Updated: November 7, 2017 5:36:35 pm
Everywhere you look, sexual harassment charges seem to be crawling out of the woodwork. The storm began with Harvey Weinstein and swept Akshay Kumar in its wake, and there are no signs of it being over.
With literally decades’ worth of charges piling up against the Hollywood studio boss, the question everybody is asking is this: “Why didn’t anyone speak up before?” Way back in 2013, during the Oscars nominations for Supporting Actress, Seth MacFarlane pointedly joked, “Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” So, it was definitely an open secret, if at all there’s such a thing. But, why would anyone not raise a red flag almost immediately, when such unsavoury incidents occur?
Because…sexist people exist everywhere and the incidents are so casual and commonplace that you learn to shrug and let them pass. Most women have figured out their own unique way of handling such passes, sometimes with a smile, at other times with a veiled threat. It’s made more complicated in a society like ours, since most Indian parents, overprotective siblings or spouses would just ask the woman to stay home and avoid the workplace, and thus, the predator. That’s why the choice to simply grin and bear it, hoping it goes away.
It’s not always as blatant as someone asking to join them in a shower, but just a persistent sort of attention that gets your alarm bells ringing or sets off what you call a woman’s instinct. As one senior remarked to me once, “He was just paying you a compliment.” No wonder then, that women are afraid to put themselves out there and confront the predator, since they don’t want to be seen as making a mountain of a molehill. Plus, at times, you just want to get on with your job, firmly side-stepping such issues. Nobody wants to be “that girl” who kicked the hornet’s nest. Since it’s lonely out there.
Like when law student Raya Sarkar, who put out a list of Indian academics seen as sexual predators in a Facebook post, many women—feminists, at that—rose in protest in support of their male colleagues. A few men, though, commendably said they were open to being under the scanner. However, we seem to be missing the point. It’s not about who’s right or wrong, but the debate itself. After all, what constitutes sexual harassment? Is it just about being caught staring at a woman for over 14 seconds?
When Twinkle Khanna lashed out at stand-up comic Mallika Dua for not being a sport over her husband and actor Akshay Kumar’s now infamous comment about “bajao-ing” her, it caused a furore, prompting the celebrity author to apologise and reiterate her feminist credentials. Ironically, Dua, too, reacted only after her father posted against the actor’s comments and its sexist undertones. A natural reaction, since when something like this happens, you do a double-take and ask yourself, “What was that exactly?” and process it later, when you’re alone or with girlfriends who understand. But, that’s what’s wrong with it…this is a debate we should all be having as a society. We need to be on the same page when it comes to what counts for sexual harassment.
Which is why it’s wonderful news that Netflix has cancelled the final season of House of Cards, after lead actor Kevin Spacey came under fire for having harassed a male colleague when the latter was a minor (though some would argue that it was a male who was harassed, not a female!). However, in recent news, Playboy too, put the bio-pic on founder Hugh Hefner on hold after its director Brett Ratner was charged with sexual misconduct by several women, stating unequivocally that “the behaviour was completely unacceptable”. This sends out a clear message, proving that it’s not just one person’s fight (man or woman) against a stray incident, but a line of propriety being drawn to make the workplace safe against sexual harassment. Shaming the perpetrators isn’t enough, since most wield tremendous power and influence, but a threat of losing their careers would be a more powerful weapon. So there’s nowhere to run and hide as the spotlight shifts from the victim to the predator. But, till then, let the debate continue.
(The writer is an editorial consultant and co-founder of The Goodwill Project. She tweets @anuvee. Views expressed are personal.)
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