Journalist and author Ghazala Wahab on Tuesday told a court in Delhi that the alleged sexual harassment by former Union minister MJ Akbar forced her to quit her job at the Asian Age newspaper while he was the editor, The Hindu reported. The court was hearing a criminal defamation case Akbar brought against journalist Priya Ramani for accusing him of sexually harassing her in a hotel room in 1993.

Wahab, who testified in court as a witness in support of Ramani, said that her “harrowing experiences” while working at the newspaper began when she was assigned to a desk outside Akbar’s office. She was a feature writer at the organisation back then.

“Many a time I saw him watching me,” Wahab said. Following this, she said, the former Union minister began to send her private messages through the newspaper’s intranet service, and comment on her clothes and appearance.

The journalist recalled that sometime between August and September 1997, Akbar had called her to his office and allegedly sexually harassed her. Wahab said she ran out of his office and cried in the washroom. “The enormity of violation, humiliation overwhelmed me completely,” she told the court. “The next day, he called me to his cabin and sexually harassed me again.”

Wahab said that when she narrated the incident to someone in the office she was told that there was nothing to be done in the matter. She said that Asian Age had no system against workplace harassment in place for her to approach, Live Law reported.

“I was 26, I was alone, confused, helpless and most importantly petrified,” she told the court, according to The Indian Express. Asian Age had no mechanism to listen to complaints of sexual harassment. There were no internal redressal mechanisms, no sexual harassment policy or committee that would hear complaints from women journalists. I was on my own.”

Following this, she messaged Akbar and told him that his behaviour was unwelcome and unacceptable. The former Union minister, who had already become an MP then, responded to her saying that he had genuine feelings for her, she said. Wahab said that she could not go to the police or make the allegations public “given Akbar’s power and clout”.

Akbar told Wahab to head the Ahmedabad edition and that the company would provide accommodation to her where he would also visit from time to time. The journalist said that she had decided to quit her job at that point. The journalist sent her resignation letter to Akbar’s personal secretary, and said that she immediately took a train to Agra after he tried to call, fearing that he may visit her.

Wahab said that she did not tell her parents about the incident as she was the first person in the family to go to another city to work. She told the court that she was not looking for legal remedies against the former Union minister. “But I felt #MeToo had given women a safe platform outside the legal framework by which they could un-burden themselves and share their workplace ordeal,” she added.

Wahab is the third defence witness to testify for Ramani. Her examination-in-chief was done on Tuesday and the cross-examination will be conducted by Akbar’s lawyer Geeta Luthra on Wednesday.

The case

Ramani had first made allegations about an incident of sexual harassment by an acclaimed newspaper editor in an article in Vogue India in 2017. She identified Akbar as that editor in October 2018 during the #MeToo movement, in a series of tweets. Soon after this, around 20 more women accused Akbar of sexual misconduct over several years during his journalistic career.

In February, Ramani was granted bail on a personal bond of Rs 10,000. In May, Akbar had denied meeting Ramani in a hotel room where she alleged he had sexually harassed her. He denied all information about the meeting that Ramani had narrated.

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Priya Ramani: ‘I spoke because women before me spoke up. I spoke so people after me can speak up’