Victory for women
The acquittal of journalist Priya Ramani by the Delhi court in a criminal defamation case brought against her by former Union Minister and editor M J Akbar is a landmark judgment that will empower other women to speak up against all forms of sexual violations and sexually nuanced remarks and actions by their employers or male colleagues. The Court’s remarks that the timing of the sexual assault or sexually implicit advance is immaterial and that women can bring up the matter when they gather courage to do so is very empowering for women. In fact the judgment marks a progressive mindset and a historic moment for the #MeToo movement in India. It was in 2018 that women across this country broke their silence by calling out powerful sexual predators on social media. Some in the state of Meghalaya too had called out those who molested them during their childhood years.
Priya Ramani had accused MJ Akbar of sexual assault when she had gone for a job interview some two decades ago. In October 2018, Akbar who is presently a Rajya Sabha MP had resigned from his post of Minister of State for External Affairs after allegations poured out from various women journalists who he had made sexual advances towards. He sued Ramani for speaking up, accusing her of tarnishing his “stellar reputation.” The Delhi High Court ruled that reputation is no defence against wrongdoing. The #MeToo movement worldwide attempted to break the asymmetry of patriarchal power that makes sexual harassment invisible, and silences and discredits women’s voices. Hence Judge Ravindra Kumar Pandey has with one stroke of the pen given legitimacy not just to Priya Ramani but to countless other women who silently suffer sexual harassment from male bosses for fear of losing their jobs.
Twenty years ago the Vishakha guidelines that deals with sexual harassment and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013 were not in place hence women then were at a disadvantage. The recent order takes into account the essence of those guidelines and upholds the rights of women to a violence-free, safe workplace. The judgment further emphasizes that a woman cannot be punished for speaking up against sexual abuse by the accused filing a criminal complaint of defamation against her.
The #MeToo movement resulted not only in a re-evaluation of toxic patriarchal cultures but also resulted in convictions of powerful men like film producer Harvey Weinstein, comedian Bill Cosby and gymnastics coach Larry Nassar. In India too many film stars and journalists were emboldened to call out their sexual predators. The allegations against Akbar were backed up by accounts of no less than 20 journalists. Ironically Ramani had to pay a heavy price and stand trial for speaking up. Yet she has stood up for hundreds of other women who are intimidated by powerful men. Hopefully, sexual harassment in the workplace will see a downward trend.