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International Women's Day 2018: Saluting the whistleblowers of sexual harassment

My very first memory of being sexually harassed is as a Class Five student, attending an event at another school. On the day of the incident, I remember being happy — dressed in my favourite outfit (a black swirling skirt with a floral pattern), appreciated for a song I'd performed on stage. Then, one of the students asked if I'd like to check out his school's library.

The library was empty, since everyone was in the assembly hall. My new friend and I browsed through all the books in peace, until the male librarian asked if I wanted a closer look at some of the comics from the school's collection. The comics were on a high shelf, so the librarian made me climb onto a stool. Now eye-level with all the titles, I suddenly felt his hand under my skirt, moving higher up my leg. I was confused — had my skirt flown up because of a draft? No, the hemline was placid against my calves. I moved a little, hoping to displace the hand, to no effect. It just crept higher.

When I started to make my way back to the assembly hall, the librarian gave me two comic books, to take home. I didn't mention the incident to my parents.

Neither did my sister, the day we were walking towards school and a passer-by casually reached out and pinched her breast. She raged, but there was little point. The man was gone before either of us could react.

I didn't say anything about the time a man called out to me from a parked car; I assumed he wanted directions, but what he had to say was: "You have nice b**bs". I was 12, and flat-chested.

I didn't say anything when I was flashed on my way to college or on a day out with friends; when men in crowded buses pressed up against me; when I was masturbated at. It's difficult to describe how sick those instances made me feel — of not understanding for a few minutes just what was being done to me, trying to figure out whether or not it was intentional, and on meeting a blank male gaze, wondering if it was really I who had got it all wrong.

#MeToo has created a platform where women — or anyone who has faced sexual harassment — can speak out, and be counted

#MeToo has created a platform where women — or anyone who has faced sexual harassment — can speak out, and be counted

When women I knew — colleagues, friends — would speak out about the harassment they'd faced, I rarely had anything to add. They'd been subjected to worse; I felt — having "got off lightly" — I could not possibly contribute much that was meaningful. There was also perhaps a secret sense of shame: I had never verbally or physically confronted any of my harassers, choosing instead to make a quiet escape. Avoid places and people and things that were unsafe. Be unobtrusive. Always on my guard. After all, if you were a woman, it was a 'fact of life' that you'd be sexually harassed, sooner or later.

Then, #MeToo flooded our social media timelines. One read of Harvey Weinstein, and the courageous women who spoke out to bring him down. Other 'heroes' fell. 'Sh*tty Men' lists — that named alleged predators across the fields of academia, the media, business, sports — began doing the rounds. On Facebook, Twitter, blogs, or Google docs — women were using whatever means they had at their disposal to present their #MeToo stories — and even more importantly, those of others.

Rape, or a lewd remark — these crowd-sourced narratives described a wide range of behaviours, and called them out as unacceptable. They drove home a point that should have been glaringly obvious: Sexual harassment should not be a fact of life for anyone.

#MeToo is possibly among the most important movements sweeping the world today. It is redressing past wrongs, giving women (or anyone who's been sexually harassed) a platform to be heard and to be counted, and it has the power to shepherd male-female interactions towards a more just/egalitarian era in the years to come.

It has brought so many questions into the mainstream discourse — questions we haven't heard asked so vociferously before — about consent and what constitutes it; of the behaviour we condemn or condone within a sexual context; of what we think is 'normal'.

As a movement, #MeToo has brought us allies we didn't know we had, it's taken from us men and women we thought were our allies, and it has thrown our adversaries — new and old — into sharper relief.

Every #MeToo testimony — messy, cogent, troubling, courageous, hesitant, searing, painful — is a step forward. And while every individual who presents her testimony is a footsoldier in this campaign for a better tomorrow, there are a few women who are helping others tell their stories, by easing their paths. Who — despite criticism and the essential difficulty of their task — are trying to put an end to predatory behaviour towards women.

It hasn't been easy, their attempt to present evidence-backed testimonies while facing down strident detractors (many of whom are women and feminists) amid the flood of support, to pore over stories of hurt and abuse and put them out there while making enemies of (some) powerful/influential individuals. But they've persisted.

On International Women's Day 2018, we're looking at the 'whistleblowers' — women who are blowing the lid off sexual harassment, forcing society to recognise that a problem exists, where too many have been previously content to pretend otherwise.

