Outliers 75: Sandhya Menon on life beyond hashtags for India’s #MeToo

Pankaj Mishra October 12, 2018 20 min

Why are there hardly any women in top roles in Indian newspapers and magazines? The answer is the same for most business sectors and organizations. These companies have sexual predators lurking around at the workplaces who make sure the bright women don’t rise up the ranks, especially if they don’t succumb to their demands. Yes. It’s that bad. And if you feel this is an exaggeration, please read the stories shared by top women journalists on social media over the past few weeks.

This week’s Outliers Podcast is with Sandhya Menon who triggered a revolution on Twitter and elsewhere by sharing her own story of harassment. And while it reinvigorated the #MeToo movement, she stays away from using that hashtag.

This will be among a series of such conversations we will do over the next few weeks to ensure that we all wake up and become sensitive enough to realize the value of shaping a healthy workplace for everyone.

And yes, as promised, we’re publishing full transcripts from last week’s episode. Thanks to Kanika Berry* again.

Pankaj: Welcome to the Outliers Podcast. This is a Podcast with Outliers and you know what’s been really fascinating for me on this journey of discovering and having conversations with Outliers is that, how different events, sometimes time-bound and sometimes beyond, sometimes timeless create these Outliers and I am really excited to be sitting down with one such Outlier — Sandhya Menon who is a journalist and a writer. You would definitely recall her from what we have been watching on Twitter and elsewhere in the last few days reinvigorating this whole debate and getting the victims of sexual harassment — especially this time in media — come forward and talk about it. So great to have you Sandhya on the Podcast and thanks for being the voice.

Sandhya: Thank you, Pankaj.

Interesting thing is that I didn’t start out to bring out voices, I was just tired of not having a resolution from 10 years ago. So I said, ‘you know what, here goes nothing, I am in this strange luxurious position of not being tied to an organisation, while I may have a lot to lose, I have a little less to lose than women who work with organisations’. And the thing is about Outliers, I was just telling a friend of mine, this is the way it goes, right? You don’t think about it or you think a little bit about it and I said, ‘Haan theek hai, this much I will do’ and then suddenly things are just exploding around you and people are calling you brave and I am like, I don’t know if I am brave or stupid but you know. Or people are saying, ‘you are inspiring’, I am like, how, how, how, you know I can’t own any of these tags, it’s just something I did because I thought it was about time. So, yeah.

Pankaj: It is about time.

Sandhya: Outliers are, I think, are eventually (what) happens and I don’t think anyone actually plans to be an Outlier. You are right.

Pankaj: Just to get a better sense of this, what was the trigger like, you know, even I have interviewed at least three dozen women who have been victims of sexual harassment and when you ask people, ‘So, what’s the trigger’, initially I got really scolded. So there was a massive learning that I underwent myself as a journalist but walk me through, like, it’s out there, everything is playing on Twitter and then you feel like, ‘Ok, I need to vent it out’. What’s that? Hopefully, it will help others.

Sandhya: You know the trigger for me, might sound ridiculous but horrible that apology that Utsav Chakraborty put out, he has deleted it. It was a thread of utter and complete garbage. He strung together words and made sentences that made no sense and I was like, ‘Seriously! Is this what a man thinks he can get away with after causing serious trouble’. And I don’t like to use the word ‘trauma’ but I think a lot of women do feel traumatised but causing trauma to someone is to causing mental trauma to someone… ‘I am sorry, when I get a nude, you know, I feel no pain, something’, I mean, what are you saying, you know! That was going on and somebody I follow on, Mayank Jain, I used to follow on Twitter, coincidentally that also happened. I am like, here someone I follow and interact with and this is how he has treated a fellow woman colleague and I am thinking, those two came together and then I started to think about, so what Mayank had told Anoo Bhuyan, these are very words, ‘that I got on text when I was first harassed like that’. So it was like a flashback. These three things coming together and being really angry at this Utsav Chakraborty’s apology and me going back to my own experience, I am like, ‘you know what, I am just going to do it’. So I put that first one out and then I said, ‘when I am here, I am not going to do it halfway through, let me call out the other two as well’. So Manoj was on Twitter at that point, so I tagged him, K. R Srinivas is on Twitter, so I tagged him and the third person Gautam Adhikari wasn’t, so I didn’t tag him but I named him, so I said, ‘you know, enough! Let me just do this. Jo aayega, dekha jaayega (we’ll see when someone comes)’. So that was my basic attitude at that point. I didn’t really think it through but I think it was anger more than any other trigger.

Pankaj: I completely understand that. A lot of people talk about, ‘So what’s the outcome you are looking for?’ Even when we were doing the series of stories, they were like, ‘What do you want to achieve from this?’ And I will come to the question about, ‘Why so late, why you are asking now, why are you waking up now?’ But let’s start with this, what’s an outcome of this?

Sandhya: I am very clear, the past 3-4 days there is this just one thing that I have continued to say as an outcome is, ‘I have a personal vested interest in having a media house be safe for women.’ It’s heartbreaking really to see the messages that I have got in the last 3-4 days, it’s about women who have just said, ‘I have quit because of this and now I am a content writer’. Here are women who have spent 3,4,5 or 12 lakhs on a post-graduate education, broadcast journalism, have had one year of terrible experience and then decided, ‘I am just going to be a content writer’. Content writing is a real cut down on your ambition, you know.

So as far as outcomes are concerned, there are two.

