I often wonder what I would have done in journalist and personal hero Priya Ramani’s place if I were intimidated with a defamation suit, carried on the shoulders of a 97-lawyer list.
I think, I would have caved, made peace with the fact that I knew my truth and at this point, it didn’t matter if the world didn’t believe me. And then, around 3 pm on Wednesday, 17 February, the court began reading out the verdict on the defamation suit, journalist and MP MJ Akbar had filed against Priya.
The court acquitted her.
I see a picture on my Twitter feed of Priya positively shining of righteous victory, and I know then, I wouldn’t have caved. Nor would have any of the women who called out powerful men as sexual harassers, if we could help it.
What it made me feel was what hundreds of women may have felt – pride, relief, victory, accompanied by goosebumps and tears – when they heard the court hold up Priya’s truth and her steadfast insistence on backing herself.
The Struggle of Being Discredited for Speaking Up
It wasn’t only because we understood what Priya had been through over the last two years – more than 50 court trials and innumerable trips to New Delhi from her home in Bengaluru – it was also because, to me, the judgment reflected the words of a mature judge, one who showed empathy to women who are sexually harassed at the workplace. This was something I did not expect.
In a world where enough women, let alone men, have accused those who have spoken up with their stories in the #MeToo movement, of not following due process in addressing sexual harassment, the wise words of the judgment, its clarity, empathy and its strong basis in the Constitution, were a vindication of the anger that I felt at innumerable times I have had to justify, in person and on social media, why I and so many other women chose to tell our stories online.
“Article 21 and the right to equality is guaranteed under the Constitution. She has full right to put up her case in any platform of her choice,” the judgment read.
It further said that a woman has the right to put up her grievance even after decades. This, to me, is a judgment that has deliberated upon the process of abuse and what it does to the dignity of a person – a judgment so grounded in humanity that it sees sexual abuse at the workplace in all its complexity. Ask all the women who were challenged with “Why didn’t you bring it up then? Why now?”
The Way Forward to Tackle Workplace Harassment
While we celebrate Priya and this win – which feels so intensely personal – it is important to remember that she went through this with the express purpose of making it better for the rest of us.
This verdict and the judgment must open the doors for employers to take seriously their sexual harassment policy. It is the moment for corporates and other kinds of employers to overcome their tendency to react in a knee-jerk fashion post facto, and go beyond fulfilling the law in letter.
A POSH training once a year, a hurriedly-constituted IC, or, in extreme cases, intimidation of the complainant are still a reality in our country. We take an online course, sign a pledge and the conversation ends there.
To a conscionable workplace, this verdict should ideally provide the impetus to employers and employees alike to open up the conversation and examine their own attitudes towards creating an equitable workplace.
More Survivors Will Speak Up After This Verdict
Being sanguine and letting this opportunity take a closer look at how employers can effect fundamental change in cultures and attitudes towards sexual harassment would be a mistake.
If anything, this verdict has shown complainants and survivors that they can speak up if they want to, and it isn’t restricted to just going to the police station. When it happens, speak up these women will.
At this point, if employers aren’t ready and equipped, it will be at the cost of their reputations, and essentially their credibility.
Hoping to see men/sexual harassers be better behaved because of this verdict is, to me, being far too optimistic. However, if it makes a man who has harassed a woman think twice about trying to silence and viciously intimidate her, this would be a massive leap. For this, I and scores of women thank Priya, and in no less measure her lawyer Rebecca John.
(Sandhya Menon is a writer and communications professional. She writes on women and mental health among other things. She is based in Bengaluru. She tweets @TheRestlessQuill. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)