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Sunday, April 11, 2021

‘But there’s no proof!’ How fair is bringing back the #MeToo accused at work?

We live in a society that has normalised male predatory behaviour for years. Rampant sexism in schools is ignored. In everyday conversations, sexist remarks are treated casually, or just dismissed. Cinema and media glorify toxic masculinity.

Sexual assault on women has become a daily affair. On the streets and in the bus, at schools and in colleges, on movie sets and reality show sets, if offices and at home — we are safe nowhere.

The world saw a light at the end of the tunnel some time back when the #MeToo movement began gaining momentum. The movement focused on the experiences of sexual violence survivors and gave a voice to those whose woes had remained unheard.

The movement started off with women calling out powerful men for their sexual misconduct — and powerful men, at the end of the day, have the law in their hands. The Harvey Weinstein case stands out as an exception, however, probably because of the massive number of people who came out against him.

With time, sadly, the movement began fading as people started focusing on the next big issue.

#MeToo has been spoken about widely. It has been discussed and written about by numerous people and on various platforms.

An aspect that we have failed to reflect on, however, is what happened to the powerful men who were accused in the movement.

An argument raised by several people, and which is continues to be raised today, is this: If there is no proof against the accused, how can you destroy their career?

How powerful men accused in #MeToo came back to the limelight

Even after Bollywood called out several men for sexual misconduct, they were brought back to the limelight. 

When singer Sona Mohapatra accused music composer Anu Malik of sexual misconduct, he was made to step down as a judge on the Sony TV show “Indian Idol.” But shocking as it is, he was later reinstated.

Director Vikas Bahl’s name was initially removed from the credits of the movie “Super 30” following a sexual misconduct complaint. However, after clearance from an internal committee, it was reinstated. What is important to note is that the internal committee did not involve the survivor.

Filmmaker Subhash Kapoor was initially dropped from a movie produced by Aamir Khan, as the former was on trial for molestation. He soon backtracked, however, claiming that only a court could establish whether he was guilty or not.

These are only a handful of examples of people accused in #MeToo being brought back to work. 

The important question to be raised here is, how comfortable would women in the industries be around them? How fair is the fact that they were reinstated?

How do you prove sexual assault?

As a woman writing on this issue, I feel disgusted and also scared at the thought of having to associate with men accused of sexual assault. The argument that men too are framed is very weak, because let’s face the truth, that is extremely rare. On the other hand, men have been perpetrating violence and sexual violence on women for thousands of decades now.

There are medical tests to ascertain whether a woman was raped after she accuses a man of the crime. However, rape is not the only form of sexual assault, and not all the forms can be proven. While not all kinds of sexual misconduct can be proven, each needs to be taken equally seriously. 

I have heard people justifying the fact that men accused of sexual misconduct are brought back to work because you cannot destroy their career without any proof, by only taking a woman at her word.

Sure, whether or not a woman is raped can be proven, but how can you prove an inappropriate touch? We definitely do not have CCTV cameras everywhere.

How can you prove that a man at your workplace directed a lewd remark at you?

You may be sitting in an empty room and a man known to you may come around and brush past you in an inappropriate manner. How will you prove that he did so, if you are not taken at your word?

This way, more than half the men accused of sexual misconduct in this world would be walking free.

To understand how women would feel if they are forced to be around men accused of sexual assault, I spoke to a few working women.

“People who argue for men’s rights in the wake of an important movement like #MeToo, which does nothing but make apparent the fact that it is in fact, women, who have been the disproportionate bearers of sexual harassment — are doing nothing but making a feeble attempt at asserting their own identity,” says Kajari Saha, Research Scholar, IGIDR.

“Women have been discriminated against for centuries and discrimination still exists in several spheres – that’s why you have still have reservation quotas for women in boards in corporate offices. Nobody is denying the significance of men’s rights, just like nobody is denying the significance of the rights of ‘white’ people when fighting for the rights of ‘black’ people. No movement is perfect, and #MeToo isn’t an exception. It has been misused but at the end of the day, what matters is what stands out,” she adds.

Sayantani Nath, journalist and co-founder of The Siyahi Columns, says that it is unimaginable how the survivors feel with the perpetrators still at large and capable of repeating their actions with other women. 

“The first course of action advised with #MeToo cases is to believe the survivor. In reality, that is still a far cry from how women have to face rigorous questioning and judgement before others are ready to believe her. More often than not, subtle forms of harassment go unreported as women have lost faith in the POSH procedure at workplaces, or simply afraid of endangering their own careers,” Sayantani says.

“I feel this argument about ensuring the careers of #MeToo accused do not face setback, is highly problematic. Would anyone dare to say the same about a thief or arsonist? Then why is crime against women so inconsequential? If someone accused of #MeToo joins my workplace, with proof or otherwise, my first instinct would be to avoid them as much as possible,” she adds.

Shraddha, a journalist, says that letting the accused get back to work forces you to think whether all the hullabaloo happened for real or was it a figment of imagination.

“Anu Malik is back, untarnished. Suhel Seth is back to serving sermons on social media and being supported even by the most woke people. Even the high profile MJ Akbar case is inconclusive in the eyes of the court. It’s all disappointing, but hardly shocking,” Shraddha says.

“ It is true that every accused is innocent until proven otherwise, but having said that, in case of sexual harassment, it is advised to believe the victim. Of course there has to be a strong mechanism at work places to deal with this issue. It is mandated by law that every workplace with 10+ employees must have a posh committee, however I am not sure how true that is on ground,” she adds.

Reethu Ravi, a journalist who hails from Kerala, says that it is saddening how subtle forms of harassment are dismissed by comments such as “oh he probably didn’t mean it” or “you might have taken it in the wrong sense” etc.

“What I have always felt is that if someone made an inappropriate remark at you or touched you inappropriately, there is always a chance that they could have done it to others too,” Reethu says.

“I remember once talking to a female colleague about an inappropriate behaviour of a male colleague towards me. And it turned out that a couple of other women had similar experiences with the same guy. So, I think if you ever face any sort of harassment at the workplace you should talk about it to colleagues you’re comfortable with and see if others had similar experiences,” she adds.

“Every workplace has POSH seminars, where they advise a woman to speak up if they face harassment. They advise you to first speak to the person doing it and then to the HR. Usually, it is expected to stop if a person is made aware that their actions are causing discomfort to another individual, but I am not sure how effective that will be. CCTV cameras and a strong POSH/HR team needs to exist in every workplace. I would not be very comfortable working after hours or in a project with lesser people if a person accused in MeToo  is involved, even if it is without proof,” says Aishwarya, Associate (Graphics & Design), Logolepsy Publishers.

To bring about a change, we have to begin by doing what is most important — believing the survivors. Survivors cannot prove it when a colleague comments on her “short” clothes or when their boss makes them feel uncomfortable with his body language. 

We need to create dialogue. We need to stop letting powerful men get away. We need to stand by what is right. 

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