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A judgement that gives women hope and courage

The verdict in the M.J. Akbar v. Priya Ramani case offers an understanding of sexual harassment at work. Most working women facing daily harassment live in small towns and need help

Priya Ramani with her lawyer, Rebecca John
Priya Ramani with her lawyer, Rebecca John

As I write this, it has been almost 24 hours since the verdict arrived on the M.J. Akbar vs Priya Ramani criminal defamation case and my elation has barely subsided. Ramani’s win is not merely hers, or that of her legal team. Very rarely do legal issues feel as personal as Ramani being acquitted of the defamation charges made against her—and not just to me. Tens of hundreds of women experienced this victory viscerally as their own.

While furiously following Live Law and Bar & Bench handles on Twitter, a post popped up on my timeline with a photograph of Ramani walking out of a courtroom, with a grin so wide even her mask couldn’t hold it in check—it reached all the way to her eyes, and directly into my heart. I shed tears of relief and joy when I saw that picture.

In that moment, I also imagined the scene at the court: former Union minister of state Akbar with a posse of policemen flanking him (I am unable to understand why this was necessary. After all, a truth like Ramani’s doesn’t throw stones or kicks and punches. It stands gracefully tall and digs its heels in) and Ramani with her supportive circle; men and women who had stood by her physically through the long trial while the rest of us could only be there in spirit.

If you can imagine that scene and what its dynamics represent, you may be able to imagine at what level the win makes a difference to every woman in India. Akbar, a former journalist himself, had taken Ramani to court when she named him during the #MeToo campaign in 2018, accusing him of inappropriate behaviour when she was a rookie journalist. To me, as I read reports of the judgement, three things stood out. One was the fact that additional chief metropolitan magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey delivered a judgement that understood the complex nature of sexual harassment at work—the issues of stigma, of it occurring in private closed spaces, the callous theft of dignity and confidence, as well as the issue of being able to gather courage to speak up. All these were addressed in the judgement. To me, it spoke of a humane, complex understanding of the rot that sexual harassment at the workplace is. The judgement, in my opinion, is what emerges when empathy is combined with a judiciary that is rooted in the Constitution.

Secondly, the judgement gave us answers to three recurring questions many women, including me, have faced in the last two years, when it said a woman may put up her grievance on whatever platform she chooses to, even if it’s after decades. It emphasised that sexual harassment often took place with no one else around. These are firm, important answers to questions like “Why did you wait so long to speak up?”, “Why are you doing this on Twitter? If you ‘genuinely’ have a case, go to the police! Otherwise it is all attention seeking” and “What proof do you have that he harassed you? Why should we believe you?” And finally, it reiterated the fact that socially prominent men can be, and often are, predators.

As far as I am concerned, this verdict should be translated in all Indian languages so every woman knows what she is entitled to if she ever chooses to speak out. And that would merely be the start of the work that needs to be done. The verdict shines a light on an important question: Why does the prevention of sexual harassment (PoSH) law have a statute of limitations? It is only a few steps from there to examining the already competent law to see how it can be clearer in the parameters it sets for complaints and redressal.

In letter, the PoSH law is a progressive one. But its implementation is, at best, patchy. Take the simple lack of local complaints committees, which deal with complaints of women who are part of the unorganised labour force or do freelance work. Not only are women not aware of their existence, many cities and districts don’t even set them up. What, then, does a domestic worker or a freelancer do when faced with harassment?

Without taking a single thing away from Ramani, I have to say not everyone has her network of support, nor the platforms that are afforded to us as educated, articulate members of the media. The larger number of women facing everyday harassment live in towns and smaller cities where very little, if anything, gets done even if a complaint is registered. And this is where the work needs to happen.

Those of us talking regularly about awareness, and patting each other on the back every time we tweet emotionally charged words rallying those around us, haven’t stepped up enough to close the gap between us and these invisible women. Those of us who speak English, have tons of followers on social media, and have debates in safe spaces, have the language to articulate our trauma, victories, understanding of the law; yet, so few of us have stepped up farther than our rallying words to collectively help bring justice to women who don’t have these things,the same kind of justice we would like for ourselves.

This, I believe, is why Ramani not standing down is most important. She went through two years and over 50 hearings as an accused to bring to each and every woman a hope that we mustn’t ignore or take lightly. This particular hope is a soft, strong thing. This hope that emerges from her journey is one that transcends every barrier that separates the women of my country from each other. It is the hope that tomorrow, this secret that so many women hold, that they are forced to carry because they will not be believed, they will be able to speak it aloud and without shame. And just maybe, a deeply humane system that allows every woman to retrieve her dignity and move on with her life, head held high, will finally start to be born.

(Disclosure: Priya Ramani is a former editor of Mint Lounge.)

Sandhya Menon is a writer and communications professional based in Bengaluru. A single mother, she writes on women and mental health.

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