Sexual harassment at workplace: Amid the grey noise, safety should trump speculation

My hostel neighbour in college was a girl who was used to attention from the opposite sex. She was outspoken, badass and yet when it came to the men in her life, she always found the most regressive boyfriends. One of them actually asked her to start wearing a dupatta to college because, "now you're dating me, so why should anyone else see what I've seen?" No amount of coaxing would make her realise that she was far better being by herself. She was way too involved with all these jerks, who seemed to give her a sense of validation that I just couldn't understand.

Once we graduated from college, she went on to work for a newspaper in a smaller city. Her boss turned out to be a creep, and she would keep calling a bunch of us for advice on how to deal with his lecherous moves and looks. With every call, she sounded even more traumatised. Her boss would threaten her with acid attacks, harass her in the washrooms of their office, and even stalk her. When we asked her to take action and report this to her parents, she said her job was far important too her (she had taken a loan for her degree) and she didn't want to trouble her parents.

After many frantic calls to check on her safety, we finally let it pass and forgot about the issue. Cut to our convocation ceremony, where she turned up with her boss (and multiple hickeys on her neck). Suffice it to say, we were flabbergasted. None of us knew how to react to her bringing her harasser to a college event. We all judged her, and spoke about her for many days — "How could she?" was common, but what was even more common was, "She deserves it."

The person I am talking about is now happily married to a very nice guy, but it is only when I watched Imtiaz Ali's Highway did I understand the limbo and the grey area around sexual harassment. I stopped judging my friend after watching Alia Bhatt's confused, vulnerable portrayal of a sexual abuse victim. This is not to say that you can paint all forms of sexual abuse and harassment in the same stroke, but Highway brought me closer to understand the inner workings of a "victim."

My primary understanding was that nobody really deserves such treatment, but the hows and whys of harassment go beyond right and wrong.

In Highway, Bhatt was traumatised by this man (Randeep Hooda), completely alienated from the world she inhabited, but this is also the first man to have made her feel things she never felt before. It made me understand truly that there's no black and white when it comes to sex, and sexual harassment. Yes, consent is very important and if someone is harassing/stalking/abusing/threatening you, it definitely amounts to a crime worth reporting, but it's also a murky area — where morals, emotions and fear/courage have a large part to play.

This is especially important when we look at/analyse the TVF molestation case, which started with a Medium blog titled 'Indian Fowler' (after the viral blog on Uber written by Susan Fowler). The blogger alleged that founder Arunabh Kumar molested and harassed her for years. After the blog, multiple women came out and spoke about their share of inappropriate experiences with Kumar. But one of the biggest (and also the most ignorant) questions that was asked was: "Why did she not come out and speak up earlier?" This was followed by another ignorant question:
"Why doesn't she file an FIR?" (An FIR was later filed by lawyer Rizwan Siddiqui against Arunabh Kumar, but 2 whole days after the incident came to light)

Here's the thing, it's not as easy as it sounds to just get up after being harassed and reporting it to the police.  Your work doesn't, and will not, end there. You will forever be the 'victim', forever be made to relive the trauma and the embarrassment, no matter how diplomatically someone asks you. It takes every bone of courage to come out and speak about a violation of your basic privacy. And what about the mental abuse, which is far more complex, given that it is not really 'tangible'.

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During a conversation with comedian Daniel Fernandes, who is also a friend, we happened to discuss the question of right and wrong in a situation like this. "Given the nature of how blurred sometimes the lines of sexual harassment are, I want to say that it is very important to take every allegation seriously and not be dismissive in any way. This is irrespective of whether they are true or false. I feel very disheartened that these women had to deal with something like this. Nobody sets out to work looking to get molested or harassed. I am thankful for the courage these women have shown by speaking up and I hope that TVF now moves swiftly to get to the bottom of this," he says.

This would explain why according to IndiaSpend, 70 percent  working women do not report workplace sexual harassment, citing the lack of compliance from their employers as the top reason. If you know that your claims are going to be met with judgmental counter-questions, would you complain about being harassed? The report claims:

Between 2014 and 2015, cases of sexual harassment within office premises more than doubled–from 57 to 119–according to National Crime Records Bureau data. There has also been a 51 percent rise in sexual harassment cases at other places related to work – from 469 in 2014 to 714 in 2015.

