No, Seema Mustafa, We Won’t Hold Our Horses. Silence Enables Abuse
This was in the early 1990s in the newsroom of India’s most happening newspaper, a publication I was thrilled to be working for as a young reporter. Our chief reporter and I decided to step out for lunch together as we were to carry on a discussion about one of my stories.
Two colleagues were to join us for the meal at a then-famous Udupi place in south Bombay, a few blocks away from our office.
Women Too, Can be Enablers of Abuse
As the chief reporter and I waited for them at the entrance, a senior editor walked in. She was someone I admired for her writing, her stand on social issues, and her commitment to covering gender and minority-related issues. Seeing us, she casually walked up to our table and asked him what was up. The chief reporter asked if she would like to join us. The senior woman editor sized me up, winked at him, and said to me, “So this is payback for the front page by-line you got today? But just a lunch, nothing later?” The chief reporter guffawed. I froze.
She had made the many front-page by-lines I had legitimately earned, cheap. The lunch went by in a blur, the food seemed tasteless, her innuendo-filled words replaying in my head. How, just how, could a senior woman journalist like herself say this to a young woman journalist? I then remembered how once, while at the office canteen with the chief reporter and news editor who were discussing how they liked their “fruits (women) tender and young” – she hadn’t rebuked them.
Silence Implies Complicity
In both cases, wasn’t she enabling and advancing the sexism she professed to take down? Her words have stayed with me for 27 years. Their viciousness, misogyny and coarseness resurfaced twice yesterday – once as I took in Ghazala Wahab’s gut-wrenching account of bravely warding off the then senior editor MJ Akbar’s advances, and the second time as I read editor Seema Mustafa’s attempted take-down of the #MeToo movement in her article titled “Whoa #MeToo, Hold Your Horses”.
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Women in senior positions in newsrooms can choose to be many things to the younger women and men around them: mentors who guide, show, teach the skills that J-schools cannot, be friends or agony aunts to some who need it, influencers who set the tone and tenor of newsrooms by legitimising (or de-legitimising) words and actions, leaders who can tell off men in senior positions who cross the line and “take their chances” with younger women.
When they choose to be silent around men who normalise misogyny and patriarchy, or join in the sexual references, they enable the men. This is not okay.
Ghazala Wahab’s Abuse at MJ Akbar’s Hands
In her account in The Wire, Wahab recalls the harrowing six months of 1997 at The Asian Age newspaper which she had joined in 1994 and had somehow, until then, managed to escape Akbar’s eye. She details the sexual harassment, the manoeuvres that a man her father’s age carried out just for his cheap thrills, and how hard she fought against them while trying to keep her dream job in a big city. Wahab makes a reference to Seema Mustafa, the bureau chief at the time, whom she had specifically approached at the time, after facing repeated assault and trauma.
Wahab recounts in The Wire, “I went into her (Mustafa’s) cubicle and narrated my story. She heard me. She was not surprised. She said that the call was entirely mine; that I should decide what I wanted to do. This was 1997. I was alone, helpless and extremely frightened.”
Akbar has not responded to The Wire’s article or Wahab’s allegations, or those made by (multiple) other women. Calls for his resignation or sacking gathered momentum even among the Opposition. The BJP chose to say little. After all, what could BJP leaders say about Akbar given that several predators continue to be in positions of power? But this is about the enablers or passive offenders.
Due Process Has Failed Us
Mustafa was clearly aware of Akbar’s predilections and predatory behaviour in that newsroom, as she clearly states in her article. When Wahab approached her to narrate her trauma, she was “not surprised”. But neither did Mustafa take a stand against Akbar’s abusive behaviour, nor did she guide Wahab in the right direction or offer her relief. She essentially left Wahab to fend for herself.
Of course, there was no law against sexual harassment, leave alone the language or the context we have today. All that young women journalists had was their bewilderment, trauma, and anger in the face of such harassment. Even now, when awareness is at its peak and the legal mechanism exists, the leadership on sexual harassment cases ought to come from editorial heads; HR can follow the lead. It is, indeed a bit rich of Mustafa to try to marginalise and question the #MeToo movement.
“My problem is that the (#MeToo) movement is too subjective; it is arbitrary. It has no responsibility...,” Mustafa writes. She goes on to write, “… where is the inquiry, where is the evidence, where is all that as journalists we require before we even publish a story?”
Sure, some women have attempted to ride on the #MeToo train with superfluous complaints or consensual relationships gone sour, but the timeline of the last week shows us that these instances form a minuscule chunk of the larger movement.
#MeToo Yet to Become Intersectional, But No Reason to Dilute It
By and large, women who have faced extreme levels of sexual harassment and predatory behaviour at the workplace have told their stories with great courage and sensitivity. And this narrative to which each story has added a layer, has led to two things. First, it has prompted offenders to come out and apologise in the public domain. The likes of actor Rajat Kapoor, author Chetan Bhagat, and filmmaker Anurag Kashyap have tweeted their apologies. Does Mustafa still want to wait for evidence after men have accepted their guilt?
His three decades of predatory behaviour has been finally called out. But that is pillorying Akbar? Second, there have been real-time, real-world direct consequences for the offenders. There is now an FIR against Nana Patekar and others accused by actress Tanushree Dutta, companies have dissolved, jobs have been lost. Is this not a movement of substance still?
Those like Mustafa (whose work from rural areas has indeed been commendable), journalists Madhu Kishwar, Tavleen Singh who called for a “real Indian MeToo movement for women who don’t speak English”, and politician Jaya Jaitly who lamented that “the present MeToo is still among the privileged classes and urban”, may want to take note of the consequences that the movement has already had. Sure, it is not all-inclusive yet, it has not yet substantially cut across intersections of urban-rural, English-vernacular, privileged castes-oppressed castes, and so on. But are these grounds for belittling and dismissing this important movement?
Women in Power Need to Speak Out
Isn’t there a false binary here, all you worthy women? This movement does not have to be an either-or. It is a relatively organic movement against abuse, assault, harassment and other violations against women at their workplaces and beyond. It is a real movement. Yes, it could have been less ageist, less classist, less parochial. It can – and should – include other categories of women, but let’s not belittle what our #MeToo has achieved. It has courageously unveiled the silence around sexual harassment, especially in workplaces, exposed the ‘bro-hood’ camaraderie among predatory and “woke” men, and a call to take the law on sexual harassment more seriously than it has been.
To Mustafa and other women I have to say – instead of picking on the movement which has made sexual harassment a significant conversation of our times, you could perhaps pose questions to powerful women in the Union Cabinet like Sushma Swaraj on their silence around the #MeToo movement and allegations against their colleague. Your silence, your inaction, your unwillingness to use your formidable voices enables men like Akbar.
(Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based senior journalist, columnist and commentator on politics, cities, and media. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)