. Priya Ramani, a victim of sexual harassment, acquitted of the charge of defamation laid on her by former editor and BJP leader M J Akbar in a brazen attempt to silence women’s testimonies of being molested by him. But the acquittal verdict, achieved by the courageous testimonies of Ramani and Ghazala Wahab, and the stellar feminist lawyering by Rebecca John, is pathbreaking because it did much more than refuse the attempt of a perpetrator to punish his victim.
The verdict urged society to “understand that sometimes a victim may for years not speak up due to mental trauma,” and underlined that a woman has a right to speak up about the abuse, even after decades. It pointed out that since sexual harassment typically takes place in private, women’s testimonies cannot be dismissed as untrue or defamatory simply because they are unable to provide other witnesses to back their allegations.
Men from privileged classes, when accused of sexual violence, are quick to accuse women of injuring their reputation and status. There have even been campaigns (across political aisles) claiming that the amendments to India’s sexual violence laws in 2013 are “draconian” when applied to privileged men. The unspoken (and sometimes outspoken) assumption has been that these laws were meant to be used only to convict slum or street-dwelling “thugs” like the accused in the 2012 Delhi bus rape case. When women professionals seek justice against “respectable” and even celebrated men, their influential friends raise a cry of outrage, and promptly accuse the complainants (and their feminist supporters) of injuring the reputations of such men. (The reputations of the women are held as too puny to count).
The Ramani verdict is a huge moral vindication of the #MeToo movement, and will, hopefully, serve to deter powerful men from using the defamation law to silence survivors. But we are still very far away from ensuring workplaces free of sexual harassment for every woman, every transperson.