By doing nothing,institutions foster hostile sexual environments.
Once upon a time,facts amounting to sexual harassment did not socially exist,let alone constitute a legal claim. Behaviour such as sexual innuendo,sexually offensive gestures,sexually explicit material,sexual expletives,hostile workplace environments,job-related decisions based on implied requests for sexual favours were,well,just the way things were it was systemic in nature. These were common life experiences that our mothers,and perhaps their mothers,and yes,we too,simply managed. When it did get legally recognised by the landmark Vishaka judgment in 1997,sexual harassment moved from the primitive language of eve teasing,outraging modesty,light-hearted banter to be framed in terms of a fundamental constitutional right to equality and dignity for women at work.
Vishaka envisaged that women might finally go to work with the legitimate expectation that their workplace would be free of any of the overt or implied sexual harms described above that women would be accepted as colleagues and equals and not as sex objects in a context of unequal power. And that the responsibility for ensuring that women no longer have to dodge the offensive sexual proclivities of colleagues and bosses would lie with the employer or those in positions of responsibility. Or so it was thought.
Sixteen years later,those projecting themselves as the custodians of such basic and fundamental expectations,be it a Tehelka,the Supreme Court of India or even the state,have barely,if at all,complied with Vishaka. Had they done so,the law intern and the journalist would have entered a workplace that prioritised the prevention of workplace sexual harassment,encouraged its employees or members to speak up about it and cultivated an environment supportive of their claims. They would have been equipped with language that understood sexual harassment as a violation of constitutional equality at work and hailed leadership that promptly condemned sexually inappropriate behaviour (irrespective of the offenders status). As a last resort,they would have had access to a trained,skilled and capable complaints committee,with third party expertise,to hear their complaint empathetically and through an informed lens.
They got none of this.
In the absence of any institutional compliance,both women were subjected to ad hoc responses based on systemic sexist assumptions. Summoned before a panel of judges,seven meetings and three affidavits later,the law intern described the experience as being looked at with suspicious eyes. Even as she spoke of three other cases of [sexual harassment by the same judge,the former chief justice of India,Altamas Kabir,publicly ranged himself in defence of Justice Ganguly: I dont believe he can commit such an offence. Where have we heard that one before? The same chief justice had,just a year back,publicly supported the Delhi protests against sexual violence. As for the journalist,she made her complaint to the managing editor,a proclaimed feminist,only to find the language of her sexual violation publicly diluted into an untoward incident,as a covert means to protect the institution.
Both responses give rise to a fundamental question. What does an institution become when,apart from legal non-compliance,it has to address sexual harassment by not just one of its own,but the powerful blue-eyed boys,those institutional darlings who symbolise the continued…