We Need Laws Against Sexual Harassment At Work, Even If They’re Problematic Sometimes

Posted: January 24, 2019

Why are we so terrified of the laws against sexual harassment at work “because they could be misused”? But any laws could be misused, so what do we have against something that protects women?

My husband was leaning over the payment counter, signaling the sales woman entering data on her computer, preparing the receipt. I was right behind him in the queue. Actually, not behind him. I was diagonally behind him. The way we stand with our family in airport or shopping mall queues. A subtle declaration that we are together…

The lady said something about my husband staring at her. He gave her a WTF kind of reply. He was leaning to show her what he wanted to buy. She alleged that he was all over her.

‘Excuse me.’ I said to her. ‘Have you even looked at yourself in the mirror?’

She said something about how women are not safe anymore with men ogling them from everywhere. I told her how my husband has so many women in his team, all comfortable working with him. No one has ever had a problem. She opened her mouth to speak but I could not catch her words. ‘Tring…… tring…Tringggg’.

I woke up. Ran to the door. The maid told me she had been ringing the bell for the while.

It was some relief that this weird encounter I had was just a dream. Though I was still traumatized that even in a dream, I was capable of telling a woman that she was too ugly for my husband to flirt with! Is it natural to have such a protective, maybe even blind streak when it comes to our men?

#Metoo has opened floodgates

There is more to the Metoo movement – other than the FIRs, the bails, and defamations suits. It has consequences on a very human level. One of the things at the core of any woman’s individuality is her sexuality.  If someone attempts to violate it, she feels deeply shamed.

I will have to tell my husband, that guy touched my thighs..

Similarly, for a man one of the allegations that could shake and shame him to the core, is that he could be a lecher.

My mother will get to know I asked that woman for a one-night stand..

Shame is the most powerful master emotion. It’s the fear that we are not good enough Brene Brown

Post the  Metoo movement, there has been a rise in reported cases of sexual harassment not just in media but in workplaces also. Last month, an MNC employee was suspended following a complaint of sexual harassment by two women.  He committed suicide, leaving a note for his wife, that he was innocent. Yet, he could not face the world, as they would see him through accusing eyes. The wife of the deceased has filed a complaint against the company, the two women and the Internal Complaints Committee (“ICC”).

(Given the sensitivity of the issue, and the matter being sub-judice, we have refrained from publishing names of the persons and the company involved).

The thought of coming home to see your husband hanging, directly as a result of what could be a false complaint has disturbed me to the point that I probably had that dream. But as a working woman, I have faced some kind of harassment at some point. Do the women who filed a complaint deserve to go to jail for filing a complaint through proper channels, as per the law?  Do the committee members deserve to go to jail for doing their job? And most importantly, was the deceased a victim of the law?

When it all began

During the 1990s, a Rajasthan state government employee Bhanwari Devi who tried to prevent child marriage as part of her duties as a worker of the Women Development Programme was raped by the landlords of the community. The rape survivor did not get justice from Rajasthan High Court and the rapists were allowed to go free. This enraged a women’s rights group called Vishaka that filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India. This case brought to the attention of the Supreme Court of India, “the absence of domestic law occupying the field, to formulate effective measures to check the evil of sexual harassment of working women at all work places.” In 1997, the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgment in the same Vishaka case laying down guidelines to be followed by establishments in dealing with complaints about sexual harassment.

The Vishakha guidelines were superseded by the the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed in 2013, commonly known as POSH.

The Act provides an inclusive definition of sexual harassment, lays down the procedures for filing a complaint and inquiry, and the action to be taken depending on the degree of harassment. The Act mandates that every employer constitute an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at each office or branch with 10 or more employees.

Intent of the law

Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped as a direct result of her professional responsibilities. There was a need for such a law.  Economic independence is at the core of a woman’s rights. She should not be subject to any kind of stress, discomfort just because she is stepping out of the house to earn a living.

Most cases today, may not involve a crime as gruesome, and undebatable as rape. The cases we see today may involve verbal advances, quid pro quo arrangements, request for sexual favours, inappropriate physical contact, and retaliation. We live in a culture where it is common to get friendly with colleagues of the opposite gender. A lunch outside of work, a little dancing and drinking at a party, dropping a female home, dating, and relationships is common. Where do we draw the boundaries ? Somebody could have been comfortable with a certain action or word of someone in the past. But maybe not in the present. After all, consent in a civilized society is required each time. Someone could have a great ‘character record’ with most women, and yet be different with someone else. Interest, opportunity, a momentary lapse in judgment are all factors that could have dire consequences on career.

Some cases – True and False

Jahanvi (name changed) was working in a company for the past 10 years. Her role was changed, and so was her supervisor. Her new boss pestered her to be ‘friends’ with him. Unsuspicious of his intentions, Jahanvi would agree to lunch with him. He started getting more vocal with his advances, pestering her with requests for a relationship.

Jahanvi had no interest in him. But since she was reporting to him directly, she was not able to dismiss him completely. She would still interact with him in a friendly manner. One day, he hugged her in the car, while dropping her from work. Jahanvi was not able to react at that moment. But after few days, she filed a complaint against him.

There was proof of his messages to her on WhatsApp. He was asked to resign. But what if there had been no evidence? Would it have been possible for her to prove her case? Misconduct usually happens in confined spaces with no audience. Who would the committee have believed then when it is his word against hers situation?

In another absurd case I read about, a man and a woman working together were involved in an extra-marital affair. The husband of the woman got to know. In order to make it look like she had no consent in involvement, the woman filed a case of sexual harassment against the man, keeping him in confidence. During the investigation, the man realized he may face serious consequences and confessed in panic. This was a false case.

Let me add here, that inability to prove harassment does not make the case, a false case. A false case is a case wherein the complainant at the outset knows for a fact that she has not faced harassment. Yet, she goes ahead and files a complaint. It could even involve fabricating evidence to implicate the respondent.

A humble request

I always talk about my rights. My mother on the other hand, talks about responsibilities. Who is right?

The truth is, with rights come responsibilities. It is good to be aware of our rights and exercise them when needed. I would request all women to live a life of dignity, and not let anyone take away that dignity whether it is the husband, in-laws, boyfriend, or employer.

However, misusing the laws that provide us with right to live with dignity could possibly be the worst legacy we leave behind for our kind.

Stop blaming feminism!

Having said the above, people who do not understand feminism blame it as the root cause of all problems. Yes, false cases do happen. And no. We ‘feminists‘ do not condone it.

But so does sexual harassment. And it is unbelievably common.

Are we theoretically not supportive of the thought that if a woman is genuinely facing harassment, she should have a redressal procedure in place?  Would we rather watch harassers walk free?

All laws have a potential of being misused. People get wrongly implicated for murder as well.

Does that mean we should not have a law in place murder? 

Image source: a still from the short film Let the Voice be Yours

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