Some years ago a journalist friend casually described an incident when her lechy boss was chasing her around the office conference room table. Luckily for her, he was slow and ponderous, so she outran him easily. She told me he had to watch her flee to understand that she really wasn’t interested. The fact that when she was relating this we weren’t both horrified says a lot about our opinions on Indian men in general.
If there’s one thing the last week has revealed, it’s that lewd jerks are everywhere. They’re in film, TV, law, comedy, and most importantly, in journalism. For me, these last few days have unleashed a flood of unpleasant memories. I feel enraged when I think of — forget harassment — just the massively inappropriate comments we have had to internalise as a working professional. At my first job in a news magazine 18 years ago, I suggested a story on epidurals, an injection that made childbirth pain-free. A senior editor asked: “Are you planning to have a baby?” On the scale of horror stories of dodgy male bosses, I know this is incredibly trivial. To all my female brethren who have suffered so much worse, I apologise for bringing it up. But, in what world can it be okay for a 50-year-old man to ask a 24-year-old woman what her birthing plans are? It’s not wrong for me to hold men to a standard I follow myself, which is to stay the hell out of anyone’s personal life in the office.
Point to note, this 50-year-old editor is not a terrible human being. He’s just a dolt who has no clue about decorum. When I related his stupefying comment to a colleague, she laughed and told me he was the king of banality and I shouldn’t take him seriously. Meanwhile, said editor has thrived for decades making such-like pedestrian observations, blissfully unaware of the women he makes uncomfortable with his bizarre attempts at conversation.
Harassment isn’t just explicit innuendo. It’s also talking rubbish and forcing women to listen to you because you can. This is an inner dialogue many women struggle with, of how much they should be willing to take before expressing discomfiture. We don’t want to make a big deal about everything. It isn’t so much to ask that men check themselves before saying something ridiculous.
In the years that followed, I was able to consider this 50-year-old dolt with more perspective when it became clear to me that English media is, believe it or not, a haven of propriety compared to regional journalism. In the Hindi news channel I worked at, sexism was rampant. One of the top male anchors who fancied himself as a Don Juan of sorts, had what was referred to laughingly as a harem. Nobody complained but, as we know now, power imbalances exist between a boss and subordinate even when relationships are consensual. Juan’s whimsies were endlessly pandered to. I distinctly remember a bright young reporter who had the temerity to refuse his advances. He promptly put her on the night shift so he could continue to harass her with impunity. She complained to the Executive Editor, a decent chap, but nothing was done. Her father even called the proprietor, who, in all fairness, did want to sack the offender but allowed himself to be talked out of it pretty easily. The disillusioned female reporter, at the ripe old age of 23, quietly left.
This is where the good men fail us. The proprietor, who carries himself with a cool imperiousness, knew exactly what was going on. What was stopping him from ticking off this creep with a warning that, boss, if I hear you’re misbehaving, I’ll sack you. When you’re worth several hundred crores and are in the news business — ostensibly dedicated to the truth — is it really so difficult to stand up for what’s right? Something actor Navneet Nishan said, stuck with me. Nishan said she slapped TV legend Alok Nath really hard, after enduring four years of harassment. I urge my female colleagues not to wait that long. In my own meandering experience dealing with jerks, I have found threats of violence make men like these cower with fear. I recently told a guy at my gym that I would break his teeth if he stared at me. Now he darts in the opposite direction when he sees me approaching. This may not sound like an entirely sane approach and it’s certainly not very ladylike. It’s fully legitimate, however, that instead of swallowing our pain, we speak up and, occasionally, lash out.