Sexual harassment at the workplace is not a new phenomenon. However, in the recent past, several discussions have been triggered around it, thanks to the worldwide #MeToo movement where women have been naming and shaming the perpetrators. In India, in 2017, law student Raya Sarkar put together a list of alleged sexual harassers in the Indian academia through survivors who approached her online. The List or LoSHA (List of Sexual Harassers in Academia) as it was called, led to several discussions and angry debates. While one side felt The List was irresponsible and insisted that due process must be followed, the other side argued that it wasn't a substitute for the law, but a warning for other women. It was pointed out that 'due process' had repeatedly failed to protect the survivors.
The debates led to a significant outpouring of experiences of sexual harassment, where women detailed the price they had paid for speaking up and how the system had re-victimised them all over again. These conversations have started once more around a fresh bout of #MeToo, with actor Tanushree Dutta accusing Nana Patekar of sexually harassing her on the sets of the film Horn Ok Pleassss in 2008. Subsequently, several women have been calling out their harassers on social media - many of them in the standup comedy scene, film and journalism fields.
It's in these times of churning and upheaval that Chennai-based filmmaker Vaishnavi Sundar's But What Was She Wearing? comes. A revealing documentary on workplace sexual harassment, the film details how widely prevalent violence is, and how as a society we are complicit in maintaining the status quo. The film has women from various walks of life and professions talking about their experiences of sexual harassment and its aftermath.
The difficulty of addressing sexual harassment at the workplace, when the workplace itself is so different according to the nature of your job, is apparent from the kind of diverse experiences that the women in the film share. For an actor, her workplace shifts from one film set to another. For a researcher, her work takes her all over the country. A woman worker in manual scavenging is oppressed by both her gender and caste. There are men, too, who have spoken about the "bro code” and how differently people of their gender look at sexual harassment – violence as "timepass".
On course of the 1 hour 49 minute film, Vaishnavi takes the viewer through the spectrum of issues that crop up when a woman is sexually harassed at the workplace. First, there's the definition of sexual harassment itself – it can encompass a wide range of acts and behaviours, from showing a woman pornographic pictures to physically assaulting her. It can also be sexist and personal comments – like a TV presenter being asked to get a "boob job" to look "better". Sometimes, workplace harassment can come from external factors – for instance, a male patient making up excuses to have a woman doctor examine his genitals. Through the voices of survivors, activists and counsellors, the film gives us an understanding of what happens when such an instance takes place. The shame, guilt, and constant feeling that the victim somehow "asked for it".
But perhaps, it is is the complete lack of support that is the most shattering for survivors. Actor Parvathy, who has been vocal about gender and social issues, says in the film that women in her profession are told "not to be rude" to powerful male directors who expect sexual favours from them for work opportunities. While much ink has been spilt on writing about the "casting couch" (a euphemism for sexual harassment in the film industry), the same remains invisible yet widely prevalent in other professions. Merin Mathew, an ex office administrator at AI SATS, is a survivor of sexual harassment at her workplace and her testimony makes it abundantly clear why so many women choose silence over confronting their harasser and taking on the system.
While the industry and specifics of the harassment may change from case to case, what seems to be near unanimous is the response that these women get from their colleagues. They are tagged as "troublemakers", aspersions are cast on their character and intentions, they are denied work, pushed to the backroom and forced to do their job in a hostile environment. For women like standup comic Aditi Mittal who have to network in order to get work, it means opportunities are taken away from them because the bro code comes into place. Some women are even pushed to suicide before the management takes their complaint seriously.
The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), which is supposed to exist in all organisations which have at least 10 employees, is seldom set up or taken seriously. Often, the harasser is either in the committee or in a position to influence it. Considering the power dynamic at play, complaints to the ICC can prove to be counter-productive, say survivors who've taken the "due process" route but reached nowhere. Filing a criminal complaint is also far from easy (it's also expensive to hire lawyers) – neither the police nor the courts are sensitised to sexual harassment and often subject the survivor to questions like "Why did you take so long to complain?" or "Why didn't you move away from him the very first time?" and so on. In fact, P Suganthi of the All India Democratic Women's Association, recalls how the organisation received a 4-page letter from a woman cop which detailed the kind of horrific sexual harassment that they experience from their male colleagues. Media insensitivity in reporting such cases burdens the survivors further.
As writer Sharanya Manivannan and documentary filmmaker/activist Divya Bharathi point out in the film, for women who have already had to fight patriarchy within their families to pursue a career, it becomes untenable to fight the lengthy battle ahead. They'd rather retract from the unforgiving scrutiny under which they are placed. The film throws much needed light on questions that survivors might ask themselves – "Why didn't I run when he did this? Does it mean I wanted it at some level?" – explaining the fight and flight instincts, and how these psychological responses are misconstrued by others around the survivor to such an extent that they end up doubting their own feelings about the incident.
But What Was She Wearing? also makes the link between religion and patriarchy, one of the fundamental reasons why society's moral code remains gender unjust even if the law says otherwise. At different points in the film, we see contemporary dancers who symbolically represent the violence experienced by women and their fight against it. The last frame, quite aptly, shows them sitting around a fire and burning copies of a document titled 'Manu Script'.
There are no simple solutions to the problem but a beginning can be made by listening to survivors who've fought a lonely battle thus far. Vaishnavi is currently looking to screen the film across the country. If you would like to arrange a screening or contribute in some way, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.