Sexual harassment: When will Weinstein Effect impact India?

Sexual harassment: When will Weinstein Effect impact India?

Harini Calamur | 02 Nov 2017 05:07 PM

In this file photo, Harvey Weinstein arrives at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. AFP Photo

It began as a whisper, then it became a murmur of voices, and then it became a shout that is still reverberating across the world. “I was molested” said one woman and before you knew it, women across the world were posting #MeToo stories.

Women of different ages, women as old as 80, speaking about the time in years gone by when they were touched and felt without their consent. Women talked about their experience when they were girls as young as 5 or 6. My own memories stretch back to when I was 7 or 8. Memories we had buried deep in the recesses of our mind came tumbling out.

As one woman put it, we talked about things we could bear to remember. And, unlike most activism on social media, this seems to have gone beyond just outrage. I overheard a conversation between two 70-year-olds who were discussing this campaign. One was dismissive of the entire campaign, the other reminded her, "Remember our music teacher when we were students?" Suddenly, the memories came flooding back.

It all began with a New York Times story that accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of serial sexual harassment spanning decades. There is a line in the article that really resonated: “I am a 28-year-old woman trying to make a living and a career. Harvey Weinstein is a 64-year-old, world famous man and this is his company. The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10."

Frankly speaking, that is what it boils down to, men in power abusing that power to gain favours. Since that article came out, over 20 women have said that Weinstein had sexually abused them.

Women facing sexual abuse at the hands of a powerful man is not a new story.  It is a story as old as time. But now, for the first time, women are speaking out and telling men ‘the shame of this is not ours, it is yours’. With this has begun a spate of names being named.

Britain's Defence Minister Michael Fallon resigned on Wednesday following sexual misconduct allegations. Former US President George HW Bush has apologised for touching women appropriately after three women accused him of grabbing their butts. The head of Amazon studio, Roy Price, has resigned after being accused of the same. Vox Media’s editorial director Lockhart Steele has been fired for sexually harassing women. Journalists, film directors, venture capitalists, technologists... the list seems to be never ending as women draw on their reserves of courage and name and shame the men who harassed them.

India too has seen the aftershocks of the Weinstein earthquake. As a professional, let me tell you there was always a whisper network of women warning other women of lecherous men. It used to work as an informal thing.

Why informal? Because it was felt that nothing could be done to the men who did the harassing. It was always felt that they were beyond censure. That the old boys network and the old girls network would get together to cover it up. The few times women had the courage to complain to the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Committee (POSH) in their workplace, the men they complained against came to know and it is the women who had to quit their jobs.

We have all seen how the RK Pachauri sexual harassment case was handled and the emotional and professional cost borne by the woman who lodged the complaint and followed it through. The redressal mechanism is set up to protect organisations and powerful men, rather than protect women who are prone to being harassed.

Now women are fighting back. The whisper network has come out as a full-fledged spreadsheet that is naming names in academia. Professors who behaved inappropriately with their students. These are anonymous complaints. The men are named. The women accusing them are not. It is in public domain.

While I have major reservations with a list like that with anonymous accusers, I can see what is driving the women. The very fact that a list like this is out in the open and people are nodding their heads, saying we had heard about it but it just went away, tells you how inadequate redressal mechanisms on sexual harassment are. In the days to come expect more such names to come tumbling out.

Unlike in the West where there is at least public posturing against sexual harassment, with other powerful people ready to publicly repudiate the ‘sinner’, in India men accused of sexual harassment walk away with little or no impact on their lives. Their friends' circle remains close, they are still welcome at major events. They continue making public appearances. Their companies still back them. Their universities back them. Their friends back them, including women who claim to be feminists.

There are many men at the workplace, most of them nice. But the predators make everyone complicit in their crime. That needs to stop.  Hopefully, the 'Weinstein Effect' will catch up with these men, and those who cover up for them.

(Harini Calamur is a writer, teacher and film-maker. She tweets at @calamur)

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