May 31, 2020
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Sexism And The Workplace Wars

A spate of activism against sexual harassment shows up grey areas in a dark offence

Sexism And The Workplace Wars

THE scribble screamed the humiliation again: "You keep taking calls. Are you a call girl?" It was a note from her boss, the chief of bureau. The same who pinned images of semi-clad women to his chair and cracked lewd jokes. He had gifted Prithi with a book of dirty limericks too.

Ordered her into his cabin, marked out a particularly obscene piece and insisted she recite it for him. The taut nerves had finally found their way to the management for redressal. A reprimand later, he continued and continues to be the chief of bureau of the same prestigious publication. Meanwhile, her only succour perhaps, is that she gets to tell her story to author Ammu Joseph for the latter's forthcoming book Travails of Women Journalists.

Savita Rani's frustrations find no such vent. Even if she had an attentive audience, her story is a difficult one to tell. Her experiences have taught her that it is difficult to regiment relationships in the workplace according to the narrow definitions that are crammed into law books. That public sanction sees sexual harassment as black and bad but public morality and the conduct of people are infused with greys.

Loneliness crowds her life as she whiles away the oppressive hours sitting idle at the government school where she works as a lower-division-clerk. No work comes her way these days. Only hushed humiliation from colleagues who feel that she deprived a man of his livelihood. He had been a teacher in the same school and had, seven months ago, called up her prospective in-laws to tell them of his "torrid love" for her. This after sessions of propositioning, stalking and harassing her. The case against him had been so easy to prove. But life has been very difficult since. Ironically, his dismissal earned him sympathy. Says a flummoxed Savita: "The teachers, the administration, no one talks to me anymore. Even the peons won't bring me tea. It's as if I've been boycotted for seeking justice. They were all with me till I was a victim, bearing it all stoically. Now I am perceived as a chaalu troublemaker. This seems to be as much harassment as that was. I wish someone would do something about the absurdity of it all."

As if on cue, last week saw consistent attacks being made against such violations that wrench equality off the workplace. On Monday, the National Commission for Women (NCW), the Central Bureau of Investigations and the Ministry of Child and Women Welfare joined forces to thrash out combat strategies for a fight against sexual harassment at the workplace in a day-long workshop. Newspapers flashed reports of the NCW being inundated by complaints of such harassment: 22 from women in and around Delhi alone. In Bangalore, meanwhile, a seminar on April 8 had activists discussing the human rights perspective to the issue. Amidst concerned discussion, it was announced that actress Shabana Azmi would soon be doing radio and television spots as part of an awareness campaign to inform women of the code of conduct prescribed by the apex court on the issue.

All this took place even as a pilot study concluded last month by Sakshi, an NGO working on issues of violence against women, revealed that a disturbingly huge 72 per cent women and 74 per cent men had either heard of or encountered cases of sexual harassment at workplace. Just months before, an NCW survey found out that of the women who felt discriminated at work, 69 and 27 per cent could directly link it to severe mental and physical harassment respectively.

No, it's not as if Hindustani feminists are on the lookout for another buzzword to keep their movement chugging. Nor are insults, innuendoes and inequality new, unexpected visitors to our workspaces. They've long been there. As has been the tireless battle to banish them. The struggle for a healthy working environment has been hard and long and, perhaps, unrecognised.

Till, in August 1997, a landmark ruling saw the Supreme Court define harassment at the workplace as "unwelcome sexually-determined behaviour", and specify a code of conduct for workplaces. It also provided for the constitution of complaints committees for timely redressal within organisations. And for those still doubting the seriousness of its intent, the apex court made its point again this year, in a January 20 ruling. It overruled a high court order reinstating an Apparel Export Promotion Council employee who had been dismissed after a departmental inquiry into the sexual harassment charges made against him. Citing the high court's observations that argued the accused had not "actually molested" but only "tried to molest" his female colleague and therefore should not be dismissed, the SC ruling said: "The entire approach of the high court has been faulty."

Celebration time then for the crusaders of the cause? Not yet. For the war is being fought on too many fronts to consolidate attention on single victories, however significant. More so for women to whom battling this rampant harassment is not an abstract cause but life itself.

Thirty and jobless for about two years now, Sonam feels no triumph for the latest, supposedly liberating legalese. Fettered to the concerns of her particular anxieties, she's not even sure that sexual harassment is about sex alone. Nothing else but a whirlwind of words as witness, she recalls that horrid day in November 1997 when, "encouraged" by three older female colleagues who were "jealous" of her larger salary, the sweeper-contractor at the Ghaziabad-based pharmaceutical company where she worked as an executive, accosted her in the lunch room. He was more than singing the usual suggestive tunes to her that day and the women were unashamedly giggling approval of his 'naughtiness'. She would have ignored him, and them, yet again. But it was when he held her by her upper arms and cornered her into rage that she took off her slippers to attack him. "I don't even know what happened after that. They ganged up to say I beat him up and I was handed a suspension notice by the same evening," she says, recounting her baffled frustration.

Today, her certificates—post-graduation degree in economics and a diploma in computers—yellowing at home, she busses her way round meagre offices to hunt for the odd part-time assignment to keep the fires burning at her home and in her heart. The burning desire to get her share in a world that's as much hers as any man's leads her to courts and ministries where she pleads her case.

"For six months they tried to starve me into resignation, I didn't oblige. I'd go every day and sign my attendance at the gate because they wouldn't let me in. They sent me half my salary, I refused for four months till need forced me into accepting whatever they were offering. The inquiry committee they instituted had so many of them. I wasn't even allowed to take in a counsel or another lady to accompany me. Then, they sent me a dismissal letter piled with allegations galore. Simultaneously, they implicated me in a criminal case saying I was threatening to kill the contractor and sent police at my house. I was running around like a fugitive to escape being arrested. Currently I am trying to wrench free of the defamation suit they've slapped on me," she fulminates.Meanwhile, with no recommendations, no references and too many complicated cases as her baggage, no employer wants Sonam on the staff list.

