Women in uniform need a voice too
The Indian Army had its first successful MeToo moment in 2007 when Captain Neha Rawat accused Maj. Gen. A.K. Lal, who was commanding a division somewhere in Ladakh, of inappropriate behaviour. The army leadership moved swiftly. It initiated a court of enquiry against the offending officer which proved the charges levelled by Capt. Rawat.
Three years later, Maj. Megha Gupta, of the Electrical and Mechanical Engineers accused Colonel Anurodh Mishra of molesting her. Once again, the general court martial found her accusations correct and the offending officer was barred from further promotion.
I am guilty of not following up these stories. Hence, I do not know what became of Capt. Rawat or Maj. Gupta thereafter. Whether they were subsequently isolated by their fellow male officers for being troublesome or rewarded by the military for being courageous. However, what is clear is these voices were flashes in the pan in the service where subordinate voices are only heard either in salutation or when they loudly concur with the orders given.
In the last decade, as the Indian military has moved towards granting permanent commission to women officers, sexual harassment at workplace has been a subject off the table, perhaps because the military believes in dealing with its own in its own manner instead of allowing it to hang in public. Yet, there have been whispers and rumours that sexual harassment is rampant in the military with several male officers either not taking the women officers seriously or viewing them as trophies susceptible to exploitation.
In a written statement to Rajya Sabha last year, minister of state for defence, Subhash Bhamre said that in the last two years (between 2015-2017) at least a dozen women had complained of sexual harassment and discrimination. Of these, six were from the army, three from the navy and two from the air force. And then this year, before film actor Tanushree Dutta rekindled the spark by outing Nana Patekar, a woman superintendent of police in Chennai complained about an inspector general in August, against whom departmental enquiry has been ordered.
Given the national average of under reporting of harassment cases across workplaces, it would not be incorrect to assume that the figures quoted by Bhamre are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Just to draw a parallel, the United States’ department of defence released its Annual Report on Sexual Assault in Military in May 2018. According to the report, there were 6,769 reports of sexual assault in 2017, of which ‘5,864 involved service member victims. The remaining 905 reports involved 868 victims who were US civilians or foreign nationals and 37 victims for whom status data were not available.’
How deep-rooted gender prejudice, and how entrenched the sense of entitlement is among male officers can be gauged by the anguished article written by a US veteran of the Iraq War and the director of communications and policy at the Service Women’s Action Network, Antonieta Rico.
She wrote this in the Time magazine (12 December 2017) last year, “For military women, before #MeToo there was #NotInvisible, our attempt to draw attention to the epidemic of sexual assault in the military which continues to be largely ignored by the American public. Now as the #MeToo reckoning sweeps other industries, from Hollywood to politics, America is once again leaving service women behind.’
“We women veterans and military women also felt emboldened to share our stories as #MeToo entered the national conversation, but as the movement gains momentum we question why our voices are not included in this movement. Women in the military have been speaking out about sexual harassment and assault for decades, from Tailhook in the early 1990s to Marines United earlier this year. And for decades the American public has ignored our voices, allowing the military brass to pay lip service to eradicating the problem of sexual assault in the ranks, and failing to hold them accountable when, as scandal after scandal shows, sexual predators in the military continue to harass and assault with impunity.” The full article can be read at http://time.com/5060570/military-women-sexual-assault/ and perhaps will help more Indian officers in finding both courage and their voices.
While October has been a momentous month for women naming and shaming their tormentors, it has been building up quietly over the years. Despite this, there has been a backlash in India, often spearheaded by women themselves against what is being termed as elitist and opportunist urban phenomenon. Questions have also been raised about why women did not complain when they faced sexual harassment and why they are coming out now. So here, to answer the naysayers, I present two short pieces I wrote since the MeToo movement started to spread like a jungle fire.
Though it is tempting to take credit — the me-first, removed from the ‘movements larger than ourselves’ generation that we are — the truth is that the Indian seeds of the now famous (infamous, depending upon which side you are) MeToo movement were sown by a rural woman, a dalit to boot.
In 1992, Bhanwari Devi of Rajasthan faced sexual assault in the line of duty; she complained about it and forced the Supreme Court to issue guidelines on sexual harassment at workplace in 1997, which came to be known as the Vishakha guidelines. Of course, her tormentors went scot-free, but that didn’t take away from the fact that through her suffering and push-back she lit the spark.