You would think with these kind of numbers, there would be active sexual harassment complaint cells and seminars being held across the country. You couldn't be more wrong.

Look at how TVF responded to the blog, for example. Instead of saying, "We will look into the matter" (basic HR lingo), TVF's statement read more like a threat.

But let's go over to the other side for a moment. It is important to note that until Kumar is proven guilty, there will always be a "but what if.." situation. Fair enough. We could all be wrong, and the blog could as well be some sort of crude prank, or troll, or even completely fake, like TVF claims it to be. It is exactly this grey area that most of us following the TVF news found ourselves in, with another blog post surfacing against Rohan Joshi, which was later retracted.

The conversation ends up moving away from "How do we make our workplace safer for women?" to "What is the truth?" — from a genuine crisis to a philosophical one.

Even if we assume, for a moment, that all the women who complained against Kumar are wrong and fake — this whole case poses a larger question of how we consume news around sexual harassment. How the conversation always moves toward "revealing the truth" instead of scrutinising the issue of safety and security. Is it shocking then, that women prefer not to complain and move on?

A fellow journalist friend of mine recalls a time when it was virtually impossible for her to work in a office where one of her male bosses kept demeaning her in public for rejecting his advances. "My life was almost hell in office. I was always targeted for the smallest things," she tells me. When I asked how difficult it was to tell someone about it, she says, "To whom should I tell? My seniors talk suggestively all the time. It is considered completely okay. In fact, people in my office consider women weak and completely dismiss us."

My face fell further when I spoke to another friend of mine, who has been a victim of multiple incidents of harassment. She went to law school in Delhi, and a year after she left, she started getting weird calls at 4 am in the morning.

"I answered it because I thought it could be one of my friends, who lives in a PG or something, wanting help. It was a guy saying my name, telling me in great detail what all he wanted to do to me and where all, and making orgasm noises," she revealed, adding, "I was very shaken up by that. The next morning I lodged an FIR with the Delhi police through a hotline number and the police caught the culprit — it was a girl's phone number! She was with me in law school and she hated me so she had given her phone and encouraged her male friend to 'teach me a lesson'," she says.

How would you classify this sort of incident? I didn't know how to respond to my friend when she asked me, "Does this work for your story? If not, I have so many more."

In fact, the number of women I spoke to, who told me that their workplace is sexist, would go into double digits. Some tell me their bosses have actively told people in the team that women are moody, weak and will get married, therefore they must not be trusted with important work. One journalist friend told me about an incident where her editor (a woman) actually sat her down and told her that single women start to lose their minds beyond a certain age  if they're unmarried, and make up all kinds of stories. My friend is 33, and unmarried.

"Is this not harassment?" she asks me. I have no answer for her.

How do you define harassment? What becomes a conversation between two private individuals — to be regarded as a personal matter, and what is a crime?

These may seem like rudimentary questions, but they matter especially when an issue of harassment becomes public information, like in the TVF case. The bottom line is, when there are so many variations, so many types, it's hard to have a standardised rule-book of responses and action. This is also why TVF's response to harassment claims, and subsequently Kumar's interview with Mumbai Mirror, holds a mirror to how we look at sexual harassment.

It always ultimately becomes a question of truth, as opposed to safety.

Daniel reminds me of a crucial point amid all this grey noise. "I think it's hard being a woman irrespective of where you're working. In the last 24 hours alone, I've heard so many accounts of harassment across different industries. So many stories never seeing the light of day or just being swept under the carpet because these predators are perceived to be powerful. I cannot even imagine what it must feel like to have to deal with crime (let's call it what it is) on a daily basis when you're trying to work," he says.

And so, while we wait to find out what happened to Arunabh Kumar, TVF and the women who alleged harassment, it is important to remember that no matter what the authenticity of someone's claims are, the reality is that it is hard for women to be merely be working women and do their job as it is. If we don't hear about sexual harassment, we hear about rampant sexism, about unequal pay and about unfair and dangerous mindsets pertaining to women in the workplace.

The least we can do is this: Safety > Judgment.


Published Date: Mar 19, 2017 08:49 am | Updated Date: Mar 19, 2017 06:51 pm