To fight sexual harassment of women, it is important to continue to talk: Chinmayi Sripada

Chinmayi Sripada, one of the earliest and most prominent faces of the #MeToo movement in India, was recently denied permission to hold a protest in Chennai against the clean chit to CJI Ranjan Gogoi in a case of sexual harassment. In this interview, Chinmayi tells us why she chose to take this case up, and about her activism on this issue in general.

The #MeToo movement in India gathered momentum in the south when playback singer Chinmayi Sripada exposed popular Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu for sexually harassing her during a show and threatened to end her career after she did not give in to his overtures. A dubbing artist too, Chinmayi was  expelled from South Indian Cine and Television Artistes and Dubbing Artistes Union following her allegations against Vairamuthu. She disclosed that she was slut shamed  and there was also a concerted effort to destroy her career in the film industry.

More recently, the Justice S.A. Bobde in-house committee has given the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Ranjan Gogoi, a clean chit in the sexual harassment allegations levelled against him by a former Supreme Court staff member. Following this, Chinmayi had approached the Police Commissioner of Chennai seeking permission to hold a peaceful protest against the verdict on May 10, 2019 at Valluvarkottam, to enable many women who wanted a platform to express their views on the matter.

Predictably, her request was rejected. In the wake of  the rejection of her request to hold a silent protest against the Supreme Court verdict in CJI Ranjan Gogoi sexual harassment case by Chennai police  on Friday, May 10, 2019 we spoke to Chinmayi Sripada to find out why she wanted to hold the thwarted protest, and her future journey as a social activist who has fervently taken up the cause of sexual harassment of women and children.  Excerpts:

What was the intended objective of the protest you had planned to organize?

To demand a fair judicial inquiry and follow the due process of law in the sexual harassment case against the CJI by a former Supreme Court staff member, who is also differently-abled.

Once the request for the protest was denied, you went live on FB on May 10, 2019 where you listed your demands and also spoke about starting a movement for women.  Any progress on that?

We have been organizing meetings for the past three Sundays at a friend’s office and I bring NGOs to conduct a workshop every Sunday on various issues including sexual harassment. Today Swarna Rajagopalan from Prajnya Trust conducted the workshop. The meeting is attended by my followers of Instagram and we have open discussions on issues that women face.   

What according to you are the main issues that Indian women confront today?

In our country even women holding senior positions quit their jobs because they have to contend with sexual harassment everywhere. Men abuse women in public transport on the way to work or at the workplace where demands for sexual favours are made in exchange for promotions by senior managers.  Sexual harassment is also rampant in public sector companies.

Women hesitate to speak up for fear of victimisation. Some women still find a way to negotiate and get work done. The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in organisations is just a sham. They don’t take complaints or offer redress. No one takes POSH (prevent of sexual harassment) seriously. After I got involved in the  #MeToo movement I realised there is a massive gap in communication, which is the foremost issue we have to deal with. Even if we begin by talking to women in small groups, it will set them thinking. I believe it will have a ripple effect.

Another huge gap is created by the fact that in our country children are not given sex education in school, but if imparted right, such lessons can empower children to talk about it to a responsible adult, and thus prevent sexual abuse..

Parents are not willing to speak about it either. In today’s workshop, for example, a few girls shared how each one was abused by a family member or friend.  In such instances, when their performance suffered, the child would be usually punished or berated by parents who never sat down and had a conversation to find out what the problem was. Children cannot take their parents into confidence and abusive adults use this to create fear in the minds of the children they abuse. It is easier to educate a child than to repair a damaged adult”

I realise that educating women of our generation will create healthy parents for the next generations. Today most of us are fractured adults who have been scarred by abuse and are looking at healing ourselves. We understand we need to talk about it.  One of our prime efforts is to rope in powerful women who can function as mentors to young women and guide us on how to negotiate effectively.

Do you think women can ever overcome the fear of stigma and start talking?

It will take time. But it is important to continue to talk. The only way to work on this issue is to work tirelessly, for an entire lifetime. As someone who has literally and figuratively given a voice to the #MeToo movement in India, I am willing to be a part of women’s voice. Women’s problems are unique and varied. They need a platform. The platform and voice should not be taken away by more powerful women.

