Though a veteran criminal lawyer, Rebecca John admits that the Priya Ramani trial was perhaps one of the most significant cases of her career. Fresh from the win, she tells Himanshi Dhawan that while the verdict comes as a ray of hope, certain larger issues still need to be addressed:
The court has recognised certain fundamental things. One, that merely because Priya Ramani made the disclosure of sexual harassment 20 years after the incident is no grounds to believe the complainant (MJ Akbar). It is also apparent that there were no mechanisms to deal with complaints at that time as the incident preceded the Vishaka verdict and the 2013 law on sexual harassment, by several decades. Also, the environment that they were working in at that time did not encourage young women journalists to make complaints against their editors.
I’m trying to underscore here that this is a moment of great relief and celebration but the verdict has to be looked at contextually, and the context is the explicit defence pleaded by Ramani of truth made in public interest. Her evidence was relevant to buttress the claim of stellar reputation that was being taken by the complainant in the case. So, ultimately, it was fought on legal terms, and I think we need to understand that.
Sexual harassment survivors are often faced with vilification within their friends’ and professional networks. As a society, do we recognise the difficulty in speaking up against men in powerful positions?
Of course there is a power dynamic at play. And the reason why these cases are filed, is because when women speak truth to power, the power lashes back at them. The power differential allows the powerful man to vilify the victim. We’ve seen that happening in multiple cases. Men have exercised their superior power, either in terms of their wealth or social standing or hierarchy in a workplace or caste equations. This power is used to deprive a woman the right to bodily autonomy.
There is apprehension among some quarters, that this judgment could be misused to defame men.
There might be apprehensions expressed in a given case and those may weigh in the mind of a court. Why are you coming so late? What is the proof you have? How does a man defend himself after 20 years? These are valid apprehensions and I’m not for a minute suggesting that these apprehensions must not be given due play. However, it is important to remember Ramani did not prosecute, she defended.
What you think needs to be done to make workplaces safe for women?
While we all lauded the Vishaka judgment and the sexual harassment prohibition Act, there are some serious problems in the working of the law, because inevitably when complaints are made with respect to persons who are higher in rank and position than the complainant woman, the inhouse ICC ends up supporting the man rather than the woman. We need more outside members in the committee so that there is no conflict of interest.
We also need to audit how many women in the unorganised sector are able to access district committees and what is the role these committees play. I think there’s a huge population of women who are facing sexual violence on a daily basis and have no access to law.
The #MeToo movement on social media was a result of a sense of frustration over formal and legal mechanisms. Do you think this verdict will encourage women to come forward to speak up?
The legal system failed which is why women were taking to platforms like #MeToo. I’m not saying every case has ended in that way but a large majority of women who have accessed the legal system have gone back feeling, ‘It wasn’t worth it. We shouldn’t have done it.’ There are dangers in making these kinds of disclosures because, after all, as a criminal defence lawyer and as a person who upholds constitutional principles, I’m also wary of allegations being made without any basis or contrary to facts. And surely that’s not the feminist principle that somebody who hasn’t done something should be implicated in a case falsely. So, we need to find this balance between accessing the legal system and accessing platforms like the #MeToo platform where women can testify without fear.
Ramani’s acquittal in a defamation case is a small dot and gives us a ray of hope, but it in no way settles the larger issues that women face. Women continue to face violence inside their homes and on the streets and in the workplaces. And, neither the legal systems nor the semi-formal systems seem to address it.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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