17 November 2013

We need to talk about sexual harassment

It was 2003, and it was my first job. The acting editor (brought in as the editor while the old one quit, and they hadn't yet made a new hire) was a dude who liked nothing more than the sound of his own voice. He wasn't very popular, but he made loud jibes at one member of the office or another, and sometimes, he could be moderately funny.

He turned his attention on me all of a sudden. One minute I was quiet, invisible, the youngest person on an already young team, trying to earn as many bylines as I could, the next I was in focus as soon as I walked in. "Why are you wearing that?" he'd ask, every single day. "Why are you wearing that neckline, those sleeves? This is an office!" Other people wore similar clothes--it was a young office after all--but it was to me he turned fashion critic, moral police of my spaghetti straps.  I grew so uncomfortable, I chose only shirts with collars after that or loose t-shirts. He got bored, but not before I learnt to sneak in past his desk and settle myself in without being spotted.

Years later, I learnt that was sexual harassment. I was only 21, this was the early noughties, and no one thought to speak to us about inappropriate behaviour beyond the obvious grabbing-and-molesting. Behaviour that would make a female employee uncomfortable or afraid of a male one. Behaviour a male employee would not show towards another man.

 I've been thinking a lot about these things lately, because the Good Thing did a story on a young girl, a legal intern who was sexually harassed by a Supreme Court judge. The interview went on to go viral, and suddenly, over the last week, all he's been doing is thinking about it, and as a consequence, talking about it.

What do you do when someone in power takes advantage of your power dynamic? How do you say no without ruining whatever prospects you have for advancement?

Consider the case of David Davidar, who was accused of sexual harassment in Canada. I'm not saying he did or did not do it, but many authors he had worked with in India stood behind him. Many prominent editors too. How would you allege a case of inappropriate behaviour against someone so popular and still "work in that town again?"


Do you separate a person's actions from the work they do? Would you still watch a Woody Allen movie? Knowingly hum along to Nazi-supporter Wagner? Would you defend a friend you loved who you knew could be extremely lecherous, just because you love him?

It's one of the great regrets of my life that I did not report this former editor, this man with his bloated ego and sense of "I can say whatever I like" because I'm older than you, and I'm  a man, and I've been in journalism for 10 years or whatever. I wish I'd had him slapped on the wrist, and not left him to float through journalism making other people uncomfortable. Corporates and MNCs have mandatory workshops, and some of them have an anonymous call-in to report behaviour. It's time for the rest of the country to catch up. It's time for newspaper offices to stop letting editors have their way with fresh young reporters, government bodies knowing that power doesn't mean power over someone else, and all of us in general to stop being scared that this will mean the END for us, the end of our careers or that people will hate us, and just report a horrible act that makes us feel less than professional.

I've worked very hard to be where I am today. I'm sure you have too. Let's not let some dude with an inflated sense of self take that away from us.  Let's support each other, and maybe we'll have the courage to report a person to the authorities the next time it happens.

PS: If you'd like to share your experiences, go ahead and post it in the comments.

PS 2: Here is a link to the Vishaka guidelines against sexual harassment in the workplace.
EDIT: The new regulations for sexual harassement in the workplace that replaced the Vishaka Guidelines in 2013. Thanks for the tip, Debjani!


7 comments:

  1. Speaking for the world of journalism, how about creepy photographers and designers adding you on Facebook barely a week into your new job, and this after having spoken to them barely one or two times? Constantly messaging you then, and texts about how you're "lookin cute" when you wear a dress to work? I'm like, how about telling me that to my face in the office, fucker? Why wait till after work to text me that randomly?

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  2. In April 2013, the Government issued the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013. This replaces the Vishaka Guidelines. You may want to take a look at that.

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  3. www.interweave.in
    this IS exactly what we do. in case anyone has queries or needs to know how to go about this for their workplaces, do reach out.

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  4. Alas, that website isn't opening for me. Faulty link?

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  5. And then Tehelka happens today :( Who knew Tarun Tejpal could be such a rat.

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  6. Do you separate a person's actions from the work they do?
    It depends. If their actions are molesting women, maybe not. If they're stepping on ants, maybe I let that one go.


    Would you still watch a Woody Allen movie?
    I hate woody allen movies.


    Knowingly hum along to Nazi-supporter Wagner?
    Never heard of him. Is he before or after Justin Bieber.

    Would you defend a friend you loved who you knew could be extremely lecherous, just because you love him?
    I know and love this friend - why do I love him when I know he's a letch? What does that say about me? Additionally - okay, he's a letch. Well, if I love him - maybe I should sit him down and give him a talking to - because I love him??

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