Global Insight

December 3, 2013 1:28 pm

Patriarchal India challenged by its emboldened women

Editor’s arrest reflects refusal to keep silent about harassment
Indian writer Tarun Tejpal talks to an audience during the Kathmandu Literary Jatra in Kathmandu on September 16, 2011©AFP

Tarun Tejpal

It was a moment many Indians thought they would never see – a moment that must have made many powerful men shudder. On Saturday, the country was gripped by the dramatic night-time arrest of Tarun Tejpal, a celebrated editor of a muckraking magazine who has been accused of sexually assaulting one of his young female journalists in a hotel lift.

The arrest of an influential member of New Delhi’s power elite for an alleged sexual assault is unprecedented in patriarchal India, where prominent men in politics and business have long considered it their prerogative to make advances on younger, or vulnerable women – including their professional subordinates – with little fear of reprisal.

But Mr Tejpal’s legal woes reflect a significant social change taking place in India: the growing refusal of women, especially educated urban professionals, to keep silent about the harassment – or worse – they face in their daily lives, whether their tormentors are strangers on a bus or their bosses in the office.

Just a few days before Mr Tejpal allegedly assaulted the reporter, a young female lawyer wrote a poignant blog post on a legal website – under her own byline – about being molested several months earlier by a since-retired judge for whom she was an intern. Within days of her post, the Supreme Court set up a committee to investigate the incident.

Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and the prime ministerial candidate of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has been accused of ordering intensive police surveillance of a young female architect in 2009 for reasons never convincingly explained. Though the woman has not spoken publicly about it, many have questioned Mr Modi’s motives.

As for Mr Tejpal, he initially offered to step aside from the helm of his crusading news weekly, Tehelka, for six months as “penance” for what he called “a bad lapse of judgment”. His lawyers argue that the Goan police’s enthusiasm for investigating the lift incident – which the editor now claims was consensual – is politically motivated.

Indeed, the BJP, which is in power in Goa, has little love for Mr Tejpal, whose magazine often targeted it and its affiliated rightwing Hindu groups while going soft on the ruling Congress party. But the alacrity of the Goan police in probing a case they might have once considered a “private matter” unworthy of their attention cannot be dismissed as a mere political payback.

As women become assertive about speaking out about violence against them, government agencies are under intensifying pressure to demonstrate they are responding seriously to complaints, especially after the mass outcry over last December’s lethal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on board a New Delhi bus.

The implications of the new confidence and combativeness among Indian women – what some are calling India’s first genuinely popular feminist awakening – are potentially far-reaching.

In 1991, the furore over the confirmation hearing of US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas raised public awareness among Americans about sexual harassment at work. A female law professor accused Mr Thomas of harassing her with unwelcome, sexually provocative comments when they worked together in government years before. In a similar way, Mr Tejpal’s case has provoked a public outpouring in the traditional and internet social media on how women are treated in the Indian professional workplace.

Many women suggest that harassment and discrimination is routine and endemic, rather than exceptional, even if most cases do not reach the frightening intensity of a sexual advance in a lift.

“Indian society and Indian men have regarded women as subservient homemakers and not as equal partners in the economic mainstream,” Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, one of India’s most prominent female entrepreneurs, wrote last week. “This deep-rooted cultural and societal mindset manifests itself in the way men behave with their female colleagues.”

Many Indian companies are rushing to circulate lists of “dos and don’ts” to their male employees and are setting up sexual harassment grievance committees. According to The Economic Times, an Indian business newspaper, male white-collar workers are being advised to avoid “involuntarily sizing up” women colleagues and to stop using computer screensavers with explicitly sexual content.

Indian feminists say many men still consider the unfettered sexual pursuit of women a perk of power and privilege. In this context, sexual harassment is unlikely to end quickly. But breaking the omerta surrounding such conduct is the first and most important step.

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