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Lawyer speaks out about sex harassment, begins #TellingOurStories

The Huffington Post India has published intellectual property lawyer Shwetasree Majumder’s account of incidents of sexual harassment and assault when she was aged 11 by a stranger on a bus, two years later by a family acquaintance’s brother, by two professors at university, and later, when she became a lawyer, by a client and by a colleague.

Excerpt of her experience of sexual harassment at work and in courts below:

Then came the client. Bespectacled and apparently respectable. Insisting on 8pm meetings and then offering to drop me home. Asking me whether I was married. Letting me know that he was younger than he looked. Telling me about his life’s ambition to marry a lawyer. I was deeply uncomfortable and found him creepy. It was impossible to work on his matters. And then I found out that another colleague had had the exact same experience. By now we were both livid. We went to the elderly male senior partner who had asked us to attend to this old client of his. Our demand was not that we should be excused from the portfolio but that the firm return the client’s files and the reason be expressly communicated to him. The senior partner laughed and said we should be flattered.

(Postscript: We didn’t let it go and went instead to another female senior partner who heard us out. The client was told to take his files and go. I don’t know if the reasons were communicated to him).

Then came the lawyer, circa 2015. Friendly. I enjoy a camaraderie with him. I’ve even worked on several matters with him. And yet he doesn’t get it. Being friendly cannot mean that you have the license to call me sexy in court. Or anywhere else. Or to repeatedly walk up to me until there is an inch between us and say throatily, “Mujhe bhool gayi hai...” (You’ve forgotten me). Except I am (thankfully) stronger, unafraid and know now without a shred of doubt that it needs to be called out. That silence or grace is not the way to deal with sexual harassment in any form. So I said to him one day, “You do need to stand at least a couple of feet away from me when we talk. That way you’ll immediately know that if what you’re saying is not meant for ‘public consumption’, you should not say it at all...

I’m not sure I fobbed him off for good with that line, but it’s a start.”

Majumder concludes with a powerful call for others to speak out with confidence:

I am strong. Empowered. Aware. A lawyer. And yet it took me 35 odd years to simply call it out.

All I can say today in retrospect is that we are often complicit in perpetrating a way of life that subdues, subverts, disregards or undermines such stories. Whether we actively discourage or watch from the sidelines, the effect is the same - the story remains untold. The narrative is either not serious enough, or was incorrectly perceived, or was brought on by an act of the narrator or was too shameful to acknowledge.

No reason is good enough.

Let’s stop nitpicking at the narrative and undermining the narrator. Let’s stop worrying about repercussions, wondering if we’re overreacting, or telling ourselves it’s in the past and it’s buried. It is time we started #TellingOurStories

Read the full account at the Huffington Post India.

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