U-turning the sexual abuse culture

Oct 08, 2018, 07:30 IST | Aditya Sinha

As the heart-wrenching stories of harassment continue to emerge, I promise to listen unconditionally and try to stop the cycle of abuse

U-turning the sexual abuse culture
Illustration/ Ravi Jadhav

Aditya SinhaIt's heart-wrenching to hear young women speak about the trauma they suffered at the hands of predatory men, be it film personalities, stand-up comics, best-selling authors, or journalists. It's saddening it took so long. In journalism, it should have come long ago. My wife, a former journalist, and I spoke about it — triggered by brave tweets about a former editor — because we were all colleagues at India's largest newspaper once upon a time. Some of the things we heard had been an open 

secret, and it all appeared to point to a pattern of behaviour. There is always a pattern of behaviour.

It's probably obvious that the main problem is with men's inability to keep their zippers shut, but also the power they acquire, which gives them a sense of privilege or entitlement. Perhaps they feel it affords them inappropriate, or even criminal, behaviour. This highlights how it is men, with the exception of some like Mrinal Pande or Barkha Dutt, who have dominated the top positions in the media. This is pure patriarchy. Is it any surprise that a recent survey by the World Economic Forum in India found that one in every three companies preferred to hire men (while only one in ten preferred to hire women)? And it is less of a surprise how much men abuse their power — an executive at a newspaper I worked at was notorious for inappropriate touching and unsubtle sexual conversation with junior colleagues. The late
Vinod Mehta once told me at a farewell party when we worked at the Pioneer in the 1990s that an editor should never approach a colleague, because it was wrong; also because it undermined his authority.

As an editor, I've had to deal with sexual harassment complaints, and I asked the human resources head at my last newspaper about dealing with such matters. He said that his people hardly ever got complaints from editorial; it was from marketing that they get complaints, seemingly every other day. (This is not an excuse for crimes in editorial.) Marketing departments pride themselves on their aggression, and at that particular newspaper, the department heads were rough in their demeanour. So that leads me to believe that even in urban India, it will take an unforeseeably long time till the majority of men — and not just a slice of the English-speaking population — start behaving respectfully towards women.

What's worse is the attitude in vernacular India. Many of my own cousins behave in a feudal and patriarchal manner that betrays an unmistakable contempt for women. It is another thing that their wives scare the pants off of them. Their attitude is typified by politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav, who said once after a spate of rapes in UP, that "boys will be boys". Or Haryana's chief minister, ML Khattar, who while campaigning in the state Assembly election, blamed such crimes on women's clothing. If our political heads were to start talking less like ISIS, and instead woke up, the country could make progress. Perhaps the generational change in Indian politics is not happening fast enough, though I have to say that when I was 21, my elderly landlord asserted that India's literacy problem would end when all the old people died. Obviously, generational change does not dissolve a problem (in fact, many of the staunchest conservatives in my extended family are its youngest members). As a society, we have to be more activist, but with the anti-liberal global backlash of late, I'm not overly optimistic.

A youngster complained to me about the #MeToo movement, saying it would rob romance of its spontaneity. Well, perhaps it is best to keep romance out of the office, for starters — even though I had an office romance that led to marriage, and lots of TV shows and films depict office romances in a non-sinister manner. Even if in India many don't have access to bars and dance clubs to meet potential partners, the way that Westerners do, it is not as if they are socially entombed; social and cultural events abound where one may make friends (though, admittedly, even a Durga Puja can produce a stalker or two). Or perhaps, after boundaries are set, manners are learnt, and roles clearly defined, the workplace romance can again resume. After all, we want gender relations to improve, not disappear.

Lastly, what will I do? As this process continues, I will listen to women, unconditionally. If I have ever said anything that a former colleague found inappropriate, upsetting, offensive or just plain discomforting but kept quiet about, then I'm sorry. Forgive me. I apologise for not U-turning the culture that normalises sexual discrimination and sexual harassment, and I promise to do what I can to change it whenever I can, wherever I can.

Aditya Sinha's latest book, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, co-written with AS Dulat and Asad Durrani, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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