The #MeToo movement has finally reached India a year after the hashtag unleashed a global, public outpouring of women’s experiences with sexual harassment and related abuse. Disclosure after disclosure by Indian women over the past week have brought to public attention for the first time the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace, with the spotlight here (as elsewhere) trained, for now, on the media and entertainment industries.

The existence of the problem has been known for a long time, as is evident from the book excerpt below, based on interviews with women journalists across the country conducted 20 years ago. So have some of the names that are now tumbling out of the closet. But never before has there been such a public conversation about it, and one that is so loud and clear that even boardrooms evidently cannot ignore it any more.

The first paragraph of the excerpt from Women in Journalism: Making News below refers to the second of the two editors mentioned in the previous paragraphs as examples of editorial bosses with ambivalent or inconsistent attitudes towards women.

The first was widely recognised for having identified and nurtured the talents of many now-famous women in the field, but was long rumoured to be almost Clintonesque in his approach to the female species within and outside the profession. He is among those recently outed in the ongoing #MeToo in Indian Media moment.

The second appointed a highly respected woman to a senior position in his publication in the early 1980s – long before other women had reached anywhere near such a post in the newspaper world in India. But he apparently thought nothing of getting another competent and experienced woman on his staff to cover trivial “feminine” events (of the flower show variety). And, despite her track record as a serious, capable and talented journalist, never assigned her to the coveted political beat.

Making News: Women in Journalism

It is this last editor who also refused to act on complaints of sexual harassment by some women on the editorial staff of another paper he headed a few years later. According to one of them, women in the newspaper, particularly those then involved in the activities of the Women and Media Committee of the Mumbai Union of Journalists, began to receive obscene messages through the computer network at the office. When they brought the matter to the attention of the editor, he refused to take their complaint seriously. Instead, he fobbed them off saying: everyone here is an adult – what can I say or do?

What adulthood has to do with using professional equipment to disseminate offensive messages to colleagues in the workplace, probably during working hours, is anybody’s guess. But, as the teller of the tale concludes, “Maybe women journalists have to be a little insensitive.”

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a sensitive topic which many women are either embarrassed to talk about or prefer to dismiss as a relatively minor irritant that they can handle. They opt not to question why they should have to handle it or to acknowledge the stress involved in dealing with it, let alone the fact that some women may not be equipped to cope with it – especially when they are young. Nevertheless, it is obvious that sexual harassment in the workplace is an occupational hazard that many female journalists have had to deal with in one form or another.

In its mildest and most common form, sexual harassment in the newsroom seems to involve the telling of sexually explicit or otherwise off-colour jokes – not just in the presence of female colleagues but clearly so as to mortify them. Then there is the flaunting of obscene photographs or literature so that women in the office are forced to view them, whether or not they wish to. According to one young journalist in Mumbai, there are reports now of cyber-harassers, who use pornographic sites on the Internet to discomfit female colleagues.

In a recent case in a Bangalore newspaper, however, the jokes went a bit too far even for senior women in the profession who are quite inured to the brand of humour favoured by many male colleagues. Not only were certain women specially targeted but the jokes often culminated in vulgar propositions. Similarly, pornography was not merely left around for passing women to see but a particularly tasteless book was specifically passed on to a selected woman.

There were also reports of obscene telephone calls to women on the night shift. One staffer received a highly offensive anonymous letter believed to have emanated from the same source. The rumour that persistent indecent proposals caused another woman to quit her job is not too incredible in view of the high position occupied by the alleged harasser (who, fortunately, is no longer at his post).

Unsolicited personal remarks about female colleagues and their looks, attire, and so on, are almost universally accepted as par for the course. But a young journalist in Hyderabad thinks it is important to “react strongly” even to seemingly innocuous “comments on the colour of your clothes, the shape of your bindi, etc., so that they realise they can’t fool around with you. I just tell them to shut up, that it is none of their business. I had to do a lot of this in the first year to establish myself and to make sure that I am not taken lightly.”

