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

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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.

Ladies’ Special

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I travelled in a “Ladies Only” taxi for the first time this week. The 26 km commute from the airport was one of discovery–that many women work outside their homes in this megapolis at great personal cost.

I was walking to the taxi stand when a girl in her mid-20s, in trousers and sharp pin-striped shirt, approached me asking if I needed a cab. She was from “XYZ” car company that ran a fleet taxi service for women with women drivers.  She told me she drove a Mahindra Logan and for my destination she would charge by the km and give a receipt.  I decided to try it and hopped in. Alas, we barely went 20m when the car stopped.  And then came the first discovery: some men will not lose any opportunity to pull down a woman they see in a job  that has traditionally been their preserve.

A bunch of Cool Cab drivers sidled up to the car – one started mocking the driver “J”  for the crappy car she drove, another patronisingly asked her if she knew what to do, a third asked her if she knew how to switch between CNG & petrol . While she opened up the bonnet, a few more mean comments came by. She sat back in car, called a colleague to take her fare ( i.e., me) and then called her company to report the problem.

While I waited in her car for the next cab to come, I asked her what she would do. She said she would move the car to the side and go home. The company would send a towing van when they could arrange for it. I worried for her safety even in the supposedly secure premises of India’s busiest airport.

“M” came by a few minutes later. She expertly transferred my bags into her Hyundai Accent and we drove off. On discovering I spoke the local language, M spent the next 26 kilometres telling me her life story.  Having lost her mum to cancer 2 years earlier, M gave up on a college degree. Her older sister had just gotten married, her 2 younger siblings were under 10 and she had finished class 12.  Her painter dad needed another income to pay off medical loans and get the household running.  M’s neighbour was a lady-cabbie and she decided to give it a go. She got through her driving test and training and got a job as one of the 25 or so lady cabbies of the city. The system worked like this: every fortnight she paid the cab company 9000 rupees; the rest of her earnings, less the cost of fuel, was her income (around10-15000 Rs. p.m) . She said she preferred doing at least 1 airport trip a day and then came my second discovery: M did not use a public toilet anywhere in the city other than the airport. Said she “held” herself because the public toilets were dirty or wet or simply unusable.  If she was lucky, she got a chance to use a facility at a fare’s office building.

This reminded me of Sujata Anandan’s article. When the physiological needs of a woman member of Maharashtra State’s Cabinet is not factored in by colleagues, the needs of women taxi drivers come low in the pecking order of responsibilities of governments and municipalities towards its citizens.

Makes me wonder:

  • What is the role of regulatory bodies when it comes to behaviour of its members?
    It’s bad enough a lady cabbie is ribbed in broad daylight with a passenger sitting in her vehicle, what happens if some of those men are drunken louts, at night?  The Taximen’s Union is not the most liked group of people in the city; this experience confirmed that many of its members have one hell of a mean streak. They rage against change in a way that is hurtful beyond belief and the Union has no interest in enforcing some basic human values in them. In few cities will less civilised people be in charge of passenger transport. How can we claim our place at the high table of world powers if we cannot ensure some order among our taximen?  I hope some good Samaritans would have helped J push her car aside at the airport that day because not one of those Cool Cab drivers showed any inclination to help.

  • Just how high are the cards stacked against women?  We talk of reservations to acquire political power but what about creating an environment where they can work without facing hostility?

  • And finally: just what is it about us and poor sanitation?  Why can’t we build more toilets and having built them why can’t we keep them clean ? Incidentally, you know when you are going past the men’s loo at the airport arrival lounge–the stink is in the air. Tells me whoever designed the ventilation system didnt do a good job . Of course,  it would help if the airport authorities invested in some air fresheners too.

Or maybe we must have self cleaning loos everywhere and pray to Swachcha Narayani instead.