MJ Akbar quits: Silence from politicos, Twitter tiffs show why majority of harassed women choose to keep mum

Silence from politicians around the MJ Akbar accusations shows the problem is not only serious, but widespread.

Tara Kartha October 18, 2018 17:47:28 IST
MJ Akbar quits: Silence from politicos, Twitter tiffs show why majority of harassed women choose to keep mum

It seems like good sense prevailed in the end. MJ Akbar's resignation will quell the rising criticism of an apparent silence of the Narendra Modi government at the Cente. That was not quite true. The concerned Union Minister didn't issue a statement well before the clamour started. Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister for Women and Child Development called for an investigation on the issue on 8 October. She did not "break ranks with the Modi government" as one newspaper put it. She was merely doing her job. To his credit, Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy also spoke up, as did Smriti Irani. Opposition leaders kept mum, barring a palliative statement by Rahul Gandhi which did not measure up every marginally to the heat on the Rafael deal. That silence is evidence in itself. Clearly the problem is not only serious, it's widespread.

MJ Akbar quits Silence from politicos Twitter tiffs show why majority of harassed women choose to keep mum

File image of MJ Akbar. Getty images

Even before Akbar's resignation, certain mainline newspapers known for toadying to the top, had relegated the issue to the back pages, while a tide of hate poured out on Twitter against the 20 journalists who were ranged against the minister. Alongside were a series of humourless jokes on social media on the dangers of hiring, dating or even talking to women. Clearly, the conservatives on all sides, and of both sexes were fighting back. Their arguments showcase just why harassment happens, and why the majority of women choose to remain silent against harassment at the work place.

Argument one, which is the dominant one, is usually found among those men who probably never actually harassed anyone themselves, but are instinctively suspicious of attractive and bright women at the work place. This argument goes thus. Women are smart enough to use their sexuality as an asset at the work place, — that translates into perceived flirting with bosses — to get ahead in life, but cry foul when it suits them. Consider the women who have pressed charges against Mr Akbar. They're smart, articulate and attractive. That's enough to damn them in men's eyes. The fundamentals that power this argument is almost timeless in their basis. Recall that in most cultures, 'witches' of the West, the 'yakshis' in Kerala lore or the dayaanis of Jharkhand are always beautiful women. Folk lore and tradition underline that attractive women are dangerous and must be kept well under control. At the workplace, men are naturally attracted to good looking women, but don't act on it for a variety of reasons ranging from sheer decency to fear of rejection. Some do, and rage if they're rejected. The problem is when that rejected man is your boss. This is not really about sex. Since the time conquering armies ravaged women of a defeated State, sex has always been about power and control. And a boss man wants both, sometimes from both sexes, in different ways. Yes, men also have a problem sometimes though it's easier for them to suck up, no pun intended. Many a man is now beginning to understand this.

Argument two goes like this. If there was a problem, why didn't these women report it then? This argues that women only out powerful men to power up publicity for themselves. The answer to this should be as obvious as that grope in the dark. Coming out even at this juncture, when a #MeToo storm is raging in the US and freeing up invisible shackles, still takes immense courage. Ghazala Wahab for instance outed an incident of 1997. If she had spoken out then, she would certainly never ever have got another job in her field or anywhere else. "Trouble maker" is the sibilant whisper in the corridors. Remember that Rupen Bajaj, a respected IAS officer had to wait 17 years to punish the behaviour of a very drunk KPS Gill, despite there being witnesses to her abuse. Her account of the ordeals that she went through are reason enough to undercut this argument. Where does a young intern or a less than economically stable employee stand? Apart from being berated by society, her own family is likely to distance themselves and view it as her shame to carry. And that brings us to the third and most vile argument of all.

Argument three is mostly from women, and powerful or "liberated" ones at that. This segment view cases of harassment as the woman's fault. A powerful government servant who chooses to look the other way when a junior is being harassed, and worse, punishes the woman concerned; An institutional head who tries to portray Akbar as a hapless attractive man beset by designing women; And the pathetic statement by former First Lady and Secretary of State in a an interview to CBS news where she said that her husband should "absolutely should not have resigned" over the Monica Lewinsky affair. This segment are the worst among the nay sayers. In justifying an oppressor's actions or worsening an already persecuted woman's lot, they only serve to underline that power and ambition corrupts everyone, regardless of sex. The World Bank's India Development Report 2017 makes an interesting observation. Unlike other countries, Indian women entrepreneurs do not employ women. We need to dig deep into our own consciousness to find that answer.

That same report provides more depressing statistics. India ranks 120 in a country index of 131 countries in terms of women in the workforce. We're even below Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. And worse, that number has been declining since 2005. One major issue for women is safety. And the other is men. Another statistic from IndiaSpend also indicates a 54 percent rise in cases of harassment since 2014 -2017. In an earlier report, it found that 70 percent of women did not report harassment at the work place due to fear of repercussions. That's not surprising. India has some of the most stringent laws on sexual harassment. It's the implementation that stinks, particularly when the culprit is a high official. The 'solution' within government is usually to sling out the woman concerned into another department or better still to another state.

But here's the bright spot for the future. A boss will now think twice before summoning a young intern to his hotel room. Many men are coming to stand witness against harassment of their women colleagues and many more are outraged by the whole issue. As sexual harassment becomes less acceptable, work places may well turn into places of equal opportunity. Yes, there will be frauds who will use the #MeToo movement for their own gains. But revolutions have always had those more interested in the loot than in the cause. There's hope for the Modi government too. The World Bank report also points out that India's potential GDP growth can go up by a full percentage point if it even closes just half the gap in the number of working women with Bangladesh or Indonesia. It's humiliating but true. Make the workplace safer for women. There's money in it.

Stand fast, ladies. That part of the world which counts, stands with you shoulder to shoulder.

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