India's Workplace Cases Highlight Abuse Against Women

As India marks the anniversary of the infamous gang rape in New Delhi, it is ending the year as it began: in upheaval over its treatment of women. In a recent series of cases, men in positions of privilege are alleged to have sexually harassed or assaulted female employees. The episodes spotlight the absence of women's rights in the Indian workplace.

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As India marks the anniversary of the infamous Delhi gang rape, it is ending the year as it began: in upheaval over its treatment of women. In a recent series of cases, men in positions of privilege are alleged to have sexually harassed or assaulted female employees. The episodes highlight the overall absence of women's rights in the Indian workplace. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: One year after the rape that convulsed India, a new debate has erupted over how women are treated in boardrooms, newsrooms and even judge's chambers. Nightly talk shows have bristled with news of alleged misdeeds by men in high places, and asked the question...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Is it time for women to break the code of silence when powerful men are accused of sexual harassment? "Agenda for Change" is up next.

MCCARTHY: Law intern Stella James broke the code of silence and illustrated how sexual misconduct may have tainted the highest court in the land. James had joined the street protests in the aftermath of the December 16th gang rape in Delhi last year. She wrote in a blog for an Indian law journal: I dodged police barricades and fatigue to go to the assistance of a highly reputed retired Supreme Court judge. For my supposed diligence, she said, I was rewarded with sexual assault from a man old enough to be my grandfather. Its credibility on the line, India's Supreme Court called her to testify, and in a landmark move, named the judge: retired Justice AK Ganguly. In a recent televised interview, he denied any misconduct and said the young intern was almost like my child.

AK GANGULY: What could I do? I'm very shocked and shattered. I am not ashamed of anything. If this trend continues, yes, it will be difficult for our present judges in Supreme Court to function.

MCCARTHY: A panel of three judges found evidence that Ganguly had committed an act of unwelcome behavior. But he was retired at the time, so the court will take no action. The police, however, would like to speak to the intern. A young reporter's allegations have plunged the news media into the sexual harassment storm and precipitated the fall of a high-flying editor, Tarun Tejpal.

Tejpal became the darling of India's new media, deploying spy cams to unearth the misdeeds of others. But events at a seaside jamboree he hosted for celebrities and India's literati last month proved to be his undoing. TV crews and reporters camped here outside the home of Tarun Tejpal, the editor-in-chief of a progressive journal, Tehelka.

The magazine built a reputation hunting down malfeasance and demanding justice for wrongdoing. Now, its founder, Tarun Tejpal, faces allegations that he sexually assaulted a young female reporter at a conference sponsored by the magazine in Goa.

The victim said what was done to her in an elevator during the conference constitutes rape. Prosecutors say CCTV footage from the hotel provides evidence that Tejpal literally ripped the underwear off the young woman. That sort of behavior carries a seven-year jail term under the new sexual assault law. The aggrieved reporter said that Tejpal, an old family friend, assaulted her twice during the conference.

SHIV VISVANATHAN: One could be a misunderstanding. Two is the beginning of a trend.

MCCARTHY: That's social anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan. Tejpal, who has been charged with rape, is reported to have told a young woman that the best way to keep your job is to keep quiet. Visvanathan says the first thing a woman is told when she's molested is don't complain.

VISVANATHAN: You'll just be a nuisance. Don't rock the boat. Return to silence, as if normalcy is possible after that. Any office, workplace, any college, any bus transport system, you'll find people being molested, and then told forget it, go home, be normal. The victim has no right to protest.

MCCARTHY: It was when Tejpal's lawyers implied that the victim was not victim at all that the woman's family went to the police. Journalist and commentator Anna Vetticad says maligning the victim is a well-worn ploy in cases of unwanted sexual aggression.

ANNA VETTICAD: You're suggesting that there is a possibility that it was consensual. And this is precisely what happens in every case of sexual harassment at the workplace.

MCCARTHY: Vetticad says very few women journalists in India have not experienced some form of sexual harassment at the workplace. She too grappled with a sexually charged environment.

VETTICAD: Where editors would consider it OK to be constantly making sexually colored remarks, where an editor has thought it's OK to, you know, brush against women when they're passing him in the corridor and so on and so forth. I have to say that when these things happened, I was startled, but also, I wasn't aware of what my rights were.

MCCARTHY: The protections American women take for granted generally do not exist in India. Twenty-nine-year-old attorney Mihira Sood says many companies - including Tehelka magazine - have ignored the 1997 Supreme Court ruling mandating panels in the workplace to hear harassment complaints. Sood notes that people will attempt to shield family members from sexual harassment but are less willing to come to the aid of others in a hostile environment, where she says...

MIHIRA SOOD: Boys will be boys, old men like to have their fun. You know, you might want to remove your daughter or your wife from that kind of surrounding and ensure that she's in a safe work environment, but you're not really going to speak up for anyone else.

MCCARTHY: Sood raised her own voice when she wrote about a senior attorney who made persistent and unwanted advances toward her as a young lawyer in Delhi. A student of gender law at Columbia University today, Sood says women who speak out in India face colleagues who discount their complaints or don't see them as harassment.

SOOD: You yourself begin to wonder: Am I overreacting? And, you know, the whole environment around you is constantly trying to deny your experience.

MCCARTHY: But Sood says social media and the blogosphere have transformed the way in which women choose to expose sexual harassment. In a country where justice is illusive, young women are using new media to tell their stories, but are refusing to file police reports or go to court.

SOOD: More and more, people are saying we don't have confidence in your system. And that's not our fault. That's your fault.

MCCARTHY: Anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan says sexual misconduct in the workplace or the police station is less about sex than it is about power. The Association for Democratic Reforms reports that dozens of lawmakers in regional assemblies across India have declared they have been charged with crimes against women. Again, Shiv Visvanathan.

VISVANATHAN: Each of these guys thought they were absolutely powerful. There's an arrogance to it. It's quite frightening, because what surrounds most of these acts of tyranny is silence.

MCCARTHY: Yet over the course of India's year of introspecting, Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy says young women have found their voice.

KARUNA NUNDY: And that some of those voices are leading to serious accountability. I think that's the big change.

MCCARTHY: India's parliament approved the country's first sexual harassment law this year. Anna Vetticad says 2013 has been a turning point.

VETTICAD: We have a long way to go, but I think that we've made a very big and very important start, and this year, I think, is a watershed year for the women's movement in India.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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