No MeToo or CCTV in our time, but we found ways to ward off sexual predators, say veteran women journalists

Editor's note: Following Rituparna Chatterjee's report — Is India’s #MeToo moment here? Women are angry and they are naming and shaming their abusers, Firstpost will publish a series of articles collating personal accounts of those who have made allegations of harassment, along with responses from those who have been accused of such behaviour. This is an ongoing exercise and will be updated to reflect new developments. If you wish to draw our attention to instances of harassment you may have experienced or witnessed, tweet to us @firstpost with the hashtag #MeToo.

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Someone — she never found out who — systematically harassed Nandini Mehta when she was a journalist with Hindustan Times in Delhi during the 1980s. Perversely, he would leave a used condom at her desk every day. "There it would be every morning, concealed among my papers so that I suddenly discover it," she says. It was one of the few unfortunate occurrences of this kind in Mehta's 40-plus-year career in print journalism and publishing.

Yet another shocking incident took place in the late 1970s when a Member of Parliament (the older brother of a famous leader) invited Mehta to a dinner party. "I found I was the only one invited to this 'party'. He jumped on me. I opened the door and walked out. I didn't even tell my family, as they would have asked me not to work late or quit," she says.

Journalism in the 1970s and 1980s was nothing like today's media industry. There were no legal guidelines to identify and prevent sexual harassment at workplaces so women who may have wanted to speak out had no institutional recourse. There were far fewer women journalists. As there was no social media, a MeToo-style disclosure wasn’t possible. Newspaper offices didn’t even have CCTV setups — this is why Mehta's crass offender could lurk and watch from afar, condom and all, without being caught.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Considering all this, it's no surprise that Mehta "fully supports" MeToo, a movement that has been unfolding on Twitter and Facebook since last week, wherein women are calling out men who have outraged women and made them feel objectified. "As young women, we were too afraid to speak out for we had no recourse. We just dealt with it by asking men to lay off. That is why I feel that even incidents that happened way back should come out now," she says. She only wants to draw a line between consensual relations at work and unwanted attention. "As long as it doesn’t involve a boss-and-subordinate romance at work is fine. This line is getting a little blurred in ongoing disclosures," she says.

Perhaps the incident involving condoms would be tough to pull off in a CCTV-covered office in a metropolis today. Nevertheless, sexually-loaded messages, pornographic clips, suggestive advances and direct requests for sexual favours are circulating furiously, as the disclosures reveal. These show how widespread the problem is. Whether or not each incident constitutes sexual harassment at the workplace, their sheer number explains why women are angry: They are being made to feel like objects of desire by coworkers, classmates and seniors and by disclosing these conversations they are rejecting that identity.

Seen through the eyes of senior women journalists, MeToo has been helpful: It has helped them recognise that in some places, harassment was seen as routine in the past. Disclosures about MJ Akbar, once one of the most prominent editors, have also brought to attention just how much depends on who the editor of a newspaper is and what kind of atmosphere he or she (mostly he) creates.

"These younger journalists have also not been distracted by issues of ideology, professional respect and friendship, which was not the case in my time. Earlier, people were not able to see that sexual harassment and assault trump ideology, respect and friendship. That's the one big difference between the new generation and the older," says Anjali Puri, a senior journalist who started working in Delhi in the 1980s. She is referring to one senior (male) journalist who was a "flagrant sexual harasser", who has since died.

Puri says this man had many women friends of great substance, but none called him out in a meaningful way. "Instead, there were over-the-top tributes when he died," she says. She wrote to one person who had praised him on Facebook, saying she found it "sickening" to see him praised so indiscriminately, without any nuance. "He was after all a predator and a bully. This person agreed that there was 'that side' to him," Puri says. She also heard later that at one memorial held for him, a woman journalist who was his friend had called him a 'feminist' and someone had protested.

"The women of my generation," says a third senior journalist who started her career in the early 1970s, "were largely engaged in fighting a different kind of battle. The primary challenge then was to prove that you were every bit as good as the men you worked with and that you needed to be taken seriously." In all fairness, she says, several men from the older generation of editors should be credited for encouraging and furthering the ambitions of their younger women colleagues. From her point of view, the women who have spoken up as part of MeToo have strengthened a growing sense of solidarity among their peers, enabling many to recover lost voices and bare old wounds. "This would have been unimaginable in an earlier era when the prevailing culture was far less supportive of spirited public outings."

