The price of saying #MeToo

Shriya Mohan | Updated on December 13, 2019

Keeping the faith: People who justify mob justice undermine those fighting sexual harassment cases through institutions   -  ISTOCK.COM

Two years after scores of Indian women named and shamed their harassers as part of a global movement against sexual harassment, many are left wrestling with a legal process that bruises the accuser more than the accused. Yet they soldier on

By the time the case went to court, Shruti Chaturvedi had forgotten what her assaulter looked like. All she remembered was that she was 20 when he groped her — and six years later, she was still seeking justice.

In 2013, the then student of Ahmedabad’s St Xaviers college and her friend had been manhandled by a street vendor, she says. They yelled out, but no one came to their help. She called the police; nobody answered. When she went to the neighbouring thana, the police refused to lodge an FIR.

“For the first time I realised that nobody had taught us this: How does one go about reporting a case of abuse,” she says on the phone from Goa, where she now lives.

Chaturvedi has since moved two cities and three jobs. In February 2019, she got her first notice from the Ahmedabad High Court to appear for a case hearing. “By then I had forgotten what the shopkeeper looked like. The exact sequence of events was a blur,” she says. There were eight hearings held in 2019 before Chaturvedi, who runs the news portal, realised what she was up against.

“Each time I would be alerted about my hearing 24 hours prior to it, during which time I had to drop everything I was doing to book my tickets on the next flight out to not miss a hearing. Not showing up for a court hearing can warrant a police arrest,” she adds.

Three months ago, she decided to settle her case. “The next time you invalidate someone’s story because she didn’t file a case but only complained on social media, remember this ordeal. It’s easier tweeted than done,” she wrote in a long chain of tweets that she posted in September, explaining why she had withdrawn from a case she had hoped to win.

It’s been over two years since the #MeToo movement flooded social media timelines, unleashing names and faces of both victims and perpetrators of sexual violence and misconduct. The movement tore through several dens of workplace harassment ranging from journalism, Bollywood and the arts to academia, and the corporate sector across Indian metro cities. Yet, beneath all the naming and shaming, how many were served justice? And at what price?

Last week, at the Goa arts and literature festival, journalist Priya Ramani said in a keynote address that 159 women had spoken out after the #MeToo movement gained ground in India. “Until July 2019, 124 women had spoken up and an additional 35 women anonymously said #MeToo. Together we called out 90 people. Yet these 159 people — who spoke up at great personal cost to themselves — managed to generate so much conversation around consent, workplace behaviour and restorative justice — conversations we had never had before at this scale.”

Protecting the perpetrator

Quoting a recent report by the UN, Ramani said in Goa that there had been 36 million tweets across 195 countries using 25 hashtag variants of #MeToo from January 2016 to July 2019. “You must understand that these numbers don’t indicate that women are exaggerating what they’ve experienced. In fact, we are understating. We are just scratching the surface of the horrors of sexual violence and sexual harassment,” she said.

It’s not been an easy journey for those who’ve called out their harassers. Some are caught in lengthy court cases, some have even lost their jobs. “Some of us have been straight up told that ‘sorry we can’t hire you’ because you were part of the #MeToo movement. Many women have been moved out and transferred because they reported sexual harassment,” says Sandhya Menon, a freelance journalist and #MeToo crusader who was once politely told that nobody wanted an activist in a newsroom.

Ramani, who is fighting a defamation suit filed against her by former union minister MJ Akbar, has made more than 24 appearances in court in the last one year, each time leaving her nine-year-old daughter with the child’s grandparents. “I’m based in Bangalore and it’s exhausting to keep trekking to Delhi, but I stay focused on practical matters. I’m grateful to anyone who offers support,” she says.

Menon feels that the biggest price women have had to pay is of not being believed. Speaking about an issue that women have learnt to internalise for long, buying perpetrators impunity, has been “draining” — emotionally and mentally, she says.

In many cases, the alleged perpetrator remains unscathed. “Most perpetrators we’ve identified have still been able to enjoy a considerable sense of impunity,” says All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) secretary Kavita Krishnan. “The survivors are the ones being dragged to court. They are the ones who have to face hostility, slut-shaming and bullying in court,” says Krishnan.

In the West, there have been several high-profile cases of harassers being penalised. Krishnan cites the Stanford rape case of Chanel Miller, which led to a public movement that ultimately cost judge Aaron Persky his job in 2018, after he gave a lenient sentence to a college sex attacker. There has been no comparable movement in India, she says. “The whole point of #MeToo was to say that our processes have let us down and that they have to be more accountable.”

