(This article first appeared in the Indian Express on February 20, 2021 under the title ‘The right to her testimony’)
It was a relief to see Priya Ramani, a victim of sexual harassment, acquitted of the charge of defamation laid on her by former editor and BJP leader M J Akbar in a brazen attempt to silence women’s testimonies of being molested by him. But the acquittal verdict, achieved by the courageous testimonies of Ramani and Ghazala Wahab, and the stellar feminist lawyering by Rebecca John, is pathbreaking because it did much more than refuse the attempt of a perpetrator to punish his victim. The verdict went beyond a mere refusal to convict Ramani for criminal defamation. The verdict vindicated Ramani and, by implication, the other women who had variously come forward to accuse Akbar of sexual violence, by accepting Ramani’s truth as a defence to the charge of defamation. The verdict’s reasoning for accepting Ramani’s and Wahab’s testimonies as truthful is vindication for scores of women.
Women speaking up against sexual harassment are often disbelieved, often asked, “what proof do you have?” Other questions women face include: “Why did you not speak up immediately after it happened?” and “Why did you take to media or social media to tell your story, instead of filing a criminal case?” The Ramani judgement is worth celebrating because for once, a court of law took on the burden of offering a definitive answer to these questions. Survivors and feminist activists will now find their burden a little lighter: They will be able to ask all questioners to find the answers in this landmark judgement.
The verdict urged society to “understand that sometimes a victim may for years not speak up due to mental trauma,” and underlined that a woman has a right to speak up about the abuse, even after decades. It pointed out that since sexual harassment typically takes place in private, women’s testimonies cannot be dismissed as untrue or defamatory simply because they are unable to provide other witnesses to back their allegations.
Institutional mechanisms have systemically failed to protect women or provide justice, the verdict reasoned, and, therefore, survivors are justified in sharing their testimonies on media or social media platforms as a form of self-defence. This insightful reasoning is possibly the most significant and precious part of the verdict.
Men from privileged classes, when accused of sexual violence, are quick to accuse women of injuring their reputation and status. There have even been campaigns (across political aisles) claiming that the amendments to India’s sexual violence laws in 2013 are “draconian” when applied to privileged men. The unspoken (and sometimes outspoken) assumption has been that these laws were meant to be used only to convict slum or street-dwelling “thugs” like the accused in the 2012 Delhi bus rape case. When women professionals seek justice against “respectable” and even celebrated men, their influential friends raise a cry of outrage, and promptly accuse the complainants (and their feminist supporters) of injuring the reputations of such men. (The reputations of the women are held as too puny to count).
The Ramani verdict cuts the “injured reputation” argument to size, pointing out that sexual abuse violates the constitutionally recognised rights to dignity (Article 21) and equality (Articles 14 and 15), and that (a man’s) right to reputation cannot be protected at the cost of (a woman’s) right to dignity. Akbar had argued that Ramani’s public testimony had harmed his “stellar reputation”. Citing the testimonies of Ramani and Wahab as convincing and truthful, the court “accepted the contention of the accused (Ramani) that the complainant (Akbar) is not a man of stellar reputation.”
The Ramani verdict is a huge moral vindication of the #MeToo movement, and will, hopefully, serve to deter powerful men from using the defamation law to silence survivors. But we are still very far away from ensuring workplaces free of sexual harassment for every woman, every transperson.
In the media and social media, it is the cases involving well-known individual men that tend to receive attention. But sexual harassment is a problem of institutions rather than of individuals alone. The world over, employers deploy sexual harassment as a means to discipline and control women workers.
In India and Bangladesh, at least 60 per cent of garment factory workers experience harassment at work. In Guangzhou, China, a survey found that 70 per cent of female factory workers had been sexually harassed at work, and 15 per cent quit their jobs as a result. Dina Siddiqi, writing about women garment workers in Bangladesh, notes that “a highly sexualised regime of verbal discipline, as well as more overt forms of sexual harassment, also serves to keep women in their place.” Many studies have established that this is equally true of India.
In November 2018, the All India Progressive Women’s Association, along with other trade unions, organised the event, “#MeToo: Working Class Women Share”, in Bengaluru. For factory workers, domestic workers, street vendors, sanitation and waste workers, construction workers, sex workers, labour laws or laws against sexual harassment exist only on paper. Calling out their boss as a perpetrator means an instant loss of job and pay. The women who spoke were unanimous that individual complaints were not an option: They needed unions to fight collectively. The Labour Codes passed by the central government make it all but impossible for workers to unionise. Women workers fighting sexual harassment, who stand to be silenced by these codes, need more support and attention.