#Metoo #Youtoo, Survivors Together by Sudha Umashankar: Campaign Edition of the Women’s History Roundtable

Standard

Sudha Umashankar is a freelance journalist and storyteller

The December edition of the Women’s History Roundtable was a special edition of the WHRT series, designed to be a part of the  2018 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence, and was presented by Sudha Umashankar.

 

This session of the WHRT series was based on storytelling and sharing in the era of the Me Too movement, which has sparked discussions about sexual harassment (particularly in the workplace) around the world.

 

Sudha Umashankar opened her session by narrating two stories. The first one was about 17 year old Sasirekha, one of four children. She had two sisters, and a trans brother, Naresh. Their mother was a cook. The family was ostracised because of Naresh. Sasirekha, a school dropout, worked in a garment factory. Her brother Naresh, who doted on her, did odd jobs, mainly associated with deity processions. The supervisor at  Sasirekha’s workplace was a married man named Devanaiyakam. He had the habit of constantly commenting on the girls and using nicknames for girls. He would come behind the girls while they are working in the pretext of checking their work and get uncomfortably physical with them. However, Sasirekha brushed off these incidents as demonstrations of sociability. One day he grabbed her bottom, but being a habitual offender he was able to talk himself out of it. One day he called her inside his room and forced himself on her. Confused, Sasirekha didn’t know if it was love or something else. He continued to force her to have sex with him, and Sasirekha soon found she was pregnant. She couldn’t tell her family. When she couldn’t hide it anymore, she told Devanaiyakam about it and asked him to marry her. But he refused saying he was already married, and her pregnancy was not his problem. On top of that, he accused her of not being “careful”. Unable to bear the shame, Sasirekha consumed rat poison and took her life.

 

The second story was about Sharanya, a talented singer and veena player. She wasn’t popular or a playback singer but she was invited to perform in smaller events in her community. She was married with children. Though she had many professional engagements, Sharanya struggled with her high pitch. To improve her voice, she started looking out for advertisements for voice coaches and came across one in the paper. He was a young voice coach and she really liked his classes and paid in full for his workshop. One day at his class as her time was up and she was preparing to leave, he suggested he would give her the feedback over the phone in the evening. In the evening, while Sharanya sang her song, the coach gave her really good feedback, saying she needs to sing from her diaphragm and that he would show her how in their next class. She could sense that he was slightly inebriated in the phone. The next day, as Sharanya went to her class, the voice coach was alone at home and took her to a room upstairs where he made her lay on a table and started touching her middle to show where her voice should come from. This made Sharanya extremely uncomfortable and she soon grabbed her things and ran from there, forced to forego her dream of perfecting her high pitch.

 

Sudha then opened the floor for discussion, asking for comments on these stories from various perspectives. Dr. Sissira (a psychiatrist)commented on the trauma both the victims had faced. While one didn’t have the support system to fall back on, the other reacted based on her instinct. R.S.Akhila (a lawyer) was asked to comment on the legal recourses and if there was an increase in the number of women who approached for legal help post the metoo. Akhila noted that there has been an increase in the number of women who called to inquire about legal recourses since the spread of the metoo movement. However, not many women followed up these initial queries to seek legal redress.

 

Given these expert opinions, the discussion then moved on to the question of what justice entails when it comes to sexual harassment. By inquiring about legal redress or even trying to reach out to networks of support to deal with the emotional effects of such incidents, what are women looking for when they reveal incidents such as those described in the stories above, and the many similar disclosures on social media? Is it closure, justice, or perhaps revenge? While many agreed that they were indeed looking for justice, the form it takes is often hazy. What does justice constitute? It might mean different things for different people. Sudha’s stories raised important questions surrounding the Me Too movement, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of storytelling and sharing as a tool of analysis.

After a short reading from Roxanne Gay’s book, Not That Bad, participants concluded that women are more than just their body. However, in the eyes of the government and law, women have been infantilised. Social conditioning through childhood and adolescence lead most women to brush off such incidents, and many are encouraged to  “move on” from the bad experience. Of course, responses to sexual harassment can vary and the best course of action depends on an individual’s vulnerabilities and strengths. Many voiced the need for teaching the children at home and at school to break free of gender stereotypes in order to address how best to minimise sexual harassment. As a society, we fail to invest the social and money capital on women. The men have survived the metoo movement, whereas the women are still surviving.

Notes taken by Sudaroli Ramasamy.

