Patriarchal India challenged by its emboldened women

December 3, 2013 1:28 pm

Patriarchal India challenged by its emboldened women

By Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

Editor’s arrest reflects refusal to keep silent about harassment

It was a moment many Indians thought they would never see – a moment that must have made many powerful men shudder. On Saturday, the country was gripped by the dramatic night-time arrest of Tarun Tejpal, a celebrated editor of a muckraking magazine who has been accused of sexually assaulting one of his young female journalists in a hotel lift.The arrest of an influential member of New Delhi’s power elite for an alleged sexual assault is unprecedented in patriarchal India, where prominent men in politics and business have long considered it their prerogative to make advances on younger, or vulnerable women – including their professional subordinates – with little fear of reprisal.

But Mr Tejpal’s legal woes reflect a significant social change taking place in India: the growing refusal of women, especially educated urban professionals, to keep silent about the harassment – or worse – they face in their daily lives, whether their tormentors arestrangers on a bus or their bosses in the office.

Just a few days before Mr Tejpal allegedly assaulted the reporter, a young female lawyer wrote a poignant blog post on a legal website – under her own byline – about being molested several months earlier by a since-retired judge for whom she was an intern. Within days of her post, the Supreme Court set up a committee to investigate the incident.

Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and the prime ministerial candidate of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has been accused of ordering intensive police surveillance of a young female architect in 2009 for reasons never convincingly explained. Though the woman has not spoken publicly about it, many have questioned Mr Modi’s motives.

As for Mr Tejpal, he initially offered to step aside from the helm of his crusading news weekly, Tehelka, for six months as “penance” for what he called “a bad lapse of judgment”. His lawyers argue that the Goan police’s enthusiasm for investigating the lift incident – which the editor now claims was consensual – is politically motivated.

Indeed, the BJP, which is in power in Goa, has little love for Mr Tejpal, whose magazine often targeted it and its affiliated rightwing Hindu groups while going soft on the ruling Congress party. But the alacrity of the Goan police in probing a case they might have once considered a “private matter” unworthy of their attention cannot be dismissed as a mere political payback.

As women become assertive about speaking out about violence against them, government agencies are under intensifying pressure to demonstrate they are responding seriously to complaints, especially after the mass outcry over last December’s lethal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on board a New Delhi bus.

The implications of the new confidence and combativeness among Indian women – what some are calling India’s first genuinely popular feminist awakening – are potentially far-reaching.

In 1991, the furore over the confirmation hearing of US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas raised public awareness among Americans about sexual harassment at work. A female law professor accused Mr Thomas of harassing her with unwelcome, sexually provocative comments when they worked together in government years before. In a similar way, Mr Tejpal’s case has provoked a public outpouring in the traditional and internet social media on how women are treated in the Indian professional workplace.

Many women suggest that harassment and discrimination is routine and endemic, rather than exceptional, even if most cases do not reach the frightening intensity of a sexual advance in a lift.

“Indian society and Indian men have regarded women as subservient homemakers and not as equal partners in the economic mainstream,” Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, one of India’s most prominent female entrepreneurs, wrote last week. “This deep-rooted cultural and societal mindset manifests itself in the way men behave with their female colleagues.”

Many Indian companies are rushing to circulate lists of “dos and don’ts” to their male employees and are setting up sexual harassment grievance committees. According to The Economic Times, an Indian business newspaper, male white-collar workers are being advised to avoid “involuntarily sizing up” women colleagues and to stop using computer screensavers with explicitly sexual content.

Indian feminists say many men still consider the unfettered sexual pursuit of women a perk of power and privilege. In this context, sexual harassment is unlikely to end quickly. But breaking the omerta surrounding such conduct is the first and most important step.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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