Sometimes, a spark turns into a forest fire in a blink. Sometimes it takes a generation. Rest assured, the fire is now raging; and it will not be put out anytime soon. It’s wholly ‘made in India’. The only thing imported about it is perhaps the slogan which is bringing women together — #MeToo. You have a problem with that? Change it. Let’s call it Bhanwari’s Bhanwar. Or whatever.
In the last fortnight, as the raging fire lit by Bhanwari Devi 26 years ago consumed big trees after another, several contrarian voices have emerged. Interestingly, leading these banners are women themselves, which is a good thing. At least, it has debunked the idea of this being women versus men battle and has shown it for what it is – a pushback by the less privileged, voiceless and defenceless people (who just happen to be women) against the painstakingly built edifice of entitlement and patriarchy, nurtured over the years by men; and those women who drew power from that structure.
Their objections rest on three legs. The first is the contention that this movement, (till we all agree on Bhanwari’s Bhanwar, let’s stick to #MeToo for convenience) is being orchestrated by privileged, urban women. Only those with little sense of history and ground realities can make statements like these. Today, very few women from privileged backgrounds enter the workforce, and those who do wear their privilege as a protective cover.
An overwhelming number of women who work, including in the media, don’t come with the pedigree of having broken bread with former Indian prime ministers. They come from ordinary working backgrounds with shaky support system. Statistics will bear this out. Of course, they are ambitious, and they want to make a career, but is that the reason enough to deny them the right to protest when their integrity is violated by shoving the argument of bigger causes in their faces? Please know that predators poach on the most vulnerable and those who they believe will not be able to fight back. Isn’t it bad enough that our laws, our social conditioning and total lack of support from even the fellow women denied these victims the courage to protest, that we now mock them as opportunists?
That’s the second leg: the #MeToo movement is not honest and is consuming innocent men. Perhaps, there is a shred of truth in that, but so what. Which movement in the world has not been misused, or infiltrated by lumpen, vested interests? Is that ground enough to denounce the movement itself and write its epitaph? By this logic, all laws of the land must be abrogated because they have the potential of being misused by the law-makers themselves? Must Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act be dismantled because it has put thousands of innocents in jails as undertrials?
The third leg is of social media being the police, the court and the prison for the accused as the twitter lynch mob pronounces verdict every minute. How can this be blamed on the victims of sexual harassment? They are using the platform most accessible to them and the one which can carry their voices far in the shortest possible time. Besides, under the present government social media is a legitimate form of communication, one employed by the Prime Minister himself to reach out to the citizenry. All policy-matters are unveiled on social media. So why can’t it be a tool of revolution?
Never mind what the spoilers say, we are indeed witnesses to a new work culture being created in India, mostly in the organised sector, but slowly percolating down to the unorganised sector too. Of course, there will be some bloodletting, but that’s the price revolutions demand. A few months back before we ‘privileged’ women discovered #MeToo, my part-time maid told me that in another house where she works she noticed the man of the house watching porn on television while she was mopping the floor. His wife was away. She left the house telling him that she will return to work only after his wife returns. Is this not empowerment?
Empowerment is not a quality that you are born with or imbibe through education, though they contribute to it. Empowerment is a state of mind you reach through experience and peer support. And every woman deserves to find her moment of power at whatever point in her life, when she stands up and says – Enough. No More. Let’s not belittle this journey by asking her why she didn’t protest earlier. Believe me, and I say this from my own experience, if she could hit back then, she would have.
Hence, instead of finger-pointing, we must try to understand why Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 remains a halfway house. And why despite offering a mechanism for complaints through internal complaints committee (ICC), it offers no protection to the victim after a complaint is made. The Act stipulates that the complainer may be shifted to another department or be allowed to go on leave for up to three months while the enquiry is underway. This further victimises and stigmatises the victim. Why shouldn’t the accused be asked to go on leave instead?
And to the question why women who are speaking up now didn’t protest earlier, I have drawn up a chronology of response based on my experience as well as of those I have spoken with since then. The first reaction after the assault is betrayal of trust.
