A Delhi court’s acquittal of journalist Priya Ramani in the criminal defamation complaint filed by celebrity editor-politician MJ Akbar will embolden women survivors of sexual harassment at workplaces to speak up. “The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades,” the court said, directly answering those who questioned women coming out with their #MeToo accounts after considerable passage of time, and those who questioned their choice of social media platforms rather than law enforcement mechanisms to air grievances.
Many women will gain confidence from the court believing the testimonies of Ramani and fellow journalist Ghazala Wahab on their harassment. The woman’s struggle to be believed by society, to resist social stigma, to convince herself to recognise the abuse, to overcome the mental trauma and gain confidence to expose the abuser have rightly found mention in the judgment. “The woman cannot be punished for raising voice against the sex abuse on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation as the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution,” wrote ACMM RK Pandey.
The court’s privileging of fundamental rights over restrictive legal provisions like criminal defamation that silence victims of injustice and the free press is heartening. To Ramani’s credit she didn’t baulk at having to join a long legal fight. The conversation over sexual harassment and women’s safety at workplaces has come a long way since Supreme Court framing the Visakha guidelines in 1997. Since 2013, India has the Sexual Harassment at Workplaces (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act placing statutory responsibilities upon employers and a clearly defined penal provision criminalising sexual harassment (IPC Section 354A).
Yet, it is still a long, lonely path for women because the harasser is almost always a senior in the organisation, enjoying great power and influence. Ramani told reporters of having to deal with anxiety, stress and fear in her fight as well as the irony of her having to stand in court as the accused. The verdict’s succinct yet powerful recognition of her act of “self-defence” and its empathy towards late complainants – invoked insensitively to detract victims without recognising their difficulty of coping with the trauma of sexual harassment or violence – may well become another clarion call moment like the 2017-18 #MeToo movement.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.