Her aggressive reaction may be an understandable response to the more explicit sexual harassment she experienced early in her career. According to her, the problem is that some men misconstrue ordinary, normal friendliness and think they can take advantage of any woman who happens to be sociable. Fortunately and unusually, her boss took action and her tormentor was fired. Now, she says, she prefers to be seen as a snob rather than risk such misunderstanding.

A senior woman journalist in Calcutta says young women on the staff of the Bengali newspaper she works with complain to her of harassment by their immediate “superiors”. These men ostentatiously examine and discuss pictures of “scantily clad women” and make unnecessary, graphic comments about passing women in the presence of these juniors. “Maybe they are trying to demonstrate that they are socially forward and not conservative. But, in the process, they are only showing poor taste and indulging in distasteful behaviour,” she says. One of the young journalists subjected to this treatment describes it as “mild harassment” but admits that she finds it humiliating.

Cheap thrills

According to Annu Anand, many male journalists working in the Hindi press continue to be narrow-minded and conservative. This, she says, is reflected in the way they deal with women at the workplace: “For example, they start loudly discussing the Kama Sutra when a young girl comes into the office – just to embarrass her. Female freelancers are told to keep coming to the office and meeting them – ‘aathe rehe, milthe rehe.’ They seem to get a thrill out of having women sitting in front of their desks. They obviously enjoy wielding power over them – both personal and professional. Of course, they do this to all aspiring journalists but young women are harassed even more than young men.”

A woman working with a Hindi newspaper in Delhi says she gave up wearing jeans and trousers because of the lewd looks she encountered in her office in the capital. Ironically, the same clothes had not caused a problem in the smaller city where she began her career, located in a state where the status of women is otherwise appalling. At one point, in a clear attempt to humiliate her, an article she had written was pinned up on the notice board surrounded by obscene pictures.

According to her, as part of the “fun” during the festival of Holi, staff members on the paper are traditionally given in-house titles, usually related in some way to personal characteristics. In her first year there, her title was “ek chaader maili si,” which implies sexual promiscuity. She reacted strongly: “I openly told the people here that if something like that ever happened again I would see the colour of their underwear.” (This is obviously a translation of a popular threat to expose them by pulling off their pants.)

A news agency in Mumbai harboured a news editor who was not only alcoholic but obviously had sex rather than the day’s events on his mind. One journalist who had the misfortune of working with him in the 1980s says he used to routinely ask women on the staff who they were sleeping with. When she first joined the agency and found that women were not assigned to the night shift, she expressed her willingness to do night duty. His response: “So you don’t mind being raped?” According to her, many men in the profession find it difficult to deal with women who do not fit into their traditional image of womanhood: “If you smoke or drink they assume you are ‘easy’, if you go out with them they think you will sleep with them.”

Another woman who worked in the agency during that period says the news editor’s behaviour with her bordered on sexual harassment. However, she chose not to make a fuss because she felt the abuse was not unbearable enough for her to risk jeopardising her career. On the other hand, she found the behaviour of the agency’s chief of bureau too offensive to ignore: “He suggested that I do a story on the pornographic literature available on the pavements. He could have asked any of the men on the staff to do it. But he deliberately chose me. I tried to avoid the assignment, saying it was not the type of story the agency normally did. But he was determined. He passed on to me his collection of pornographic limericks. I locked them up. He sent me a memo (official reprimand) for not doing the story and asked me to return the ‘research material’.”

He persisted with other types of harassment, too: “Once, overhearing a conversation I was having with colleagues about not receiving calls in the office, he passed me a note saying, ‘You were talking about calls – are you a call girl?’ I went up to him and said: ‘You have a fifteen-year-old daughter. Don’t behave like this.’ Ultimately I sent him a semi-legal notice, got the head office of the agency involved, and so on. But he is still around and I’m told he continues to harass others, including men on the staff and the office secretary.”

