We write as feminists and activists in the women’s movement, disturbed by imputations of motive to some fellow activists who have spoken out publicly in the Tehelka sexual assault case. These allegations of pandering to the Tehelka management’s attempts to cover up the serious charges against Tarun Tejpal, have come expectedly from the Right, but also disturbingly, from sections of the Left, who interpret the insistence on respecting the decisions of the complainant, as disrespect of the law on sexual assault.
Many of us have been in the position of being confidantes to women who come to us with complaints of sexual harassment and assault. In such situations, we see our prime responsibility as that of offering unconditional support to the complainant, making available to her the largest possible range of options, helping her to take difficult decisions. Among these options is always the recourse to the police and criminal prosecution. But we believe it would be entirely counterproductive to insist that the complainant report to the police if she is not prepared to do so immediately. And until she expresses her readiness to move forward on that path, we try to build her courage to take that step, while remaining quietly supportive of whatever steps she does wish to take in the interim.
In this particular case, too, this was the view being expressed by the activists/ feminist lawyers being attacked. The fact that the Managing Editor of Tehelka opportunistically used these statements of support for the complainant woman, to defend her own attempt to cover up and internally manage the complaint rather than dealing with it, cannot be used as a weapon against the feminist activists who were speaking in a different context entirely. It must be stated here that the employer and the police must carry out their duties as mandated by law and cannot make excuses for their breach of law and willful omissions, by citing the complainant. Of course, the Tehelka Managing Editor did not even honour the three demands that the complainant journalist made to her.
In other words, we need to distinguish between the duties and responsibilities of the employer, the police and the complainant.
Of course the issue is quite different in situations of communal, caste violence or other conflict zones, where the reluctance of women to complain to the police may be due to large scale intimidation, in which case our role, responsibility and articulation will be very different. This difference must be kept in mind.
In the case of the workplace, when women (and men) complain about incidents of sexual harassment and/or assault, especially against powerful figures, they need to feel confident that they themselves will have the right to control the pace of the follow-up, and also to decide how far to take it. We need to help build up this confidence, otherwise we would be scaring people away from seeking redress and justice, rather than empowering them to speak up.
The increasingly belligerent insistence that the complainant must immediately file a criminal complaint with the police, reflects both an unreflective statism that sees as legitimate only one possible form of justice and closure for the complainant, as well as a betrayal of the feminist ethic of respecting the agency of the victims and survivors of sexual assault. Respecting the agency of the survivor does not mean of course, leaving her in isolation, but offering her solidarity and support of all kinds till the end.
Kamayani Bali Mahabal