There is a change in outlook and in culture. Women are freer, younger, spunkier and legal structures have been created that embolden them to protest. There’s also social media. If you 'out' someone on Twitter, it will be retweeted thousands of times "naming and shaming" perpetrators. In a pre-Twitter age, women had nobody in whom to confide except colleagues. Some of them would warn them of the consequences of complaining against seniors. Now social media has created a new community of rebels trying to fight back. This is not very different from protests like 'not in my name', where a group of people angered by an issue — lynching in the name of cows — came together.

Political commentator Aarti R Jerath's first newspaper job was in 1980, when those in positions of authority at newspapers were "very distant from us young reporters". There was almost no question of being on first-name basis with seniors wherever she worked and formality permeated relations. "We didn’t bond with them at the press club".

Jerath supports MeToo, for she understands how recent changes in the news business will impact younger women. She was considered "young" when she became a bureau chief at 45 in the 1990s while today's journalists are considered "mature" at 30. "Young journalists start covering politics in their twenties and consider it a glamorous rather than labourious beat arrived at after long years of hard work," she says. Hence, the situations she faced as an older woman are encountered by younger women journalists.

Once, an elderly senior minister in the PV Narasimha Rao government offered to show Jerath his film collection, which he kept in his bedroom. "It was an impressive collection but as he showed it to me he suddenly caught my hand and tried to kiss it," she says. The unpleasant encounter left her feeling not so much afraid as pitying the offender. "If it was a 22- or 24-year-old, she may well have been terrified. More vulnerable when younger, women could easily worry about taking on powerful men and worrying about how that could impact their careers," she says.

Many veteran women journalists who started working long before the Visakha guidelines were framed, relied on a 'whisper network' to warn them off predatory men in offices and outside. This network was especially active after office parties — all kinds of horror stories circulated about who was likely to behave badly — but such gatherings were fewer. "Practically half the year was a dry day until the 1990s and liquor shops opened at noon and closed by 8 pm. It was just a different time," Jerath recalls.

Women in the past erected barriers that said 'don’t exploit me' but women today have leaped over barriers, psychological as well as physical: There are 34 year-old political editors, there’s more backslapping at work, more official parties and more alcohol oiling the wheels of journalism.

Jerath believes women still must cultivate a personal psychological barrier — one that prepares them to say 'no', clearly, to unwanted advances — but at the same time, she feels that women have been harassed for so long that if MeToo ends up with some fake, made-up or exaggerated claims, that is "unfortunate, but perhaps the only way to play up the gravity of the situation and make people understand the reality".

Another woman journalists, in her late fifties, who worked in Delhi and Kolkata for business newspapers reveals what she considers has changed today: "To find another job or be thrown out were the consequences of confrontation with an editor. There was no legal protection for them. Today women aren’t taking things lying down — they want to keep their jobs."

Patralekha Chatterjee, a senior journalist and columnist, took up her first reporting job in Delhi in the mid-1980s, and she felt vulnerable from day one — not because of predatory coworkers but because journalism is all about contacts and she, a migrant from Kolkata, had absolutely none. As a way out, she did background checks on every job offer: A whiff of the unsavoury and she struck the organisation off. "I also never went to interviews with editors who seemed more powerful than their organisations in a place where there would be no one else," she says.

Chatterjee sensed institutional mechanisms might fail in places headed by larger-than-life figures and picked safer organisations. This was essential at a time when a man's talent was not seen as separate from his behaviour. "The public position taken by a man on any issue — such as batting for women’s equality — should not be mixed with how he really is at work," she says, "Though this meant I had to reject lucrative opportunities."

Once, a journalist — he worked at a different newspaper — on the pretext of offering a lift after a late-night press conference, took Chatterjee to his apartment. She left the instant she sensed danger. "It never became physical but one or two such experiences taught me to build lasting, trusted friendships," Chatterjee says. This support network consists of other migrant journalists who shared similar struggles in a brutal new city.

In some ways what Chatterjee and all other women journalists did is not unlike the solidarity of Twitter retweets that are the hallmark of MeToo: Women always sought a sense of belonging and gave strength to one other. This is precisely what has caught up with the MJ Akbars populating newsrooms.


Updated Date: Oct 12, 2018 10:00 AM

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