Listen. Can you hear it? That low growl on the horizon, coming closer, growing louder? It’s the dam bursting its bounds. It’s the quiet shriek of convivial silence being ripped apart.
The silence around the normalizing of a range of behaviour from the apparently casual to the outrightly violent. The laughing sexual innuendo; the misogynist jokes; the well-known ‘displaced squeeze’ of the upper arm, the shoulders; the repeated, relentless expression of romantic or sexual interest despite clear NOs; the grabbing of the breast, the unwanted kiss, the out-of-town work trip ending in physical assault, presented as flattering interest; and through it all, the clear invocation of the power relationship.
You look great, Sir, retirement suits you, says a younger female colleague to a Professor visiting his former institution. Really, he smirks. Two other people told me this, and they are both women. What do you think it means? She smiles uncomfortably and hurries out of the office of the male head of the institution in whose presence this comment is made.
A professor in his 60s writes romantic poems to his MA student, one after the other, until she leaves the institution, never to be heard of again in academics.
A mid-level woman academic is greeted at a formal committee meeting by a former male teacher of hers, ignoring her outstretched hand, with a close hug and a kiss on her forehead. Having never been on any terms of intimacy with him, she can only…smile uncomfortably while the rest of the people at the meeting look on impassively.
A young woman journalist is told to ‘seduce’ someone to come to a high profile event by her female boss. When she protests at this terminology, the boss tells her not to be so sensitive. To have a sense of humour.
The male teacher says to a woman student entering late—please be on time. It distracts me when you enter late. You shouldn’t be so beautiful.
The woman IAS officer gets her bottom pinched by a senior police officer. Years of courtroom wrangling and his indictment later, he retires, full of years and honours.
The workplace— from the classroom to the court to the newsroom, every single workplace in short—is utterly sexualised. It is sexualised in a masculinist and misogynistic power-laden way. The continuous invocation of the possibility of sex and of women as sexual objects is the very air of the workplace. Women learn to take most of it with that uncomfortable smile, or to join in so as not to appear strait laced, or of course, to protest, knowing full well the price they will pay.
There are consensual affairs too, of course, but there is never any clear delineation of conflicts of interest—the boss sleeps with his employees, the professor sleeps with his students, or with younger colleagues dependent on him for jobs and promotions, and since this can never be publicly talked about, the ways in which these liaisons vitiate the professionalism of the workplace can never be addressed. These men assume that every woman will say yes given the right amount of pressure, it’s just a matter of upping the ante. Many women say yes because the rewards are great. The women who say no pay another kind of price.
And these are just the upper class professionals. The routine sexual violence faced by women on construction sites and inside middle class homes where they work as domestic servants, and in every other kind of working class location is of course, even more normalized.
But that charming convivial silence is being shattered by the growing rage of women. And it’s happening everywhere.
The gutsy young Tehelka journalist who has blown the cover on the sexual assault she faced from Tarun Tejpal, and the principled and unambiguous support she has received from fellow staffers in the face of the (officiating) Editor’s attempts to ‘manage’ the crisis. (We haven’t heard the last of that incident yet).
The legal student who blogged about the retired Supreme Court judge who physically molested her. The other young lawyers who are speaking up.
The student at a university in Delhi who demanded and got the public humiliation of her supervisor who molested her—he had to tender a written and oral apology to her before the entire gathered department.
The Dalit school-girls in Haryana raped by upper caste men in connivance with the police, who have lodged formal complaints and named their rapists. And yes, they continue to go to school.
The male establishment is all aflutter with anxiety. Senior advocates, the Times of India reports, are “getting wary about employing women juniors because they don’t want to run the risk of being accused in the future.” That’s a nice clear signal to send out to women—put up with it if you want a job. Especially in the judiciary that can invoke confidentiality with grave seriousness.
The need to enforce the implementation of the Vishaka guidelines has never been more starkly evident. Men in the workplace need to know this now and with certainty—their sexualised behaviour is not charming or harmless, but a criminal offence.
Oh these feminazis, they sigh over their single malts, do they want to end all spontaneous interaction among men and women? Not a bad thing, says this feminazi, if the workplace is not characterized by spontaneity but by well considered and utterly professional behaviour. Why should spontaneity of all qualities, be the hall mark of a workplace? Especially if spontaneous behaviour for men is simply to grab and squeeze? Or to joke about breast size and oral sex?
Above all, we say—respect the victim’s views on how she wants to deal with the situation. Let her decide whether to take the legal route, go to the police, invoke Vishaka, call for a public acknowledgement and apology. All we need to do is back her. So that she is no longer the victim, but the agent and the survivor.
The time has come. It is now.
This was first published in Kafila