***

#MeToo has made it possible for us to not just share our stories of abuse but also to point at our perpetrators and say #HimToo

Raya Sarkar | Law student — UC Davis, California | Activist

Published a crowdsourced list of names, of men in academia accused of sexual misconduct

Raya Sarkar. Image courtesy Facebook/@RayaSarkar

Raya Sarkar. Image courtesy Facebook/@RayaSarkar

My decision to make a list of alleged sexual harassers in academia was an impulsive endeavor, rooted in frustration and helplessness. I was seething when I learnt that Dr Christine C Fair's article on Huffington Post, detailing her sexual harassment at the hands of Dr Dipesh Chakravarty, was arbitrarily removed. It reminded me of all the times I had experienced women being silenced and gaslighted in academic institutions in the past, who found no recourse because the redressal systems are broken. It reminded me of the women who quit their education because of the sexual harassment they faced from professors who continue to enjoy positions of power. This rage overshadowed any thoughts I had about a possible backlash to the list. Its primary purpose was to caution vulnerable students and to provide a semblance of closure to the women who shared their jarring experiences with me.

The response to the list was of three kinds. The first was absolute dismissal. The list was compared to lynchings by cow vigilante groups. People encouraged men to file defamation suits against me. The second type of reaction was mixed — the methodology was looked at with skepticism, and the list was disregarded but people did acknowledge that universities in India have a sexual harassment problem. Lastly, many men, women and non-men publicly expressed their solidarity with the women who contributed to the list, and acknowledged their experiences of sexual harassment. People observed the backlash, and to them it was reminiscent of the systemic dismissal women's experiences of trauma were met with globally.

Naming perpetrators is as valuable (if not more) as women sharing their detailed experiences of abuse. While the latter is pivoted around the trauma of survivors, the former focuses on the culpability and accountability from the person who caused the trauma. Naming perpetrators is cautionary to other women — informal whisper networks have always existed in our society – and it is a means for women to survive and navigate through a patriarchal and casteist society.

I hope naming their perpetrators from a safe space allowed survivors the closure and catharsis they deserve. Women are not believed enough in society…treated as liars until proven innocent. I hope the people who supported the list and I disrupted this norm.

The next step would be to push for legislative reform for sexual harassment redressal in universities. The current ICC system is regressive and allows for conflict of interest, and it has been observed that professors convicted for sexual harassment continue to teach at their institutions, attend conferences and seminars. Besides policy reforms, I think the most important step forward is to assess the power imbalances in institutional settings that perpetuate abuse, and why no matter how much you sensitise people, they continue to think they can get away with abusing their positions of power. If sensitisation programs are just eyewash then the next step would be to create other effective deterrents.

***

‘My experiences revealed how internalised misogyny is, how deep-seated patriarchy is, and how rape culture minimises abuse at so many levels, because so often people are not even aware of it’

Sheena Dabholkar | Creative director at LOVER, an online publication and creative studio

Drew attention via Twitter to the harassment many women had faced at Pune bar High Spirits

Sheena Dabholkar

Sheena Dabholkar

I am an accidental activist. When I first tweeted, I was thinking about safe spaces from a commercial standpoint – specifically, how women are often excluded as the target audience for hospitality and nightlife ventures. Once I did, my inbox was flooded because I had voiced something out loud that nobody had dared to, though it had been the lived experience of so many women and men.

There was no choice for me except to run with it.

There were of course the 'me toos' (though this began a week prior to the #MeToo campaign, the latter gave many survivors an extra boost of confidence) and the 'I hear you-s' on one side. On the other side, there were the parties I had no time or patience for: The silent and complicit "I know this happens but I don't want to rock the boat" camp, the disbelievers — "this has never happened to me so it doesn't happen" or "why didn't you say something before"; and the tarnishers — people who went out of their way to call myself and other victims, liars, Nazis, psychos and attention seekers.

The law has failed and continues to fail women and victims of sexual violence. Whisper networks have always existed, and now they've married technology. I am all for it, because people should be able to tell their stories. #MeToo, public lists and social media naming has allowed people to talk about their abuse in the absence of formal charges. Social media is democratic. It allows both sides to tell their stories if they so wish. (It just so happens that very often the accused doesn't use the platform to respond.)

There is no perfect system when it comes to publicly naming perpetrators, but I do believe that a centralised system is more trustworthy — where the namer/listmaker knows the identity of the victim.

