In December 2013, politician Farooq Abdullah said he was afraid. "These days, I am afraid of talking to women,” he said. “In fact I don't even want to keep a woman secretary, god forbid, if there's a complaint against me and I end up in jail. Such is the state of affairs today…”

Of course he later said his remarks had been misconstrued. The real meaning of his statement, I think, was that some men like to hire women not for their abilities but because they want someone to flirt with in the office. Sometimes, it goes beyond flirting.

Some have criticised the media-driven movement against gender-based violence and harassment as being episodic. What they have missed is that such episodic media activism has empowered many women to speak up. It has given them the courage to not take sexual harassment at the workplace as a fait accompli.

Media pressure

That Delhi rose up against Nirbhaya’s gang-rape and murder in 2012, that the media took a strong stance against one of its own, Tarun Tejpal, the next year, and that we did not overlook the charges against Justice (Retd.) AK Ganguly, is important because these precedents perhaps gave courage to a woman in climate change scientist RK Pachauri’s office to taken on sexual harassment by a very powerful man.

Slowly but steadily, the game is getting over for men who use their positions of power to presume that women colleagues exist only so that they can exploit them sexually. The issue here isn’t just sexual harassment or violation of bodily integrity. The issue is professional equality for women, because a woman not giving sexual favours to the boss always fears that this could affect her career. The converse is also true: a woman who gives in to the boss could perhaps get faster promotions. Even if the boss acts unfairly, other colleagues, male and female, will be resentful. Ultimately, sexualised workplaces aren’t good for anybody, women or men.

One woman speaking out has given the courage to other former women colleagues of Pachauri to speak out, too. It’s a bit like the Jian Ghomeshi incident in Canada, though the charges there were more severe. The similarity, however, is that one woman speaking out encouraged others to speak out too.

A step forward

The post-Nirbhaya spate of cases is not new. In Rajasthan in 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a government-affiliated health worker, was discouraging child marriage. This was unacceptable to the feudal patriarchal society. Her punishment was gang-rape. A huge movement to get her justice caught international attention. When I met Bhanwari Devi in 2007, she was disillusioned. The huge movement to get her justice had failed to obtain convictions for the perpetrators.

Yet what the Bhanwari Devi movement did was that the courts agreed she had faced these while discharging her duties at the workplace. Thus in 1997 the Supreme Court, acting upon a public interest litigation, framed the Vishakha guidelines to prevent workplace sexual harassment. In 2013, this became a law, The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Bhanwari Devi did not get justice herself, but her struggle didn’t go in vain.

Three cheers for all the brave women who gather the courage to speak up against men who think their job gives them the license to treat women colleagues as playthings. For women such as the one who has gathered the courage to file an FIR against RK Pachauri, the media and society must not fail them with our silence.