‘Workplace Sexual Harassment Law Needs Overhaul’February 22, 2021
Rebecca, if we can take this discussion beyond this immediate case and beyond sexual harassment to talk of the endemic, ingrained violence against women in this country, it almost seems as if there is a war against women. The latest horror story is coming out of Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, where two Dalit sisters have been found dead of apparent poisoning, and the alleged suspects who have been taken into custody apparently were stalking, though the police call it a one-sided love affair, whatever that means. Ever since the widespread protests following the gangrape case in Delhi in December 2012, India has made stricter laws. Criminal law has been amended, including mandatory [death] sentences, the age of delinquency was reduced from 18 to 16 years, and the age of consent raised from 16 to 18, yet the horror does not end. It seems to be getting worse. So are we going terribly wrong somewhere, are we not?
John: Yes, we are. And I don’t necessarily agree with some of these later amendments. I don’t think increased punishments or compulsory death sentence is necessarily an answer. I think it will make the situation worse for women, and you will see more and more crimes coming out. When you have punishments that high, courts rightly insist on a degree of proof, which is probably not possible for anyone to produce. Because if you are going to sentence someone to death or to life imprisonment, then the degree of proof has to be very, very high. So I am not entirely sure whether these [such as raising the age of consent etc] were positive measures. I find most of them quite regressive.
But, speaking on the larger issue, I believe that as a society, we have to recognise that this is a problem. The way we speak to women, the way we speak about women, the way we treat them at the workplace, the way we treat them at home, the differences between the way we bring up our sons and our daughters… Ultimately, there has to be a community effort to make a woman feel equal and safe–inside the house, outside the house, on the street, at the workplace. And that can only come when men and women commit themselves to this cause. And I don’t think laws alone can play that role. You can have stricter laws–after death penalty, I don’t know what more you can add to the law–but it does not seem to have any parallel impact on the situation on the ground.
I really feel there has to be some kind of revolutionary churning, where we need to teach our children to respect their sisters, their friends, their female classmates, their female colleagues, their wives. And it has to start early. I am a mother of a son, the two of you are mothers of daughters. But I hope that I have taught my son enough so that he is able to treat women with respect. And that is the message which others must also carry forward. It is not enough to tell our daughters they are equal, it is also important to tell our sons that they must treat women as equals. So, there has to be this societal change.
I think through this case, what I did see were three male judges–all three of them extremely empathetic. They learned through the trial, I hope, the importance of what women were trying to say in the case. The judge who was in charge of recording evidence while Priya was giving evidence, was listening to her with great respect. He was absolutely spell-bound while she was testifying. Likewise, it was another male judge who recorded the evidence of [defence witness] Ghazala Wahab, [who] again treated her with great respect. And I think the final judge who pronounced the judgement, another male judge–although he was not part of the journey when the evidence was being recorded, but when the evidence was read over to him and when our arguments were made–he understood what it meant to be in the position of a woman like Priya or Ghazala.
So I think this is a constant process of education, a constant process of collaboration. I think we have to keep at it. We have to keep sending this message across that women are not inferior creatures, women are equal citizens in this country. We must celebrate the achievements of women. We must grieve together when something happens to women. And only then can we humanise and feminise this space.