Attempts like these have certainly brought some catharsis. Women write to me weekly, telling me how important it was for them, how they feel less angry, or less anxious, or thanking me because the experience has been revelatory for them.

I can't speak for anybody else but for me, some amazing conversations were started and policies put into place regarding harassment, because we spoke out. @sodonechilling is an educational initiative I launched that I hope to develop resources and workshops for. Right now we're on Instagram and Twitter and focus on feminist art.

I think #MeToo revealed how almost every woman and many men have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes. #MeToo made these conversations mainstream offline as well.

***

‘Public shaming is not what we're after, it’s just the only option available sometimes.’

Mansi Goda | Currently pursuing Gandhi Fellowship | Former managing editor – The Bombay review

Highlighted culture of sexual harassment at The Bombay Review via Facebook post, bringing allegations against editor-in-chief Kaartikeya Bajpai into the spotlight

Mansi Goda

Mansi Goda

I initially reached out to several female ex-employees I knew of at The Bombay Review in October 2017, after two victims confided in me about their experiences with workplace harassment. We were going to take action then, and stop Kaartikeya’s behaviour for good, but that did not end up happening because he had enough material to harm them, should they speak up. I did warn him then though, that allegations of workplace harassment may come up and that he needs to make amends. He showed remorse verbally, and the magazine was inactive for a while.

I was not very aware of any change in Kartikeya’s behaviour however, and when the Shamir Reuben case came up, I realised that I did not want to stay in touch with someone who has been a predator in the past and might still be one. The last straw was a conversation we had on 12 February 2018, wherein Kartikeya explicitly and thoroughly denied having any knowledge of his wrongdoings. When I realised he was gaslighting me and making me doubt the truth, I sent him screenshots of his misdemeanours. Visibly, I had seen no action that acknowledged him accepting and fixing his mistakes, instead, I saw him hiring more women. Hence I decided to put out a Public Service Announcement as an ex-employee, the text of which was formulated only after the victims consented to me releasing that information because they couldn't do it themselves.

I had created a WhatsApp group — a community against harassers — where all this was discussed. We were scared of the repercussions of course, and were expecting cyberbullying at the very least. It was a huge task to gather evidence, and to decide what could be released and what couldn’t. The greatest priority was always to protect the victims, and I'm glad we succeeded there. Before putting out the post, I had managed to get in touch with three more women who said they’d speak up once I did, and felt very relieved that someone was belling the cat.

In public, several men and women alike shared the post and added their experiences — both within and outside The Bombay Review. Many people commented and tagged individuals directly or indirectly linked to either the workplace or the alleged perpetrator.

In private, women reached out to me from unexpected quarters, sharing their own stories of harassment, and expressing solidarity for the measure I took.

There were a few individuals who asked a lot of questions and wanted to see evidence. I addressed all those concerns to the best of my capacity and they were satisfied.

There were people who didn't know what to believe until allegations of some missing money also came into the light, after which they were ready to believe earlier claims as well.

Some people questioned my position to be talking about this, as someone who was not a direct victim and who had, in the past, engaged with Kartikeya over social media.

Women are conditioned to doubt themselves when they feel harassed because of labels like 'oversensitive', 'touchy', 'prude', 'can't take a joke', and so on. Even I questioned myself several times over the past couple of months... Was I overreacting? Was I being too involved in something that I had just observed? Was I a mean person for calling him out, first in private and then in public?

The answer is, I wasn't. What I had believed to have happened with only three women in a small workplace, was a lot wider. I wasn't cyberbullied either, which was something we were all very surprised by. That alone gave a lot of women the courage to speak up.

The next step would be to acknowledge and bring more of these into the public eye. This wave shouldn't die down until our objectives are met - harassers cannot get away with their behaviour anymore. We need to bring men who abuse power down from their pedestals and hold them accountable. More dialogue on this is definitely helping.

I want to add that you don’t have to be a victim to call out inappropriate behaviour, and the onus need not always be on the victim when there’s a clear powerplay in the picture. Support the victim, in whatever way you can, and most importantly, give them courage and strength while respecting their wishes.

I believe many of us were just tired of not being heard. When #MeToo started, the fury and sadness just burst out – which I’m glad about because it had been repressed for a long, long time.

— With additional reporting by Neerja Deodhar


Updated Date: Mar 12, 2018 13:00 PM

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