Imagine a young woman gets an opportunity to work, in her first job itself, with the person she looked upon as a role model. Wouldn’t it be a dream beginning to a career? Then at some point Mr Role Model starts to take a personal interest in the starry-eyed newcomer’s career — talks about her plans, wonders if working is a stop-gap arrangement till marriage or if she is ambitious and so on. This is a conversation of the unequal and clearly driven by the powerful. The newcomer is in awe and flattered by the attention. She starts to believe that indeed she has great potential which is why the role model is taking special interest in her professional growth. Consequently, she talks, revealing details about herself which progressively make her vulnerable to exploitation.
And so, when the role model crosses the boundary betraying her trust, she enters the second stage of emotional conflict.
Disbelief and Denial
The reflex to the first assault is disbelief, followed by denial. This couldn’t have happened. Probably, she has misunderstood. After all, how can the role model do this deliberately? As she herself has conflicting thoughts about this, she doesn’t share it with anyone and tells herself that it was a stray misdemeanour and would not happen again. But then it happens again. And again, in quick succession. That’s when fear sets in.
Fear is a debilitating emotion. It creates a whirlpool of negativity and defeatist thoughts. Feeding on itself it continues to grow until it paralyses clear thinking plunging the victim more and more into a feeling of despair and hopelessness. This is the stage the victim needs a support system, both at work and home, which can help dissipate the cloud of fear around her. This is also the stage she is extremely prone to self-harm because she is unable to figure a way out. She is also unable to discriminate between those who will understand her and those who will judge her. Besides, what if her confidante betrays her further?
However, let’s presume that she manages to find a reliable support system at work. She manages to break out of the cycle of fear and quit, the ordeal does not end. She may not find another job immediately. She may have a family dependent upon her salary.
Then come self-loathing and shame. Did she bring it upon herself? Was it something she said which gave him the wrong ideas about her? Was it the way she used to dress? Once she gets past this, she starts to hate herself. Why didn’t she do something more to prevent it? Why didn’t she slap him? Why didn’t she leave sooner? Why didn’t she go to the police?
Along with this internal turmoil is a sense of embarrassment as word goes out, and gossip starts. What happened? Did he really do this? What did you do? Why didn’t you slap him? I would have done it. Why didn’t you leave immediately? I would have done it.
And shame builds up. She also starts to wonder whether people believe her or not. What if they think she is doing all this for sympathy? For attention?
Even as she copes with shame, anger sets in. She wrestles with herself about ways and means in which she could have got back at her tormentor. And each idea exposes her helplessness. She is still young and vulnerable; the tormentor is powerful and well-connected.
Gradually she tells herself that she must focus on her career and the life ahead. She pats herself on the back that she managed to get out of that harrowing situation and now needs to move on. Put it behind her like a bad dream. She is alive, and the world is throwing new opportunities at her. She cannot remain hooked to her past. And she never reports the criminal who nearly derailed her life. She tells herself that she has forgiven and forgotten. But actually, it’s easier said than done.
That is where the importance of the #MeToo movement lies. It has enabled those who had shut themselves up to speak. In number lies strength. And this strength helps a relay of women speaking up one after the other. Of course, they are all speaking now, because the #MeToo movement has given them a platform and assurance that their voices will be heard. They are exposing themselves to slander, insinuation and gossip. The least we can do is ensure that they are not exposed to further harassment — mental or otherwise.
It doesn’t matter if the sexual predators are punished by law or not, as long as this fire creates awareness about appropriate behaviour at workplace, as long as it creates a sense of consciousness among the women that their voices will be heard and trusted; and among men that their names will be called out if they cross the boundary. This is not a witch-hunt. This is a collective effort by men and women to restore dignity and pride in institutions held sacred. After all, if work is worship, shouldn’t our offices be temples.
Trust and Help
- In cases of sexual harassment, the alleged perpetrator of harassment should not have the option of criminal defamation suit as the first recourse.
- There should be a mechanism by which both the complainer and the person against whom the complaint is made are heard by an independent, maybe quasi-judicial body, which doesn’t put any financial burden on the complainer.
- The complainer should be heard in good faith. It should be assumed that her intentions are not mala fide unless proved otherwise.
- Also, the burden of proof must not lie with the accuser but on the accused, for the simple reason that the number of false accusations is minuscule in comparison to genuine charges.
- Of course, no innocent should suffer, but conversely, no real victim should be made to suffer forever simply because her tormentor has more money or is well-connected.