attentions, should be flattered that you are paying her such attention, and therefore her positive response is a given. And even if it is not, you, the perpetrator, are secure in the power you have, the power you believe can help to ‘convince’ her, and if not, to coerce her, or hold out the carrot of promotions, or favours.
High profile cases such as Pachauri’s also reveal another deep-seated belief. And that is that sexual harassment is somehow not a ‘serious’ crime, not a real affront, not a real violation. So that someone whose presence is important in the ‘larger’ issues (climate change for example, or controlling insurgency or militancy), can be excused the occasional ‘deviation’. Prosecuting them for this will necessarily mean taking them away from the more ‘serious’ issues they are tackling. In other words: what’s a small personal affront (especially to a woman) when balanced against a larger social, national, even international priority?
Another woman has chosen to come out and speak out about the harassment she experienced at Teri. The pattern of humiliation she describes is disturbingly similar to the one we have heard about. This alone gives it the ring of truth – harassers are often serial harassers, and they use similar methods to intimidate their victims, methods which are close enough to being just friendly overtures, but which become more overt with each encounter, leaving the victim confused and concerned.
What will the consequences of this action be for the organisation and more widely? Did the board that took the decision to elevate the perpetrator in this incident stop to think of that? Are they at all concerned that their action will not only discourage women everywhere from making complaints, from going public (perhaps this is what they intended though?), but will also damage the reputation of the organisation? How would they have reacted if this had happened to a woman in their own families?
But perhaps that does not matter after all. It’s only another woman’s life. Does anyone really care?
The author is the co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first exclusively feminist publishing house.