The verdict in Mobashar Jawed Akbar vs Priya Ramani is legally sound and socially progressive. By ruling that women can and should speak publicly about incidents of sexual harassment, the court has sent a clear signal of support to women everywhere that we must not tolerate unwanted sexual attention.
In noting that such public posts can legally be classified as being for the public good, the court has made the question of sexual harassment a question of the public domain itself. And by arguing that social status does not provide behavioural impunity, the court has recognised that sexual predators can lurk even behind seemingly respectable facades. All this is to the good.
But despite its legal soundness and social concern, the judgment is also sexually dubious and politically suspect. Or more precisely, its attitude to sexuality and nationalism is cause for some concern.
The 91-page judgment is mostly an account of the arguments made by the prosecution and defence; Justice Ravindra Kumar Pandey’s judgment takes up only the last six-and-a-half pages. In these pages, he speaks primarily of two things: the sexual shame that women feel when they are subjected to harassment (the judgment labels this “The Shame”), and the way in which India has historically treated women.
Both these arguments are prefaced with the following sentence: “It is shameful that the incidents of crime and violence against women are happening in the country where mega epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana were written around the theme of respect for women.”
It is fascinating that the learned judge adduces “respect for women” as one of the themes of the Ramayana. Isn’t this the same text in which Sita is shunned for being the bearer of what the judgment calls “The Shame”? Isn’t this the same text in which Sita is made to go through a trial by fire in order to prove her sexual virtue? Isn’t this the same text in which, despite passing that trial, Sita is shunned because she still cannot quell the paranoid fantasies of the citizenry around her? And this is the text that the judgment hails for its “respect for women”? In which world?
Alas, in this one. Of the two tales from the Ramayana listed by the judge, one of them deals with the Valmiki Ramayana’s account of Laxman being asked to describe Sita, to which he responds that he does not know what she looks like because he has never looked past her feet. This story – in which a woman’s sexuality is denied her except within the tightly-policed circle of marital heterosexuality, straying away from which ends in banishment and possible death – is held up by Judge Pandey as a historical sign of respect for women.
This cultural genealogy does two things. First, it insists – as the example of Laxman and Sita makes clear – that any sex or sexual desire outside marital heterosexuality is frowned upon. The burden of such a phobic attitude towards sex is disproportionately borne by women, which is the reason why we experience “The Shame.”
Laxman does not look beyond Sita’s feet – which, for the judge, is to be read as a sign of respect for women. But Laxman also draws a circle around Sita to keep her within patriarchal control – which, for many of us, describes the law’s paternalistic attitude to sex in general and women in particular. It might be time to disallow men from prescribing for women what our desires should and should not be.
The patriarchal cast of the tale of Sita in the Ramayana is cold comfort for women in India today. If anything, the verdict in this case should have celebrated the fact that it prevented a powerful man from bullying a woman. But instead, the judge chose to refer his judgment to one of the most sexually toxic cases from Indian mythology. As legal scholar Ratna Kapur has noted about sexual harassment laws in general, their puritanical cast inevitably make them more about sexuality, and less about harassment. In other words, they become ways of disproportionately policing desire without preventing its abuse.
Second, these examples from the epics suggest that the country to which Pandey refers is an exclusively Hindu state. And one in which Hinduism can do no wrong: in his reading of these texts, even misogyny is converted into a sign of glory. Which compels us to ask if this judgment is a victory for feminism or yet another step towards communalism? After all, the plaintiff in this case is a Muslim man.
As a friend of mine noted, did Ramani win because she was right or because she was pitted against a Muslim? After all, the state has demonstrated time and time again its commitment to criminalising Muslim men. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights in Marriage) Act of 2019 (an Act that this judge enthusiastically cites as an example of a progressive India), and the bogey of “love jihad” are only two examples of this government’s criminalising intentions.
The paternalistic cast of sex-phobia in this judgment is also a communal one. This is a familiar trend in right-wing India where patriarchy and communalism are both being encouraged to the hilt. Isn’t it ironic in this regard that the plaintiff was a member of the current government’s cabinet of ministers?
A final note: one of the many things this verdict does well is problematise the equation of social and professional prestige with sexual manners. It is not only poor people who are sexual predators. In fact, quite the opposite. And a “stellar reputation” does not become a guarantor of anything. This is a welcome intervention in a country and a legal profession that is intensely hierarchical and stratified, with women inevitably ending up at the bottom of the pile.
But how then do we explain the fact that a mere two days after the Ramani judgment, the Supreme Court of India laid to rest its “inquiry” into the case of sexual harassment levelled against former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi? At the time, the chief justice convened his own hearing, which did not include the complainant, and declared himself not guilty.
Now he is a member of the Rajya Sabha from the Bharatiya Janata Party. Clearly, some bodies and principles are more dispensable in this country than others.
As feminists, the verdict in the Ramani judgment is utterly welcome. But as subjects caught in the pincer-like grip of the state’s patriarchal and communal agendas, we ought to be cautious.
Madhavi Menon is a Professor of English. Her forthcoming book is titled The Law of Desire