So that she can speak

Ania Loomba

Use 'Tehelka' case to bring questions of women's agency and safety centrestage.

The recent incident of sexual harassment at Tehelka has underlined the urgent necessity for implementing the Vishaka judgment and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, both of which call for the setting up of internal committees in every organisation and workplace. But one of the most complicated and important issues that has emerged in the wake of this incident is that of women's agency. Some women activists and lawyers have argued that the journalist who complained of sexual harassment against Tarun Tejpal should be allowed to decide to what extent to pursue the matter.

In a recent article, CPM leader Brinda Karat has argued that these women "became party to" Tehelka's attempts to cover up the gravity of the crime and its own institutional culpability. Apart from imputing motives to these activists, the phrasing suggests that raising the issue of female agency at this juncture is tantamount to diluting and diverting the cause of justice. I write as one of those who disagreed with the arguments of these activists, and was worried about some of the ways in which female agency was being invoked in social media and other forums in the wake of this incident. But I would argue that the issue of women's "agency" is absolutely central to any attempts to provide justice in cases of sexual violence. Because the journalist has agreed to comply with the Goa police's investigation, this particular case has moved beyond those discussions. But we need to take this opportunity to think seriously about this issue, both in order to push for clarifications in the law and to inform our own practice.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 was meant to serve the purpose of providing speedy justice in cases of sexual harassment to women employees without the lengthy procedures of a court case. Contrary to the impression given in many recent articles on the Tehelka case, the act underlines that an "internal committee" is not to be set up in response to a particular complaint. It should be set up and be in operation continuously and its task is both to redress sexual harassment and to prevent it by educating employees and advertising its obligation to take such harassment seriously (Section 19).

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