NEW DELHI: I didn’t even know I was holding my breath until my phone screen showed the message “Priya Ramani is cleared.” And then my Twitter timeline exploded with happiness, tears, and hope, from women I know, women I don’t know. But we were united by a euphoria that felt deeply personal in a country where women are used to daily defeat and disappointment.
What happened on Wednesday afternoon was that an Indian court acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in a criminal defamation case brought against her by a former government minister. In 2018, during a #MeToo wave in the country, Ramani had alleged in a social media post that she was sexually harassed in 1993 by MJ Akbar, then a top newspaper editor, when he called her to a hotel in Mumbai for a job. interview. Following their allegations, more than 20 women had come forward to file sexual misconduct charges against Akbar, who was then a minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet.
The accusations led Akbar to resign as minister, but not before bringing a criminal defamation case, using archaic colonial-era law, against Ramani. Over the past two years, we have all watched the case unfold with nervous anticipation because the future of the #MeToo movement in India, as well as the campaign for safer workplaces for women in the country, depended on the outcome of this case. If they silenced her, we would all be silenced. Following the defamation lawsuit, many voices had already fallen silent and the #MeToo movement had petered out.
In 2018, Ramani told a Delhi court that “it was important for women to speak out about sexual harassment in the workplace. Many of us were brought up to believe that silence is a virtue. But even for those who did not believe that silence was a virtue, our patriarchal system has always managed to silence them.
I was 26 when I moved to India after working for three years in the British media and started working as a correspondent in the Calcutta office of an Indian newspaper. After a year and a half in my job, I had to resign due to sexual harassment from the head of the office. I went to the highest authorities of that newspaper with my complaints. Most of the people were incredulous that he was talking about sexual harassment. You were supposed to smile and put up with it, not make a complaint against a “man of reputation.” Because even if the accusations were true, Somehow, “I should have led him.” Then there were no social networks, nor the law against sexual harassment.
The incident ended my career, while my stalker grew stronger in the organization, including raving praise after he passed away from a terminal illness a few years ago. My complaint was never acknowledged. It is a scar that I have had for more than 16 years. I’m still bitter, I still don’t trust the system.
And I am not alone. An annual review conducted earlier this month by the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, India’s first national chamber of business for women, found that nearly 69 percent of victims of sexual harassment maintain it. silence due to a lack of trust in the system, fear of retaliation and concern for their careers, and a belief that there would be no consequences for their stalker. A report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry found that only 31 percent of surveyed companies had set up internal committees to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct.
Back in Calcutta, many women came up to me later and confidently told me that they had also been harassed by this man. But no one would leave a record. If I had known what was going to happen to me, perhaps I would not have made it public either. For the next several years, no other media organization in town would hire me, regardless of the references I produced.
And while I was fighting for justice, they attacked me from various points. A male editor sitting in Chennai gave my stalker a character reference; he didn’t even know me. The female colleagues either remained silent or offered unsolicited comments about my character to the human resources manager. My only ally was my fiancé and colleague, now my husband, who was by my side, but we were already engaged and his testimony did not carry much weight. A good friend who witnessed the harassment also dropped out, panicking over his career. He did well in life, reaching the top management level in various news organizations, while my career was cut short. The group president, a woman, didn’t even bother to acknowledge my emails.
But this was in 2004. The Supreme Court had already formulated the Vishaka Guidelines on sexual harassment in 1997, but there was little awareness, definitely not knowing about them. The guidelines would become the basis for the 2013 Anti-Sexual Harassment of Women in the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Remedy) Act, which required organizations to have internal committees to investigate complaints of sexual harassment. .
After months of these attacks, he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. My confidence in myself was decimated; I began to doubt the truth that I had lived with for months before filing a formal complaint. I stopped seeking justice and instead tried to resurrect what was left of my career in the city, but without much success, and about five years later, when I was presented with the opportunity to move to another city and start over, I took it. . I managed to revive my career but the harassment and attack on my dignity remained a deep scar that never fully healed.
But when I read the court ruling, a ruling that recognized that “even a man of social status can be a sexual harasser” and that “sexual abuse takes away dignity and self-confidence,” and emphasized that “the right reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right to dignity ”and, most importantly, that“ women have the right to complain even after decades ”, I felt a claim that was mine.
And she was not alone, from activists to the average woman on the street, everyone was hoping that this would be a turning point in the history of women’s movements in India. Gender activist Kavita Krishnan says this victory is important because “it will act as a deterrent to the next man who thinks that all he needs is a libel lawsuit to silence a woman.”
Rituparna Chatterjee, a safe workplace activist, agrees. “In a country where, as a woman, just being around feels like going to war every day, this is huge, even though make it clear that we are celebrating the fact that a woman was not punished for her truth,” she said. . He says.
The ruling in Akbar’s defamation lawsuit will set a “good precedent for existing cases,” says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Delhi-based Center for Social Research, a non-profit organization that works to empower women. “It is so important that the court recognize that the dignity of a woman is more important than the reputation of a man,” she said.
Kumari, who sits on more than 30 sexual harassment committees, says the ruling will resurrect India’s #MeToo movement and encourage more women to seek legal redress. In 2004, I did not go to court because almost everyone who said that would mean continuous harassment for me discouraged me. While waiting for the judge to rule the case, I felt a hole in my stomach and my fingers were crossed tightly. Because like I told my husband, “you never know.”
“There are some days when you need to reestablish trust in the system,” says Pallavi Pareek, founder and CEO of Ungender, a Delhi-based advisory firm that works to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace. , with a focus on sexual harassment and maternity discrimination, in accordance with current laws. “This trial will bring confidence to millions of women who contemplate every day, whether to speak or not. Women who doubt that someone believes them ”.
Yes, it is a trial and it may not be enough to reform a system designed to act against women, but if the ruling had gone against Ramani on Wednesday, the repercussions would have been severe. At the very least, it would have institutionalized workplace harassment for women.
So, let’s enjoy Ramani’s victory; tomorrow we will resume the fight.