Journalist Priya Ramani’s acquittal by a Delhi court of charges of criminal defamation brought by editor-turned-politician M J Akbar, a celebrity journalist, author and a former Union minister to boot, is a win, not only for Ramani, but for working women everywhere, who have been victims of sexual harassment at the workplace or elsewhere.
Despite the ‘Me Too’ movement on social media which encouraged hundreds of women to speak up and speak out against sexual harassment, the grim reality is that most victims are unable to speak up about the issue, leave alone secure protection from the perpetrators or justice. In fact, a survey conducted by Local Circles at the height of the ‘Me Too’ movement found that 78 per cent of women surveyed had admitted to facing some form of sexual harassment at the workplace, but had dared not complain about it.
While the lower court’s verdict may well be challenged later, it nevertheless upholds certain important principles, which should serve as a precedent the next time those in a position of power try to use their superior resources to try and silence their victims. The court held that the right to reputation cannot be given more importance than the right to dignity of women.
More importantly, it has also held that the act of ‘speaking up’ against harassment does not face any statute of limitations. A victim has the right to air her grievance at any time, even decades after the actual offence. “Time has come for our society to understand that sometimes a victim may for years not speak up due to the mental trauma. The woman cannot be punished for raising her voice against sexual abuse,” the court observed. The ruling also underlines the fact that truth is the only witness required in such cases.
The ruling has important takeaways, not only for working women, but for all those in a position of power at the workplace. While the Supreme Court’s guidelines issued in the wake of the rape of a Dalit woman – popularly known as the Vishakha Guidelines – provided a framework of systems and processes to be followed by employers, and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, subsequently enshrined them in law, the fact remains that these guidelines continue to be observed more in the breach.
Despite paying lip service to the legal requirements, most organisations have manifestly failed to create an atmosphere where workplace predators fear genuine repercussions, and equally important, victims feel secure enough to speak out, as the Local Circles survey clearly shows. Business leaders – be they promoters, CEOs or powerful political or bureaucratic leaders – must bear the blame for this. They have collectively failed to create the most basic requisite for working women – a safe workplace and an enabling environment for speaking out against harassment. Ramani’s bold fight against systemic patriarchy and the court’s endorsement of her right to speak up will serve as a beacon of hope to working women everywhere.