A journalist in Ahmedabad talks about an editor who tried to trap her into a sexual relationship at the very beginning of her career in the mid-1970s: “He tapped my telephone calls, read all my letters, including those from my father, objected to my interactions with male colleagues, and so on.” As a result she unwittingly got embroiled in office politics and was eventually compelled to leave the organisation (although she managed to get herself reinstated later).

According to a senior woman journalist in Bangalore, part of the problem is the socio-cultural mismatch between the bulk of the men and most of the women in the profession. For instance, many women in journalism come from backgrounds where social interaction between the sexes is relatively common and where women enjoy some latitude in social behaviour. On the other hand, a large number of male journalists belong to more conservative sections of society, where even the husband-wife relationship tends to be limited by social norms. As a result, she says, many of these men do not know quite how to relate to female colleagues who seem radically different from the women in their own families and social circles. According to her, in their minds, a woman who smokes and/or drinks and/or chats freely with men is akin to a prostitute. And they assume they can behave as they wish with them.

Unwanted advances

Be that as it may, one of the most prolonged and serious cases of sexual harassment that I have come across took place in Calcutta in the 1980s. Again, an alcoholic news editor was the prime culprit. The victim in this case was a young journalist who had just joined the paper. He managed to make her life miserable for several years, constantly asking her to sit in front of him, complaining that she was not smiling at him and generally indulging in offensive behaviour towards her. “I was able to keep my sanity only because I had so much else in my life,” she says.

But finally it all got too much. “One night, he arrived late and drunk at the office, snapped his fingers at me and said, ‘Come here.’ I walked up to his desk, not knowing what else to do. He said something that I couldn’t really understand. Everybody in the office could see what was happening – in any case everyone knew how he had been behaving – but nobody said anything. It was very humiliating. Then he snapped his fingers again and something snapped in me. ‘This is not a bar,’ I told him. ‘Why don’t you behave yourself?’ He shouted at me, I shouted back. I knew my job was on the line but by this time I didn’t care.

“I wrote a passionate, angry letter to the editor, complaining about the continuing harassment. The management said they would look into it and make sure it didn’t happen again. He was sent for detoxification but eventually came back and the situation was still unpleasant. I seriously thought of quitting.”

According to her, what was most amazing was how tolerant the management was of his atrocious behaviour through the years. Once he was so drunk that he defecated in the room where the air conditioning unit was located, presumably mistaking it for the toilet. Thanks to the vents, the whole office was reeking! Another aspect of the experience that upset her was the indifference or at least inaction of her colleagues. Their indignation, when finally expressed, was based on parochial considerations – a Bengali girl being ill-treated by a non-Bengali – which she found quite irrelevant.

As if this were not bad enough, she had another unpleasant experience, when an inebriated colleague – who happened to be close to the obnoxious news editor – tried to molest her in the car dropping editorial staff back home after night duty. According to her, another (male) colleague was sitting in the front seat but did not bother to intervene. He later tried to push the responsibility onto her by asking, “Why did you allow him in the car?” Once again, the management did not take her complaint seriously: the offending man was shunted out of the department for a while but was reinstated after he apologised.

Indifferent managements

Clearly, on the few occasions when women have actually mustered up the courage and determination to risk lodging complaints of sexual harassment, editors and managements have, by and large, been reluctant to take the necessary action. The general tendency seems to be to treat such episodes with less seriousness than they deserve, probably to avoid shaking the editorial boat.

In 1997, the Supreme Court of India clearly defined sexual harassment in all its forms and put the onus on the managements of organisations to ensure that both male and female employees are aware of their rights and responsibilities in this regard. More recently, the apex court expanded the scope of its earlier definition and affirmed that sexual harassment is a violation of the fundamental rights to equality as well as life and liberty. Both judgments have been widely reported and analysed in the press. From the experiences of several women in the field, it is clear that media establishments, too, need to put their own houses in order, in accordance with the judgment.

Excerpted from Chapter 8, “The Enemy Within”, Women in Journalism: Making News, Ammu Joseph, The Media Foundation/Penguin Books India.