SO, it's much more complicated than the power and gender configuration of the classic sexual-harassment scenario that the Supreme Court seeks to prevent when it rules that an action that is "wholly against moral sanctions, decency and offensive to a woman's modesty" must be penalised. What penalty, for instance, for the three women who cheered and encouraged the innuendoes that were flung Sonam's way? What if the woman is not 'modest' enough at workplace? What when a sales girl suffers harassment through the hands of a customer? Isn't the management obliged to provide safe working space? What of the lecturer who is the target, not of her superiors or her subordinates, but of her students? What of the maid who works at home? Or the thousands of women who toil in the unorganised sector?

Some veterans in this war against harassment feel that the time has perhaps arrived to address these problems through strong legislation. That awareness campaigns must be supplemented with lobbying for a law on the issue because mere guidelines by the apex court are a necessary but not a sufficient condition to protect the country's women workforce. That, at least, a meaningful debate should be initiated on the subject.

LOOKING at law and amendments is a part of the feminist struggle to ensure equality. Let's at least discuss whether it could improve the situation. I am for pooling in any help to make things better," says the newly-appointed and purposeful NCW chief Vibha Parthasarthi. Having already released a poster last month as part of an expansive awareness campaign against harassment at workplace, Parthasarthi has already made plans to invite thinkers, academics, social workers, lawyers and even the media to discuss the issue, and the need or otherwise for legislation.

Strongly advocating legislation, Shakun Mohini of the Bangalore-based women's group Vimochana argues: "The guidelines aren't adequate and must be followed up with a protective law by the Union government. Otherwise this occupational hazard will continue because trade unions are reluctant to take up such problems. The guidelines only facilitate public demand and do not act as a deterrent." While Calcutta-based Vidya Munsi of Bengal Mahila Samiti shows more faith in the guidelines, she too feels that the SC directives will gain in strength if given statutory status.

But many involved in the cause are radically opposed to such a move. Ratna Kapur of the Centre for Feminist Legal Research is an emphatic voice against the further criminalisation of sexual conduct. An issue that has to do with every woman's human rights and constitutional right to equality, she feels, is needlessly going to be pushed into the realm of women and crimes: "We seem to be fixated with sexual wrongs to the exclusion of sexual rights. Do we know any of our sexual rights? Anything to do with women and sexuality invariably becomes about violence and crime.

We haven't even sorted out the problems in the rape law and we have moved on to one regarding sexual harassment at workplace. Only women will bear the brunt of it. 'Unwelcome sexual advance' in the case of harassment at workplace will become as problematic and hard to prove as 'lack of consent' in rape. " Moreover, Kapur cautions against the risk of taking issues so nuanced as these for legislation to a Hindu nationalist government which has orthodox views on both women and morality.In agreement, Bombay-based feminist lawyer Flavia Agnes points out that even if the lobbying does manage to get a stringent law passed, it will mean a lesser rate of conviction: "All these new demands, death penalty for rape and long terms in prison for harassing women will only have the offenders roaming free because the burden of proving 'beyond reasonable doubt' will become the victim's problem." Naina Kapur, director of Sakshi, also talks about the fact that a law will only mean most legislators missing the essence while debating the nitty-gritty. She believes that a human rights-oriented approach to the problem would be more profitable than all the laby-rinthine legalese.

But the scope to complicate issues has already perhaps found space. For instance, the expanding code of conduct on sexual harassment at workplace, as presented by the Department of Women and Child Welfare at a recent workshop, laid down that the "victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man and the victim does not have to be of the opposite sex". Here it is then, penalising a fringe group, the homosexuals, for sexual wrongs without ever having assigned them any sexual rights.

And it gets more complex. Because "codes of conduct" often find sanction in society, and become too standardised and stiff. In a recent episode of Question of Answers on Star Plus, over 50 per cent of the audience polled in the affirmative when asked whether lewd language used by men in front of a woman colleague feeling awkward about it constitutes sexual harassment. Significantly, the code of conduct assigned by the SC also defines "unwelcome verbal conduct of sexual nature" as harassment. It would surely be bizarre to implement this consensus in many offices, including rushed newsrooms where adrenaline runs high and language runs amok every other day. And what when a male colleague tells his female counterpart not to use language that doesn't sit pretty on the lips? Is it gender discrimination or sexual harassment? Will intent or advocates decide? Perhaps all of them could litigate against each other?

Moreover, how much will we dump on law to sort out in a situation where the woman still fears being ridiculed for reporting harassment which "she should have been able to deal with herself". Rohina Singh, 34, vice president marketing in a multinational, suffers, ignores and fumes at overtures made by her counterpart in the sales department: "It's an old-boys network. If I complain about his constant encroachment into my space, his patronising attitude and his constant invitations for drinks at the pub, I'll be the one seen as this weak woman who runs to papa every time there's a problem. What'll my juniors think?" It's perhaps as much for Rohina as for the woman who works in a kiln that Vani Subramanian of activist group Saheli empha-sises the need for awareness. An emphasis the group has acquired after having interviewed 62 women respondents from different areas of work for their report Another Occupational Hazard: Sexual Harassment and the Working Woman. The first piece of advice that the report gives women: "Don't blame yourself or feel guilty. The man who is harassing you is entirely to blame." That's a good beginning to end on.

With inputs from Shameem Akhtar in Mumbai, B.R. Srikanth in Bangalore and Ashis Biswas in Calcutta

(Some names have been changed to protect identities)

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