As an Indian man, I feel we have let our daughters, sisters, mothers, nieces, aunts, wives and grandmothers down. By staying silent, we have failed to be men. But rather than putting on our burkhas and hiding from this ugly truth, we must fix these medieval attitudes by raising our voices and fighting for the rights of women in our society, and in the workplace.
Sexism, harassment and rape exist in all cultures, as do sexual abuse based on power and position. But in India the problem of inequality is much more deeply rooted in our culture and society. It begins at birth, when boys are considered prized possessions while girls are often discarded and aborted because they are seen as burdens on families. The practice of Sati may have been abolished but the attitudes surrounding the practice are still prevalent today. We are taught that women are inferior to men; that they are weaker and dependent on men for everything. It is almost as if we are not so subtly told that they are our property, particularly if we are married to them or if they work for us. And it is this attitude among men that prevails, even among the most educated, accomplished and erudite amongst us. Think about the basic fact that when you and I walk around the streets of any city in India, board a train or a bus, as men we NEVER feel uncomfortable or fear for our safety. Men do not have to deal with being stared at to the point of feeling uncomfortable or being whistled at or even being physically violated by someone touching our buttocks or grabbing our penis. Men do not have to deal with these personal abuses. As a man we can dress how we want, smoke, drink and curse openly, in public, and without any fear or repercussion – but what happens when a woman does the same thing? We immediately attach a label to her; if she seems drunk we say she is a loose woman. If a woman curses, we think it unladylike behaviour or again associate her with having loose morals. Are we not all guilty of thinking this at one time or another, even if not acting on it?
Tarun Tejpal was a crusader for the little people. He fought for those who had been wronged in our society, from taking down corrupt politicians to championing women’s rights. This is a man who preached moral values and claimed to hold himself to higher principles and beliefs. Yet, it is now very clear that when it really comes down to understanding what women’s rights encompasses and true equality among the sexes, he is really no better than the men on that Delhi bus that raped and killed Jyoti Singh Pandey. We can no longer pretend that rape and sexual harassment are confined to poor slum dwellers or the non-educated. Tarun Tejpal is not only considered a well-educated, society intellectual but part of the wealthy elite of our country. People will argue that I am being harsh to equate Tejpal with the animals on that Delhi bus, but the truth is that his attitude and lack of respect for a woman is no different from the uneducated man on the street. Granted men like him do not stand on street corners eve teasing every woman that walks by but his actions in the end lead to exactly the same outcome; that of humiliating, disrespecting, disempowering and abusing a woman. Perhaps, his actions are worse because at least on the streets women know to have their guard up, as opposed to the perceived safety of their workplace.
What Mr. Tejpal did was violate a sacred trust between an employer and employee. Mr. Tejpal has already admitted to as much in his email correspondences with the woman. An innocent man does not say things like; “My punishment has already been upon me, and will probably last till my last day.” Or “I must do the penance that lacerates me.” That he is guilty of sexually assaulting this woman is not in doubt, but I suspect he has done the same or worse to many other women, who have yet to speak out. It is their silence that has emboldened him and deluded him into believing that he has done nothing wrong. Mr. Tejpal, like Moishe Katsav and many other men with great power, begin to delude themselves into thinking that they can define their on their own moral code. If you read the victim’s letter to Shoma Chaudhury (source: “The complete email trail of the Tarun Tejpal sexual assault case” – IBN Live), and then read Mr. Tejpal’s response to her saying things like – “I had no idea that you were upset, or felt I had been even remotely non-consensual” – you will begin to see how deluded men like him can become. Powerful men are used to getting their way, all the time, and not accustomed to hearing the word NO. I think men like Tejpal begin to believe that because of the great good they have done in society, it somehow forgives them their trespasses, and that they can conduct themselves in a way that does not apply to the rest of us mere mortals (or perhaps they are just sociopaths).
What should trouble us more in this instance is that there are still many people (including a number of women) who are trying to argue Mr. Tejpal’s defense by questioning the victim’s motivations. Even after it is clear that this is not some attempt to malign his reputation or a political smear campaign, as Mr. Tejpal now claims. Are we all programmed to automatically give the benefit of the doubt to the rich and powerful and mistrust the word of a nobody? Perhaps this is what predators like Mr. Tejpal count on. They pick on victims they believe are weak and who will not fight back or speak out. And if the victim does say something, then people like Mr. Tejpal believe it will be easy to discredit them because his word will hold more sway over a nameless, faceless person. However, this time both victim and her predator have acknowledged the events transpired and Mr. Tejpal even admits to “twice attempting “a sexual liaison” despite the reporter’s “clear reluctance.” (source: “Tarun Tejpal’s informal apology” – NDTV). This issue also goes back to the root of the problem of inequality in India. What can we expect when the President of India’s son calls anti-rape protestors “dented and painted.” We are trained to vilify victims by ostracizing and further humiliating them in a very public way. Instead of supporting them we question their motivations, this after the woman has just experienced not only a traumatic event but been the victim of a serious crime. Also, consider that recently in response to a legal intern writing a blog about a Supreme Court judge sexually harassing her (she is still too scared to file a formal complaint), judges have announced that they will stop hiring female interns as the solution to this allegation. And people are asking why she took so long to report the incident; why she continued to party after he attacked her and still fulfill her job duties?
Rape and sexual assault is the most under reported crime in the world. There is a sense of humiliation, a loss of dignity, powerlessness and severe physical and mental trauma and shock associated with such a violation of a person’s body. Additionally, as in this case, there is also a real fear of retaliation by a powerful and wealthy perpetrator. The victim would likely lose her job and fear for her future financial security. She had to consider that Mr. Tejpal might decide to ruin her life with his power, money and connections in order to protect himself. He has already shown willingness to smear the victim’s character. So it is not surprising that she waited a week to formally file a complaint but laudable that she actually found the courage to do it. We must now support and protect her, and in doing so encourage all the women who have been abused by Mr. Tejpal to also come forward.
This is not about being holier than thou or about fighting for feminism and women’s liberation; I am simply talking about ensuring that women have the same rights in society as men and can walk down the street or wander their office halls without any fear of humiliation or physical molestation. We must give the thousands of women who have suffered these crimes, in silence, a voice. We need to create an environment where women can come forward and report these offenses, without fear of reprisal or retaliation. If this happened to your daughter, sister or wife – would you be questioning their timing, their motives or doubting what they say? We can no longer afford to stay silent. If we remain silent and let men like him get away with these crimes, then we will all be equally complicit and no different from Mr. Tejpal.