It’s all very well to outrage about the Tehelka case; but let’s also try and ensure that such cases don’t recur
Over the last fortnight, the media have been ‘larcerating’ themselves over the sexual assault allegations leveled against Tehelka editor, Tarun Tejpal, by a (now former) staffer of the magazine. The account of the aggrieved journalist makes for sorry reading, but what was even more disturbing was the attempt by Tehelka to try and pass this off as an ‘internal matter’. When journalists dared ask questions of Tehelka managing editor, Shoma Chaudhury, she shot back angrily: “Are you the aggrieved party?” (Presumably, Shoma, or to call her by what we now discover is her real name, Suparna, was an ‘aggrieved party’ in the Assaram case, or else why would she chose to cover it?)
Well, you know what, Ms Chaudhury? We are all aggrieved parties in this. Not just every woman who has ever had to fend off unwanted sexual advances in the workplace; but every young girl in school and college today, who one day hopes to step into the work force. Not to mention, every unborn child who deserves to enter into a world in which women are not preyed upon sexually – and then victim-shamed when they summon the courage to speak up.
But how do we create that world? Outraging on Twitter, fulminating on TV and in columns such as this one, is a good way of venting when our rage, frustration and despair threaten to overwhelm us. But it doesn’t really change things in the real world. And nor does the constitution of sexual harassment committees in accordance with the Vishakha guidelines.
So, what will? I have spent the last week or so trying to come up with some answers. This is what I have so far:
1) Start work on the next generation. Much as it saddens me to say this, most of the men in my generation and the one above are beyond redeeming. It was telling that the only people who were willing to come on TV and defend Tejpal were men of a certain age who had grown up in an age of entitlement. In their world, junior staffers should be flattered when men in power show sexual interest in them; and shut up and put up with sexual harassment, or even sexual assault. A mentality like that is hard to change. So, while we shouldn’t let them get away with victim shaming, let’s not nourish any illusions that their Neanderthal thinking will change.
Instead, let’s try and get the young men of today and tomorrow to see women as something other than sexual objects. In this endeavor, the mothers – and indeed, fathers – of young boys have the biggest role to play. Teach your son that a woman’s right to her bodily integrity is inviolable. Make him understand that no means no. Upbraid him when he makes sexist comments. Respect his girlfriend/wife rather than undermine her. Teach him by example. Don’t refer to women in short dresses as ‘sluts’. Don’t act as if a girl who has premarital sex is a ‘whore’. Don’t sneer at women who frequent nightclubs as ‘easy’ or ‘fast’.
2) But while the role of parents is crucial, schools, colleges and other educational institutions can also play a vital role. Alongside classes on sex education, we also need to teach lessons about sexual behavior. We need to tell young girls and boys what constitutes sexual harassment or even sexual assault. Young girls need to be taught that it is okay to speak out against any man who violates their body. Young boys need to be taught that consent is crucial when it comes to sex. I know it seems self-evident but it is frightening how many men grow up believing that a woman’s ‘no’ means ‘not yet’ and that if they persist it will change into a ‘yes’. It bears repeating. No means no.
3) A policy of zero tolerance. I remember going on a TV programme on rapper Honey Singh and being asked if I was just picking on him because he was a ‘soft target’. There are no ‘soft targets’ when it comes to sexual violence against women. The man who pinches your bum in the bus, the guy who makes a sexual comment on the street, the singer who raps about violence against women, the boss who acts as if sexual favours are his God-given right, the man who molests or rapes a woman. All of them need to be punished with the full force of the law
4) No sexualisation of the workplace. And this applies to both men and women. Just as we take it for granted that it is not okay for men to watch pornography at the office, or indeed, decorate their desks with pin-ups of naked women, it is also not okay for women to sexualize the workplace by dressing like wannabe porn stars. There is a time and a place to wear a mini-skirt or a camisole top. Your office is not that place. And while I am all for the right of women to dress as they please, we also need to understand that showing butt cracks or acres of cleavage sexualizes our workplace just as much as dirty jokes do. We wouldn’t stand for it if our male colleagues dressed like that. The same standards should apply to us.
For a truly equal, sexual harassment-free workplace, men and women need to work together. And that work needs to start now.