Women are simply not safe
A simple statement by a young female supervisor in Chennai that she’d “love to continue working here (Flextronics manufacturing facility in Chennai) because this place gives me security” assumes grim significance in the backdrop of last week’s traumatic events. I was interviewing Uma Maheshwari, an electrician’s daughter, who by sheer hard work had made a mark.
After what happened to the young journalist allegedly sexually assaulted by her boss, mentor and family friend Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka, a man she trusted and respected, Uma’s response reiterates the predominant desire of young Indian women for a safe working environment. The charge against Tejpal is further proof that women are threatened more in their homes and workplaces by those known or close to them than by strangers in public places.
The complainant has now resigned from Tehelka.
The young journalist’s heartbreaking email to the Managing Editor of Tehelka, Shoma Choudhury, who ironically wears the label of activist-feminist-journalist, and her astonishingly crass response to that mail, has opened a can of worms. And pointed an accusing finger at the media which constantly demands accountability for wrongdoing from the rest of the world.
The social media has swung into action and every word and gesture of the principal protagonist, Shoma — as Tejpal has conveniently gone behind a stone wall as far as public space is concerned — is being scrutinised and condemned outright. Right from the word go, the aggrieved journalist’s female boss, who should have acted upon her subordinate’s complaint of being exploited and outraged, was not only seen to be on Tejpal’s side but was offensively combative and arrogant while handling the media.
Hostility oozing from every pore, she first confronted journalists by contemptuously asking them if they were the “aggrieved party” and called it a “crazy media show”. Next, she asked the anchor of a TV channel if he was “a journalist” and whether she “should speak in Spanish to be understood”! But as the Goa police began a serious investigation, she climbed down from her high horse and now appears apprehensive about what will happen next.
As for Tejpal, the flamboyant man who often came through as a narcissist in love with himself and his writing, his fake contrition and “atonement” and ridiculous recusing of himself from the top position at the publication just for six months, have only made him a caricature of the righteous, investigative journalist he once claimed to be.
It remains to be seen if he ends up for long years in prison, because, make no mistake about it, from the complainant’s account, what he subjected her to was nothing short of rape under the amended law on sexual assault. Totally condemnable were horrendous attempts by Tejpal’s deputy to suggest there was “another version”. Add to this, her boss’ flip-flops that he “misread the situation”, his asking for CCTV footage from the elevator to be released to give the “correct picture”, and messages to his friends that what happened was “consensual”. One who knew how to keep the lift in circuit by jamming buttons should have also known that hotel lifts don’t have CCTV cameras.
MEN AND POWER
But more than Tejpal or Shoma, this sordid episode is about the dignity and self-esteem of a young woman on the threshold of her career being compromised and her trust in her mentors shattered. It raises serious questions about the safety of women at the workplace.
As more and more women — qualified, competent, confident, and many simply brilliant — enter the workplace, are they becoming objects of not only lust, but also contempt, for their male bosses or co-workers? The number of stories that are now emerging show one clear trend… most women who are sexually harassed at the workplace face this torture from their supervisors, managers or bosses. At the core of such abhorrent behaviour is the male assumption that a woman is easy game; that men in positions of power take it as their birthright to paw, grope, leer at or pounce upon any woman working under them who might catch their fancy. In this particular case, the journalist, a close friend of Tejpal’s daughter, kept pleading with him to spare her. His response: Did she want to retain her job?
That raises another vital question. Women who are subjected to unwelcome sexual attention from their bosses or colleagues don’t, or can’t, always quit. At Goa too, after being subjected to such tremendous torture, the young journalist went about her chores at the Thinkfest organised by Tehelka because she didn’t want to lose her job, as she points out in her mail to Shoma.
Unfortunately, the system is so loaded against women subordinates that in most complaints that surface, it is the aggrieved woman who is made to leave. Most often the cosy club of men ensures that the offending predator is spared, so that he can perhaps harass more women. And trust me, the complaints that surface are only the tip of the iceberg; there are huge numbers of cases where women don’t even raise the issue with their family members or close friends. Or are filled with self-doubts on whether they are making “a mountain out of a molehill”. So the crucial issue is about making the workplace safe for women. Returning to Uma, probably she feels “safe” with her present boss, but what if he were to leave?
While there are no easy answers to these questions, mercifully, slowly but surely we’re seeing courageous women coming forward to make complaints… law interns sexually harassed by a Supreme Court judge; another young journalist in Mumbai who was gang-raped, and now this complainant.
It is deeply saddening that journalists claiming to speak on behalf of the marginalised, the underdogs — Tehelka has made sterling contributions such as unravelling the criminal conspiracy in the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 — have behaved so horrendously… one is charged with sexually assaulting a subordinate and the other of attempts to cover up and obfuscate the truth.
The halo around the media disappeared long ago, but anger at the profession from social media indicates the plummeting respect for the profession. There is already a buzz in the journalist fraternity about women facing sexual harassment in several media organisations.
Questions are raised on how young, beautiful women land plum assignments, also because they stand a better chance of getting appointments with senior politicians/bureaucrats and hence a “scoop”. There are whispers about how some women use their gender and charm to quickly climb up the ladder. Like the doctor’s need to heal himself, the media too needs to set its house in order before trying to reform the whole world, and provide a safe and equitable working environment for its female employees.
A pertinent question in a mass mail to journalists, which I got this morning, flagged the issue of “relentless telecast of one alleged rape story” while “countless (women) raped in Muzaffarnagar” failed to move the media’s conscience. Is it because, juxtaposed against “glamorous stories”, the “cries of poor women” can’t be heard?