The world of ICCs

In 2015, when Seher Khan (name changed), a journalist with a media house in Delhi, filed a complaint about her male colleague’s prolonged inappropriate physical and verbal behaviour towards her, she felt as if she was knocking on a forbidden door. The administration was unsympathetic — and, worse, suspicious. She was told that her case was the first instance of sexual harassment that the organisation had come across. The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), set up by the organisation in accordance with government rules on sexual harassment at the workplace, eventually fired the colleague, but not before making Khan feel as though she had overreacted, costing a family man with two children his livelihood. Nobody seemed to care about the toll it took on her work, she rues in an email interview to BLink.

But the mood has changed in the last two years, many believe. “The difference between pre- and post-#MeToo is the reputation risk for an organisation. Earlier, establishments tried to resolve complaints informally. Even though ICCs existed, they weren’t robust. Now companies see themselves in the middle of a crossfire and they want to play by the book,” says Vishal Kedia, founder of Comply Karo, an organisation empanelled by the ministry of women and child development as a resource company for providing PoSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment at workplace) training. Kedia and his team have trained over 400 companies across the country, holding sensitisation workshops and helping them build robust ICCs.

Marching forth: Vishal Kedia (centre) and his team at Comply Karo found a 14 per cent increase in sexual harassment cases since 2018, which they credit to increased awareness   -  IMAGE COURTESY: COMPLY KARO


Post #MeToo, Kedia believes that companies have been seeking to put accessible systems in place for gender justice. According to a September study by Comply Karo, data from the PoSH committees of 100 companies listed with the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) show that such cases had increased by 14 per cent from 2018 to 2019, indicating that more women were lodging complaints.

“This goes to show that more women are aware that they can come forward. Today they know that the organisations are serious about providing their employees justice,” he says. But Kedia also believes this is just the tip of the iceberg because the numbers largely comprise women who are victims of repeat offences. Victims are still willing to give their harassers a long rope when it comes to abusive behaviour, he notes.

But the last two years also underline how difficult it has been for women who have lodged official complaints. When Simran Dutt (name changed), a doctor working for a paramilitary organisation, was sexually harassed by her senior officer, she approached her ICC.

The ICC immediately transferred the officer — but also moved Dutt, a single mother of an eight-year-old child, out of the Capital and into a remote part of Assam. The transfer meant that she would have to shift base, change her daughter’s school in the middle of term, and make frequent visits to Delhi for the ICC hearings. Over the course of six months, the ICC had scheduled 28 hearings, which meant that she had to leave her child behind and visit Delhi every week. She filed a case against her department in the Delhi high court, which ultimately got her a stay order on the transfer.

“The ICC might have been functioning actively, but in such situations we see that the organisation support can often be completely missing,” says Naveen Nath, a Supreme Court lawyer handling Dutt’s case.

In law, we trust

Earlier this year, Jyotsna Singh, who works for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders in the Capital, was assaulted by two men on a motorcycle when she was in a busy residential-cum-market area in south Delhi. She managed to take photographs of the number plate of the bike. She also drafted a report and an FIR was lodged at a neighbouring police station.

She had alerted the police not to share her contact details mentioned in the FIR with the accused. The police agreed. Yet, three months after she had appeared in front of the magistrate to recount her case, four men who claimed to be family members of the perpetrators landed up at her doorstep to talk to her about the incident.

“I had no protection. The police had clearly forgotten to protect my identity while issuing them a notice with a copy of the FIR,” says Singh.

She has now moved into a new residence and has appeared for several court hearings. A sudden knock on the door still sends a shiver down her spine. Yet, Singh says that she is not giving up the battle, despite the fact that with the state of overburdened courts, it could take a decade or more for the case to be settled.

“When people justify the recent Telangana encounter (when four alleged rapists and killers were gunned down by the police), saying institutional justice takes so long, I think they are disrespecting women like me who are trying to fight it out through institutions, demanding that our judicial institutions function as they should,” Singh says.

As Ramani pointed out in her keynote address, it is important for women to speak out. “Let’s not make it something special. Something that’s praiseworthy,” she said. “I’ve found that speaking up can be addictive, also liberating. I highly recommend it. I believe we don’t speak up enough.”

Shriya Mohan

Published on December 13, 2019

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