Men all over the world are getting worried. Or at least they should be. What started out as a movement in the US against sexual harassment of powerful men at top positions in Hollywood, beginning with chilling allegations against American film producer Harvey Weinstein, has now spread all over the world exposing this insidious crime that has seeped into almost all institutions one can think of. The film and entertainment industry have always been notorious for this crime, more so because of the impunity enjoyed by the harassers and because the victims have always been in positions of less power. But with the #MeToo movement, women across the globe have realised that this powerlessness is enabled by the culture of silence, hence the best weapon is to speak out or even shout out. And now journalists are exposing the same crime in news organisations in countries in South Asia where patriarchy is celebrated with pomp and parade.
The Telegraph India online recently ran a story that named some of the most well-known editors of various prominent Indian newspapers against whom there are allegations of sexual misconduct by women journalists. Some of them have narrated their harrowing experiences through writing. Pressure from journalists and rights defenders has led to internal inquiries being conducted in these papers and there is an indication that the offenders will be held accountable. The allegations range from obscene gestures and sexual innuendos to inappropriate physical contact and direct demands for sexual favours.
Last year, two women anchors of PTV, the state-run television channel, exposed a director of the organisation for sexually harassing them. They appeared in talk shows and also talked about their experiences in social media. PTV decided to ban the women anchors for “defaming the organisation”. But these women remained undaunted and disagreeing with the probe body of the organisation that concluded that there wasn't enough evidence against the perpetrator, they approached the federal ombudsman for hearing their case and a five-member committee submitted its report. Eventually the director was terminated and the women anchors were reinstated.
While the possibility of getting justice for such a hideous crime may have slightly improved, though not without an arduous fight, this is usually true for well-known media organisations and in many cases, the standing of the journalists themselves. Even then there are attempts to malign the reputations of these women and intimidate them within the workplace and on social media. For women in junior positions it is the same as their counterparts in other industries where complaints against sexual harassment are discouraged not explicitly but implicitly, where the victims may decide to either remain silent to keep their jobs or quit.
In Bangladesh the fact that media organisations are disproportionately male-dominated makes it even harder to address sexual harassment. The bosses are usually all male and the cultural orientation is overwhelmingly patriarchal. The most tragic part is the apparent oblivion regarding what constitutes sexual harassment. Making vulgar, sexist comments in front of female colleagues is considered quite normal in newsrooms and those women who cannot “hack” it are welcome to leave. Ogling at women colleagues, paying inappropriate attention to their looks, sending vulgar texts, making inappropriate proposals to female colleagues they barely know, repeatedly asking them to have lunch or dinner despite refusals, leaning against a female colleague on a bike ride for an assignment, calling or texting a female colleague at odd hours—all this constitutes sexual harassment. But for many men, such acts are part of acceptable behaviour. Giving some of these men the benefit of the doubt, an argument may be made that they are unaware of boundaries, the invisible perimeter that defines the line between camaraderie and inappropriate behaviour. A woman colleague's genuine attempt to be amicable is sometimes taken as a green signal to push the limits of decency. Sometimes women put up with the behaviour because they are in less powerful positions than the men—the harasser may be a senior colleague against whom it would be difficult for the young woman colleague to complain. Often it is out of pure embarrassment that women do not speak out.
But wait, we are talking about newsrooms and media organisations where journalists and non-journalists should be well aware about the nuances of inappropriate behaviour. It is hard to believe that employees of a news media organisation do not know that, when they openly stare at young female colleagues from their desks or in the cafeteria or unnecessarily become over-familiar when they are clearly in a formal relationship, they are crossing the line. It is unfathomable that they do not know the dos and don'ts of workplace etiquette. People who work in news organisations are especially expected to know what constitutes sexual harassment. They are the ones, moreover, that report on this when it occurs in other industries. Just because some men get away with their lewd behaviour does not mean that they are unaware of the seriousness of their offence. They do know, it's just that they also know how to take liberties and get away with it. They know that they can take advantage of a female colleague's young age, or lower rank or sheer politeness that makes them endure the behaviour. The illogical part is that these men don't take the hint when the woman is not interested, when she is clearly not responding in the same way. This is where the need for sexual harassment policy in every media organisation comes in and one that is sincerely and effectively enforced.
There is an argument that some women may take advantage of the growing sensitivity to sexual harassment allegations, that innocent men may be victimised. While that is always possible, let's not get distracted from the fact that more often than not these allegations are true and they come after a lot of trauma—feelings of being humiliated, violated, powerlessness and even worthlessness. As far as news media organisations are concerned, they have a bigger responsibility to make sure that their female employees feel safe and are not subjected to any kind of harassment. It is about time they practice what they preach.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.