Women’s History Roundtable, October 2018: Muthulakshmi Reddy and the Making of a Feminist Public by Professor S Anandhi

Standard

Dr. Anandhi’s presentation focussed on Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi, and placed her within the broader context of the creation of a feminist public sphere in late colonial south India. Dr. Anandhi argued that Reddi’s story is an important component of this process, as her name is ubiquitous in Madras, and has been associated with a number of initiatives (many of which do not actually reflect her politics or views). Dr. Anandhi explained that an examination of the mainstream public sphere in the first half of the 20th century in south India does not accurately or adequately represent the political discourse of the times, as it was defined by elite bourgeois men who incorporated women into their political agenda to suit their own vision of reform and Indian revival. This is particularly evident in the matter of women’s education, which ‘progressive’ male leaders felt was the best way to demonstrate that India was a modern nation, ready for self-rule. None of these leaders felt women’s education was an end in itself to benefit women.

 

Given that the public sphere was defined and inhabited by elite men, Dr. Anandhi suggested the rise of a “counter” public sphere during the same era – a feminist one, created and defined by women. Many women’s organisations gained prominence during the 1920s, but the earliest feminist organisation in India was one co-founded by Reddi in 1917: the Women’s Indian Association (WIA). Dr. Anandhi therefore noted that by studying the life-story of Reddi, we could gain some insights into the nature of this alternative public space defined by women, particularly because Reddi and others shifted the debates about progress and nationalism by extending it into the domestic sphere, so women could relate to these questions more effectively.

 

At the centre of Dr. Anandhi’s presentation was a reading of Reddi’s autobiography, which was published in 1929. Dr. Anandhi suggested that Reddi’s autobiography was not simply a story of her life, but a more political manifesto of her ideas. Though Reddi was fortunate to have the support of her father in her educational endeavours, she found schools and colleges were male-dominated institutions, with policies that often ended up preventing women from accessing education. In her autobiography, she suggests that women themselves should marshall forces to help educate each other, with more educated women sharing their knowledge. Reddi’s autobiography thus calls for the creation of a collective female public sphere based on the shared experience of being denied access to male-dominated public spaces.

 

Dr. Anandhi went on to discuss Reddi’s interest in the uplift of Devadasis, for which she is probably best remembered today. Though other sources tell us of Reddi’s own personal investment in the community, Dr. Anandhi noted that there was nothing in her autobiography – an otherwise candid document – to tell the reader about it. Instead, she seems more interested in talking about her own life story.

 

In detailing Reddi’s activities for the uplift of women through the WIA, Avvai Home, and the national movement; Dr. Anandhi noted that all her political work was based on helping to improve the status of Indian women. For example, Reddi made several suggestions to the Simon Commission about how to improve women’s access to education as well as what the curriculum should consist of in order to create a class of educated and employable women. Dr. Anandhi noted that this reframing of the public sphere by a ‘politics of care’ allowed more women to participate through the framework of ‘helping’ their countrywomen access education and healthcare.

 

Questions and discussion after Dr. Anandhi’s presentation revolved around Reddi’s family support; her sometimes contentious relationship with the Congress party; her exchanges with Gandhi, and her role in creating transnational feminist connections.

 

This report was compiled by Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan

 

Women’s History Roundtable September 2018: Diversity and Inclusion in the IT Sector by S Shakthi

Standard

Shakthi’s paper examined the Diversity & Inclusion policies in the IT sector. She talked us through the processes behind how and why gender policies are framed, with a specific focus on  workplace sexual harassment in the sector. Her presentation was based on her research and fieldwork analysing how the 2013 law on sexual harassment is interpreted and implemented by IT companies in India.

Tracing the growth of IT sector in India, Shakthi spoke about how the it has become an important driver for India’s economic growth in the recent years. With 34% of employees (i.e. about 4 million employees) being women, the sector’s workplace sexual harassment policies provide interesting insights. Using semi-structured interviews, Shakthi was able to gather data from a variety of employees at various levels in the organisation, including non-managerial junior employees, managers and key members from a diverse group of stakeholders.

Unlike the Vishakha Guidelines, which only prescribe rules to make workplaces safe and are not binding, the 2013 Act makes it legally binding for companies to put into place  a number of measures to address workplace sexual harassment. However, there are a number of inadequacies in the conceptualisation of the Act as well as its specific articles. For example, the Act lays emphasis on the formation of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), rather than searching for ways to change the broader workplace culture. In this way, the Act focusses on the nitty-gritty of procedure to address complaints, but does not foster an inclusive workplace environment.

Shakthi noted that in order to change the overall climate of sexism in the workplace, companies need to go above and beyond the minutiae of the articles in the Act (such as the formation of ICCs and provision of cabs for safe transportation of women employees). Simply adopting these concrete measures is not enough to address the larger problem of workplace sexual harassment – which continues to be trivialised.

