believewomen

‘Something Very Monumental Is Happening, and We Should Listen’

Senior advocate Rebecca Mammen John tells VICE why the #MeToo voices on social media are bigger than what the Indian law can give them.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
October 8, 2018, 1:53pm

It’s been an exhausting year for women in India. An Indian actress’ allegation against actor Nana Patekar for an incident that occurred 10 years ago, resurfaced last month. Soon after that, on October 5, a tweet about stand-up comic Utsav Chakraborty was followed by more and more accounts of sexual misconduct in the stand-up industry. The very next day, the news of filmmaker Vikas Bahl—one of the four partners at Phantom Films, which was dissolved recently—and the allegations of sexual assault by him, broke. And then came stories by women—some anonymous, while some choosing not to—opening up a can of worms in the Indian media. It’s here, finally, as few reports claim: the watershed moment in the Indian #MeToo movement for the media and the entertainment industry, close on the heels of the first spark created by US-based law student Raya Sarkar and her list of men in academia who are allegedly guilty of sexual harassment, in 2017.

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As the names continue to surface on social media, VICE speaks with criminal lawyer and senior advocate with the Delhi High Court, Rebecca Mammen John. Known for 25 years of practice before trial courts, tribunals, the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court, John’s body of work has comprised cases of sexual violence, including child sexual abuse. She opens up to VICE about why these conversations need to make us all anxious and why they will help us grow:

VICE: Let’s backtrack a bit and take into account all these allegations that have surfaced on social media over the last few days, and continue to do so as we speak. What is your assessment of what has happened so far?

I’m looking at what is coming out now. Many of the allegations, particularly the ones from women working in the media, seem credible as they are substantiated sufficiently; it’s not a gimmicky list. It’s talking about who these men are, it’s contextualising the incidents, these women have given details, naming the persons who are responsible. In many cases, women are choosing not to remain anonymous and are coming out with their stories. I don’t know what the end result of all of this is going to be and what to expect from it, but that’s a separate issue altogether.

Do you have a problem with the way these names are being outed? Is there a possibility of some of the complainants inviting defamation?

You can’t stop anyone from taking a legal remedy. If that’s the legal remedy that a person chooses to employ, so be it. It needs to be remembered, however, that truth is an absolute defense in defamation cases.

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All organisations are required to have an internal committee to protect its employees, or provide various forms of redressal, from sexual harassment. But in the light of the recent testimonies on Twitter, it’s clear that those mechanisms are ineffective, or have plainly failed. Look at the role of power dynamics, in most cases, between the men and women that have stopped women from talking about their abuse. Do you think there are alternate paths that the women can take, apart from outing men on social media?

Structurally, no, as it stands today. I’m conscious of the many, many problems with the sexual harassment act [The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013] and, as you rightfully say, one of them is the power hierarchy. The law has worked well in some situations but in many others, it has failed to provide any redressal. Unfortunately, since we’re presently talking about media houses—which is where the bulk of complaints are coming from—I don’t think many media houses have very credible in-house mechanisms.

So, what is the mechanism that exists today? The mechanism that exists is the formal one of going to the police station and filing a criminal complaint or the mechanism under the Sexual Harassment Act. As regards the effectiveness of these mechanisms, it is apparent that they are not particularly effective. This is exactly why many women are not following the formal route and have little faith in it.

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While there's #BelieveWomen, there's also the idea of you’re innocent until proven guilty. How do we structure a system that believes women on the one hand and also presumes that the accused is innocent? How do you as a lawyer reconcile with both ends?

We do that every day! I think our training and skills as lawyers allows us to keep a balance, to separate the grain from the chaff and when the matter goes to court only that portion of the evidence which is credible passes judicial scrutiny.

There’s some form of ambiguity when it comes to understanding sexual harassment, as we have seen in the testimonials that have come out over the last few days. How do you draw a line between right and wrong in that space?

We will learn. It’s a learning process for both the man and the woman. Every act of sexism is not sexual harassment. I think these women demand us to sit back and listen to them respectfully and with compassion. In terms of how to change the workplace atmosphere, it may not change immediately. It may make men who’ve done no wrong very uncomfortable. But even for them, there is much to learn from the events of the past few weeks and months. Some of these men may not have even thought they were doing anything wrong. That's how power and impunity have been internalised so far.

How would you structure a step-by-step legal approach for these voices on social media? Is there an accessible guide for some of them to take into account?

This is a premature question to ask because I don’t know what these women want to do with their social media. Everything doesn’t necessarily have to become a legal process. Getting into the legal space can make it very complicated and may not necessarily work. Some may, on the other hand, decide to go to the court, and choose the prosecution route. All I would say to everyone: something very monumental is happening and we should listen.

How do the bystanders deal with a situation like this, especially organisations who have been associated with people who’ve been allegedly accused. Is there any protocol?

Many media institutions are issuing statements. They have to go beyond issuing statements. This has become very, very serious. And every media organisation has to make sure that their employees are working in a safe environment. That includes the environment within offices, that includes going out for assignments and not just in media house but also to lawyers’ chambers, hospitals, companies—wherever there is a workforce—including factories or domestic help. We should think of people who are less privileged than us or don’t have access to social media and yet have horrific stories to tell. There are power hierarchies even amongst women. Maybe it’s time to ask our domestic help if they have faced harassment. Maybe it’s time to ask the factory worker the same question. I think we need to expand this conversation. It’s a monumental moment but it needs a wider reach.