IT took a long time coming. And yet the timing was perfect. The week that celebrated half-a-century of the country's Independence also granted Indian women freedom from sexual fears at the workplace. A landmark ruling on August 13 saw the Supreme Court prohibit sexual harassment of women at office. Defining sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexually determined behaviour", a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice J.S. Verma specified the offence in these terms: physical contacts or advances, demands or requests for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography or any other undesirable physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.
But will the 24-page judgement actually make women more secure at office?
"Well, it's as excellent a guideline as guidelines can be!" says Meenakshi Arora, the advocate on record for this case that had been filed by some NGOs in 1992 after the gang-rape of sathin Bhanwari Devi while she was on duty. "But then whether we use the Weights and Measures Act to deal with the fruit vendor every time he cheats us is up to us." The lawyer observes that the court's directions on the complaint mechanism to deal with such crimes is perhaps most significant. No longer an embarrassed word about an offensive male colleague to an arbitrary boss.
The court has ordered the creation of redressal units in organisations with a special counsellor or other support services, including ensuring strict confidentiality. The court has also provided for the constitution of a complaints committee whenever necessary—headed by a woman and not less than half of its members women and involving a non-partisan third party such as an NGO. "Earlier these complaints could have been shrugged off. Not now. Moreover, complaints such as these would earlier be tried under something as vague as outraging a woman's modesty. There was a disturbing vacuum on the subject in the existing legislation."
But legislations always have limitations. Avers Kavita Srivastav, a leading activist in the Jaipur-based collective fighting for justice in the Bhanwari case: "SITA, Dowry Prohibition Act, Rape Laws have all been the achievements of the '80s. But these stringent strictures have not erased the horrendous crimes. They help. But without a demand for their implementation and without agencies willing to implement them, nothing changes." Struggle for the paperwork over, Srivastav says, now a struggle for awareness that the law exists and its implementation has to be launched. "Our first step will be to translate the judgement into simple Hindi and post it to as many women, employers and bureaucrats as we can," she states.
For the millions of women working in the unorganised sector, even the awareness of a law might not be sufficient. According to Gurinder Kaur of Udyogini, an NGO working towards capacity building and enterprise development for producer women at the grassroots level, the harassment of the female entrepreneur by local traders, mahajans and the middlemen in her business seems fated to continue, with or without protective laws. "It's great that we have a law on the matter. It's certainly better than not having one. But working relationships are so fluid in the informal sector, where is the scope of the constitution of a complaints committee?" she asks. "Only the mobilisation of a woman work-force that will stand up for its rights at the ground level can help. They have to complain, to be ready to make a scene when required."
Significantly, the same holds true for the women professionals who hold power and position in swank offices of the metros. It's a telling comment indeed that almost no one wants to talk of sexual harassment in office on record. In fact, the more important the portfolio, the less willing they are to speak on the subject. "It's hard enough trying to prove one is as competent as a man who might have normally held this post. Who wants to get into speeches regarding laws on sexual harassment and maternity leave?" says a woman head of a leading advertising agency, dismissively.
Ensure anonymity and the tales of hurt dignity begin. A 32-year-old manager with a foreign bank complains of a flower being scratched on her brand new Cielo. "I told the administrative officer about the incident. He actually said that women who stay back in office so late into the night should not be shocked at such incidents. It was extremely sexist," the furious banker says. A 27-year-old telephone operator at a private firm speaks of the many, many times in the day when she has to hear herself being called sweetheart and darling. "It's as if it's everyone's duty to flirt with me. As if I won't work without these endearments being shoved down my throat. But the male operator can obviously do without such motivational sweet-nothings."
A young sales executive speaks of her boss insisting on her having dinner in his room whenever they are on a tour. "Every fifth time I have to give in, otherwise things become strained. But I would love to know whether he'd be comfortable if his wife was sitting in a hotel room with a strange man with wet hair, the shortest of shorts sipping whisky on a bed while she nibbled onto some sick dinner! And the guy once actually had the audacity to tell me to be comfortably perched on the same bed while some silly television programme was on. I could have killed him," she fulminates.
Such militancy has 31-year-old chartered accountant Ranjit Deb squirming. The professional fears that the "high levels of gender sensitivity" in the office might see many a woman colleague misuse the new legislation. "What if women start using it to settle scores? Give me the times when women embarrassed men by telling them off without dragging them to court.
Unless and until it's outright impossible to manage the situation without formalising it. Red tapism only worsens things. We can do with a cooler attitude." But the pressure to be "cool" and "one of the guys" is overwhelming. "No one wants to be perceived as a victim," says a journalist who complained against an errant boss recently. Regretting her decision to make a case of the incident, she says: "To be fair, he did get a dressing down but I became the stereotypical, sad victim who wasn't efficient enough to handle these little problems at work. That's what you become if you make a noise. No one sees you as a champion of a cause for dignity and gender equality and all that bullshit but as a whimpering tattler who people don't feel comfortable with anymore. Certainly not the male colleagues." Aversion to being labelled the victim, however, doesn't do away with the fact that women are victimised. And the range of harassment is huge. From suggestive remarks by colleagues to rape.
Sudha Tiwari, vice-president of Shakti Shalini, claims that many of the women the NGO takes into its shelter home are house maids who are often molested and forced into physical relationships by their male employers. "Some of them are pregnant when they come to us. That's an extreme case of sexual harassment at workplace for you and even that's so difficult to pin down by way of evidence," she says. Agreeing, Renuka Mishra of Nirantar, an NGO working for women's education, says that most gender laws prove short because the onus of proof lies with the victim. "And evidence is so difficult to supply in these personalised crimes," she says.
Perhaps the reason why the Crime Against Women Cell has no records of this offence under any of its registered categories. A confused cop at the cell enquires: "Dowry, molestation, matrimonial disputes pertaining to dowry and eve-teasing—we have statistics for these... Is this a new crime?" No, it's always happened but only now perhaps has it been acknowledged by the agencies who can penalise. But whether or not we are better geared to deal with it still seems to depend on those who people offices. Says Sunil Kishore, HRD executive director at Modi Xerox: "Best that we don't make this a women's issue. Neither should it be treated as an ad-hoc basis for complaint. Sexual harassment at workplace should be made part of a larger theme that deals with prescribed codes of conduct within organisations.
Expectations should be targeted and stated. Performance should be audited annually." Sounds like the 51st year of Independence. Sounds like a true 21st century office environment!