While acknowledging that the Act has helped bring the topic of workplace sexual harassment into the realm of public discourse, and that women feel emboldened by it; Shakthi noted that it is still riddled with loopholes. One example is the ‘false complaint’ clause. Conceptually, it is seen as a way to safeguard alleged harassers against false accusations by (mostly) women, who are portrayed as being likely to use the Act as a tool of ‘revenge’. Shakthi critically pointed out that this clause overlooks the power dynamics in a corporate environment. These unequal power dynamics are not based solely on gender. In her interviews, Shakthi found that the role of caste & language in creating hierarchies in the industry was significant. Additionally, the use of acronyms like POSH – prevention of sexual harassment – also trivialise the issue.

After a broad examination of the Act and its shortcomings, Shakthi’s paper also touched upon the specific local conditions that affect the execution of workplace sexual harassment policies. Factors such as structural inequalities, the importance foreign clients ascribe to adhering to laws, and brand image management. These factors affect the implementation of the Act, as the ICC factors in the interest of the complainant, status of perpetrator in the organisation, the company’s market status, and media coverage while overseeing complaints.

The Act, unfortunately, has little information on how to train people and who should be trained on workplace sexual harassment guidelines. It also empowers corporate agents (rather than the judiciary) to mete out punishments for acts considered criminal offences in India. Interestingly Shakthi’s paper also talks about the impact this has had on ICC members. Responses ranged from “emotionally draining” to a “sight of tension” as members grappled with the challenges of taking on the role of proxy judiciary.

 

This report was compiled by Nandhini Shanmugam and Sweta Narayanan

#NNNU A Women’s Charter Demanding Civic Rights

Standard

On August 14, 2018, 12 women from six NGOs in and around Chennai (Centre for Women’s Development and Research; Forum for Women’s Rights and Development; Penn Thozhilalar Sangam; Positive Women’s Network; Roshni; Working Women’s Forum) joined us for a Namathu Nagaram Namathu Urimai consultation on civic rights–that is, what we can expect to enjoy as a matter of right in any community where we reside. The idea was to share our concerns with a view to arriving at a short list, which in turn would serve as a charter of demands for candidates in the upcoming local elections.

This is what we came up with.

பெண்கள் கூட்டமைப்பு (PENNGAL KOOTTAMAIPPU)

August 14, 2018

Our cities and towns are unliveable. Together, we identify the following problems as most urgent:

  • Our cities are filthy with uncollected garbage; unsegregated waste; poor disposal practices; solid waste disposal in sewage; unsafe disposal of plastic and medical waste; congested pavements with vendor and consumer waste; contaminated and worm-infested water supply; collapsed water and sewage lines; unsecured electrical junctions and cables; dirty, unsanitary and unused public toilets, and open defecation; and a lack of municipal oversight.
  • Our cities are unsafe, and women are at risk at home, in public spaces and at work.
  • Our cities are at risk because of substance abuse which results from the presence everywhere of TASMAC outlets and is a cause of domestic and sexual violence and insecure streets.
  • Government services and grievance redressal are inaccessible, whether we try to collect the widows’ pension, avail primary health care and we are not made aware of e-services.
  • Women are under-represented and lack voice, so that decisions about policy and services are made without taking our needs and experiences into account.

From those who seek our vote, we demand:

  • A Clean City
    • Provide dustbins on every street to facilitate segregation of bio and other waste;
    • Ensure regular and timely garbage collection;
    • Distribute usable and potable water equally and fairly;
    • Remove illegal street encroachments;
    • Assure sanitary street food stalls;
    • Improve and maintain drainage and sewage systems;
    • Maintain clean and functional public toilets;
    • Inspect sanitation systems and services on a regular schedule.
  • A Safe City
    • Resolve and commit to protecting girl children in local government bodies, from the municipal corporation to the zilla parishad to the gram sabha;
    • Maintain efficient and effective women and children’s helplines;
    • Set up and ensure proper functioning of the Local Complaints Committees;
    • Position and regularly review surveillance cameras in sensitive and secluded areas;
    • Appoint more women administrators and police officers;
    • Sensitise parents, media and government workers to gender issues;
    • Commit to introducing sex education and self-defence training in schools and the promotion of girls’ and women’s sports opportunities.
  • A City Secure from Alcohol Abuse and its Effects
    • Relocate TASMAC outlets away from residential areas, school and college neighbourhoods and public transportation hubs;
    • Regulate TASMAC hours and insist on identity card checking to prevent underage drinking;
    • Install CCTVs and police patrol vigilance around TASMAC outlets in the evening;
    • Establish and fund deaddiction centres and helplines and family support services.
  • Accessible and Accountable Local Government Officials and Services
    • Assure smooth benefits delivery;
    • Streamline grievance redressal systems;
    • Create awareness about e-services.
  • An Equal Voice for Women in Government and Decision-making
    • Appoint women officials
    • Nominate 50% women candidates
    • Take seriously elected women officials and not as proxies
    • Vest decision-making power in women
    • Respect women’s freedom of speech and listen to their perspectives.

