Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Women speak up and take charge

The recent allegations of sexual harassment by a former intern at the hands of a Supreme Court judge who has retired, followed by similar allegations against the same person by another woman, has seemingly opened the doors for more such claims. And sure enough, here we have the editor of Tehelka magazine, Tarun Tejpal, going on a self-imposed six-month sabbatical in what he termed “atonement" after a junior colleague accused him of sexual assault at a recent event organized by the publication in Goa.

There was a time when powerful Indian men could get away with lecherous behaviour. And there will always be those who will get away with not just sexual harassment, but murder, too. However, the availability of online platforms to broadcast or publish yourself and the power of social media has ensured that those days are well behind for at least some of these creeps. The 24/7 news channels are relentless in the pursuit of airing anything salacious, often convicting suspected offenders, leaving aside any ethical considerations or presumption of innocence before guilt is proven. This, too, does not bode well.

The allegations against the retired Supreme Court judge reminds me of the over 20-year-old case of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. Thomas, now a justice of the Supreme Court of the US, almost did not make it to that lofty post due to sexual harassment charges by Hill, a former colleague. Hill, a lawyer, had worked with Thomas and alleged that he sexually harassed her when he was, ironically, the head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.

When president George Bush selected Thomas in 1991 to fill the seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice, he hoped to maintain the racial makeup of the court. Thomas also was a conservative and despite his racial background, many African-Americans and women’s groups opposed his nomination, fearing he would reverse the hard-fought gains they had made. On the eve of his confirmation, Hill’s graphic revelations of sexual harassment by Thomas were the final straw for the many who opposed Thomas.

In the public hearings that followed the allegations, Thomas’s response was to brand them as a “high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks". In the end it was her word against his. And Thomas was confirmed by a Senate that was 98% male and voted largely along party lines of 52-48 in one of the narrowest nominations in the history of the US.

One result of Hill’s decision to come forward with the allegations was that it brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment to the fore and the hearings brought the issue live to anyone who had a television and could bear to watch the hearings. The year after the hearings, 1992, saw a record number of women run for office and win. There is no question that Hill’s decision to out the truth was brave, unprecedented and paved the way for women to speak up and take charge. This is also happening now in India.

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