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Opinion: In one of India’s ‘most sexist professions’, harassment by powerful men is rife

Mihira Sood: A little more faith
Mihira Sood: A little more faith

I have wanted to write some of these things at different times since it happened, and always shied away. I was far less confident about my place in the legal profession, and was told it would be impossible to prove, that no one would want to take a chance on hiring me, that I would forever be known for this instead of for my work.

This may still be true but I care a little less, have a little more faith, and so when Legally India asked me to write about it at a time when people are receptive to listening and doing something about these issues, I decided to do it. 

I once assisted a very senior lawyer whose advances towards me continued for quite some time after my assistance ceased.

The advances were not physical; it was more in the nature of an obsessive romantic and sexual interest, starting with inappropriately timed phone calls to flowers, dinner invitations, and then sexually explicit email forwards and SMS jokes to more explicit expressions. This wasn't courtship, it was pursuit by a man old enough to be my father, who knew perfectly well how difficult it would be for me to reject him.

In some ways, these kind of advances are harder to voice an objection to without sounding delusional, and even harder to convince people to take seriously as I discovered when I spoke to some friends. While most readily saw it as a form of sexual interest that is clearly inappropriate, fewer saw it as harassment, and fewer still as discrimination.

After all, he didn’t demand sexual favours, nor did the interaction affect my work. He wasn’t being sexist in the sense of thinking, I was only good for one thing – I still did and was given great work. He didn’t exhibit a problem with successful female professionals. To many people, he seemed a reasonable, equality-minded sort of person with a bit of a crush.

This to me, misses the scope of the term “hostile work environment” which certainly goes beyond hostility as only being assaulted, fired, denied a promotion or a pay cut. It misses the fact that sexual harassment embodies fundamental gender stereotypes and that the hierarchy restrains people from challenging them.  It misses how humiliating it is, to be singled out for unwanted attention, and to feel powerless. The impact it can have on one’s self esteem and career choices. How victims are perceived and valued in workplaces by employers, and differently so by peers, the kind of gossip and stereotyping it gives rise to which affects not just victims but all women, how they choose to deal with it and what strategies they use to make the best of a situation, and how they feel about those strategies.

It took me a while to be able to talk about my experience, and to express the conviction that I felt violated because I didn’t think I fit the idea of someone who is victimized or vulnerable. Of course I am intellectually aware of the arguments against this stereotype, and readily apply them to other people and empathise with them, but to apply it to yourself is harder. I didn’t want to see myself as a victim, I told myself it was not as bad as it could have been and there are others who have it worse, and I was also a little crippled by shame and fear – of not speaking out, and of the potential consequences of doing so.

Unlike what SJ experienced though, feminism didn’t fail me. It gave me a vocabulary and a discipline to think beyond the binaries and assumptions of litigation and to interrogate the double binds that women operate under in these cases - that silence equals complicity, but speaking out and spoiling the office atmosphere means there was a good reason to fire you and therefore you are just making it up to take revenge.

Or that you have to be traumatised to X degree in order for it to be harassment, and if you are traumatised to that degree, you are incapable of providing a lucid testimony.

That you must recall every detail of every advance else it clearly wasn’t such a big deal and you are clearly not very credible if you can’t remember what you or he was wearing on any given day; that there can only be one kind of response to something like this, and you must be an ideal complainant, he must be someone people don’t mind hating and your response has to be pitch perfect (but not rehearsed); that you cannot publicly allege something unless you are willing to brave the stigma, but if you are willing to do that then clearly you would do anything for cheap publicity; that if you stay you chose it, and if you leave then the harm is over so we can all move on.

In case anyone thinks these are one-off cases, let me correct that and say this is rife, I know dozens of women who have suffered far worse than I have, and litigation, with its powerful and entitled men and its intricate networks and hierarchies that stifle any challenge, is quite possibly one of the most sexist professions in the country.

A common reaction to SJ’s story has in fact been that this is precisely why people should never hire female juniors, they are always more trouble than they are worth.

I don’t want this to become a legal complaint, and I have no intention of pursuing this. It’s just that I did not have the courage to rock the boat earlier, but someone else has done it now and I felt the least I could do was add to her and so many others’ efforts.

Mihira Sood has been litigating in Delhi for the past six years and is currently pursuing her LLM at Columbia Law School

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