(The raw version of this draft was endorsed by all participants, and a Tamil version will be added shortly.)

A one-page image for sharing:

NNNU Penngal Koottamaippu Charter-1

Women’s History Roundtable July 2018: Gulika Reddy on Gender and Activism in Schools and Beyond

Standard

Our WHRT speaker on July 14th was Gulika Reddy. Gulika Reddy is a human rights lawyer and also the founder of Schools of Equality, a nonprofit which runs programmes in schools, encouraging students to think about equality and diversity.

 

Gulika began by tracing her own interest in human rights law, particularly women’s rights. In her early years in the profession, she often heard certain lawyers justify domestic abuse and ask victims to let it go, in order to “save the institution of marriage”. This discourse brought home the importance of women’s rights and discrimination and violence against women. After regular interaction in the social justice sector, she started Schools of Equality to provide experiential and activity based learning to help increase awareness on gender based discrimination and violence.

 

Gulika then introduced the audience to two activities that they used in schools.

 

In the first activity, the audience was asked to talk about what words came to their minds when they heard the words “masculinity” and “femininity”. The responses ranged from muscular, bold, strong, assertive to fragile, lucky and non vulnerable for the former; and dainty, shy, fragile, passive, hysterical, emotional and nurturing for the latter.

 

For the next activity, the audience was asked to get up and walk around and find a partner, and ask and answer the following questions:

  1. What is one thing which is usually ascribed to your gender, which you actually like doing?
  2. What is one thing which is usually ascribed to your gender, which you dislike doing?
  3. What is one thing which is not ascribed to your gender, which you wish you could do without being judged?

 

The responses ranged from nurturing children, housework, dressing up and cooking (for the first two questions), and sitting in a particular way, having to justify things for the last question. The audience was then asked how such issues could be combated. Two members shared experiences of how they broke such stereotypes, by calling out rigid and sexist office rules, and by teaching their own children and family members about problematic mindsets.

 

Gulika continued the session by talking about her work at the schools they interacted with. Schools of Equality does sessions for children, parents and teachers; and she spoke about the different issues and situations that crop up while interacting with each target group. She noted that for children below a certain age, they mostly did sessions on bullying; while for older children they focused on sex education and gender identity awareness. SoE started off with two schools and did a baseline survey, after which they started taking workshops to different places; and now they operate in both Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

 

Gulika went on to emphasise the importance of having conversations with people about issues of gender, regardless of how averse they may be to the topic. She talked about how sometimes in classrooms, when students open up about certain issues they’ve faced, their peers learn a lot more from the sharing of experiences rather than textbook material on awareness. She then opened the floor for questions, and had small discussions on issues of scaling, combining training teachers and teaching students, and the relevance and utility of law in the battle for social justice. The session ended with some informal discussions within the group.

 

This report was compiled by Malavika Ravi. 

Women’s History Roundtable: June 2018 Bader Sayeed on “Gender Justice and Personal Law”

Standard

Bader Sayeed is an eminent lawyer who practices at the Madras High Court. She is also the founder of the NGO Roshni.

Ms. Sayeed spoke about some recent developments in Muslim Personal Law, devoting considerable time to the question of the abolition of the triple talaq. However, she made it very clear that legislation (however progressive) could only be effective with thoughtful implementation as well as a focus on changing societal mindsets. At a time when people in power can make inflammatory statements about religion and gender (including rape threats), legislation is but the first step.

Ms. Sayeed, in fact, was of the opinion that the Indian constitution was an excellent one, and emphasised equality and secularism. However, in reality, the spirit of the constitution is being betrayed everyday by the arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions imposed by those in positions of power (for example, the ban on beef). Noting the treatment meted out to Dalits in particular, Ms. Sayeed wondered where the principle of liberty and dignity of the individual had been lost since the writing of the Constitution.

Being an experienced lawyer, Ms. Sayeed also admitted the difficulty of fighting injustice in India – even in the courts. For example, while she obtained an injunction overturning the validity of certificated of divorced issued by Qazis, she was distressed to note that these certificates still continued to be considered valid in various communities. In this way, Ms. Sayeed drove home the point that legislation can only go so far in improving the rights and status of women and minorities in India.

Ms. Sayeed concluded by noting that while Indian legislation contains adequate protection for women and minorities, it is necessary for society (especially those in power) to change their mindset and espouse a more secular attitude towards our countrymen and women. In addition, Ms. Sayeed believed that the Constitution of India is still sound, and there is no need for additional legislation to improve upon in. What is necessary is for more Indians to read and understand the Constitution of India.

 

This report was compiled by Prajnya’s interns, Athmika and Varsha