This journey has been a learning experience for me. I want to be committed to this cause and I want to continue doing this for the rest of my life, for as long as I can.

Your fierce passion for this issue of sexual harassment of women is evident; what was the trigger that led you to the point when you wanted to make it your life’s mission?

When I first revealed my personal experience of sexual harassment, the number of people who confided in me made me realise that the biggest issue is lack of communication. No one is willing to listen to women. Take the case of the CJI. He sat on the bench to investigate a crime he is purported to have committed!

What makes you believe that the former employee of the Supreme Court could have been harassed by the CJI? Why did you want to take this up in particular?

I have read  the former SC staff’s entire affidavit that makes a mention of all the evidence she has submitted. I saw the video recording of her talking to the police officer who said that ‘big people’ will not admit their mistakes and it would be very difficult (for her to pursue the case to a just conclusion).

When Ranjan Gogoi became the CJI, this staff member was invited to attend the event along with her husband and child as special invitees, which is unusual.  Once the matter came to light the entire family has been victimised. Her two brothers-in-law who have nothing to do with this issue lost their jobs. Both she and her husband lost their jobs too. Her identity is at risk of being disclosed and she is being hounded. She has been refused a lawyer despite the fact that she has hearing difficulties. She filed a case despite the possibility of going to jail for two years if she was found guilty of foisting a false case.  I think that is the point most people are not willing to look at.

I  understand that Ranjan Gogoi is a very straightforward judge and has given some landmark judgements.  He may be one of the fairest judges. But incidents such as those I have mentioned give rise to the suspicion that  something is not right here.

If you remember, the Supreme Court committee probing a law intern’s sexual harassment complaint against retired SC judge AK Ganguly said that there was prima facie evidence of unwelcome sexual conduct on the part of the retired judge but they could not do much against a retired judge. Nobody knows what happened to the law intern and her career after that.

What according to you is the status of women in India?

Very bad.  On the one hand we want our women to go out and work,  talk about Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao etc. But when push comes to shove political parties distance themselves from issues when women accuse their party men of sexual crimes. The CBI filed a charge sheet against BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar and his woman accomplice for the rape of a minor girl at his residence in Unnao. But no action has been taken and he continues to be the MLA.

Do you believe that women are exploited and sexually harassed more in certain sectors (such as the media, entertainment and cinema) than in others?

Women are harassed across industries.  I was not at all surprised when many women came out with stories about how men flashed in public transport and public places.  I also put out a video on Twitter sent to me by a woman who captured the incident that happened in an ATM when a man flashed her.

Not many women are bold enough or have the presence of mind when men resort to such indecent behaviour. Most women become petrified. This matter was reported to the Mumbai police and I believe they have taken action.  Usually such incidents are not reported and if they are, no action is taken. Women do not report because they are afraid of future consequences such as acid attacks or even rape and murder. Women must be empowered to file cases, to talk about sexual harassment.

What is it that you seek to achieve through your social media outreach on the CJI and other issues?

For now I want the loopholes in the Vishaka guidelines to be plugged and the provisions of these to be implemented in instances of sexual harassment reported by women.

The irony is, even twenty years after Bhanwari Devi, a social worker in Rajasthan working to prevent child marriage, was gang raped by landlords of the Gujjar community, the rapists are free. The Vishaka guidelines came in the aftermath of this incident. But very little has changed. I filed a complaint against lyricist Vairamuthu with the National Commission for Women who put it up to the Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu. But nothing has come out of it.

What challenges have you faced since you took up this cause?

I faced and continue to face a lot of slut-shaming and abuse ever since I first exposed the sexual harassment incident by Vairamuthu . He is a staunch DMK loyalist and I receive many such trolls from the DMK IT wing. My stand against Radha Ravi was vindicated after he slut-shamed actor Nayantara and people understood. In spite of all this, thankfully, my sanity is intact. I do speak to a healer, but I also find a lot of support from women and I don’t feel alone.

I would, however,  like to clarify that this is not a man-woman issue, but a societal problem. Both men and women should work together to remedy this. One half of the population cannot live in fear of the other half. We are a fractured generation. Healing is what we need. Let us all work together to weed out manacles that restrain the freedom, security and lives of one half of our population.

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