  • One is a very clear outcome of workplaces just looking at their policies and tightening them up. Now the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act has guidelines as to what it is, that’s very clear but there is a lot of vagueness in the language also, later. Things like in an appropriate tender. The thing will be resolved in an appropriate time, now what’s an appropriate time? Three weeks are you going to give me, are you going to keep me there for three years hanging? It’s not specified, so I think it’s on employers to take this action, sit with it and tighten it for themselves and that’s really something that I am pushing for and I absolutely want. Most editors that run the country are men, so it’s incumbent on them for the safety of their entire organisation, men as well as women, to tighten those policies and have very clear guidelines. That’s one thing.
  • The other thing is, this is the most social behavioural thing that I am expecting men to do: to be a little careful. Right. You be careful for one year, the second year it’ll become a habit, that being careful will become a habit of being a good guy. Right. Don’t say lewd things. Go through that entire Twitter situation, it’s like a training manual as to what you shouldn’t do, so many points there, ‘Yeh nahi karo, yeh nahi karo, don’t do this’ checklist, right! See how much of it have you done, say I won’t do it again. Say, if it makes them second guess themselves, ‘Should I say this, should I not?’ That’s a good doubt to have in their heads. These two things I am hoping will come out of this.

Pankaj: And why now?

Sandhya: Why now, I think it’s because the time is ripe, I think we have the tools to have created this now. I don’t think we had it five years ago, I think the largest reasons so many women are speaking out is that there is a fertile ground where they feel like they’ll be believed. Even five years ago, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me, ‘Will I be believed?’ I wouldn’t even ask myself that question. I am 100% sure I will not be believed. Now it was like, ‘Maybe they will believe it’ and then I have seen that support, I have seen people turn around and say, ‘I believe in’ and this is something that women have just naturally taken to over the last week, ‘I believe you’ and it’s not like we are indiscriminately believing, you know. We are making sure that we know, where the source of these accusations are coming from and we are making sure that as much as it is possible in situations like this, that it’s not some random game playing, that there is a responsible and mature thought behind this accusation. So yes, I think just the fact that we feel like we are being believed right now, that’s made the whole difference. I think that is why now.

Pankaj: I think you are bang on what you were talking about media and why. You know, I have been a journalist for like 18 years now and I absolutely agree with you. A lot of times, I am also looking for editors, you know who are at that level and the one I really admire is Priya Ramani, we have worked together twice.

Sandhya: She is amazing.

Pankaj: She could have joined today but she was held up. She has come out…

Sandhya: And she keeps a low profile, you know. She is not high profile but she gets things done and she knows how to behave in a certain situation, she knows exactly what to say. I think she is quite amazing.

Pankaj: Absolutely. I really look up to her.

What is the life of these movements beyond hashtags for these campaigns? We keep fighting but then sometimes as a bystander, as a storyteller, you start questioning if people truly believe in this because, after a while, these live and die as hashtags. So what I am trying to understand from your experience, is what is the life beyond Twitter hashtag?

Sandhya: So this is interesting, right, because it’s a very small percentage that’s on Twitter, right? And even then we have got so many stories. You know the one interesting thing I have seen now is the people who are on Twitter have gone to their friends who are not on Twitter and have said, ‘Hey, get in touch with this person’. So I have an email for my blog, so on that email, I have had emails saying, ‘I am not on Twitter, I am not on Instagram, I don’t want to give you my Whatsapp number but here’s an email, this is what I have been facing’. So for once, a campaign has spread outside of Twitter which I think, now you can’t call it a hashtag anymore. I think the very fact that places like HT and now The Times of India, have actually taken credible steps. The Times of India, there is still not much to say, they have said what they have said but at least they are signalling that ‘Hey, we have looked at this’. HT has had people stepped down, investigations, I have an email about an investigation today. I think these are credible steps, so it’s clearly gone beyond and TV has picked it up. Now if TV has picked it up and not just English TV, there is Hindi, there is Tamil, I have spoken to Tamil and Hindi as well a couple of others. So for me, the minute, regional press picks it up, Indian language press picks it up, I think it goes beyond a hashtag.

Personally, I haven’t used #MeToo because I am very, very, very focused on workplace harassment. Really. I make a distinction between social conduct which is bad and just terrible. That’s a clear distinction and there are many stories coming out on that but I don’t want to mix that up with my focus on workplace harassment because, I am a single mum, my salary is what runs my house and there are many women whose salaries run their houses, whether they are single mothers or not. It contributes to families. Even if money does not contribute to a family, there are women who have ambitions to rise and none of this should be affected because of bad behaviour in the workplace. Right? A bad social conduct, you’ll be upset for a month, you’ll be upset for two months, you’ll yell and shout, you’ll decide men are all terrible, you know all that is there, you may go to therapy. I am not trivializing it but those are all difficult things but when you go back to your job, you say, ‘Ok, at least this is a safe space I can go do this’. Whereas if you are facing the same thing at work, it’s just impossible. How do you work? I mean, including me, we have quit and not pushed our careers beyond a certain point because where do you go from here? I mean, I am hard-pressed to think of women between 45 and 55, who are in high positions in newsrooms.

Pankaj: I could only think of Priya.

Sandhya: I can think of Priya, I can think of Meenal (Baghel).

Pankaj: Yes, I just met her three days ago.

Sandhya: And Priya is freelancing, right? She is not with… (sentence left incomplete)

Pankaj: She is not.

Sandhya: Exactly. So people I know, Sumona Roy, all of these people, they have quit at a certain age because I don’t know, they are hitting a certain glass ceiling which no one is talking about and they are moving on, they are moving out. So unless you create a safe working space, you are losing a workforce and you can’t afford to lose that.

Pankaj: Very well said.

Sandhya: Because women in their 45 are in their career prime, it’s not the end. They have seen, they have passed the harassment, the training, everything, they have done everything and they are in a position of making decisions and that shouldn’t be the time they should be quitting and unless we make a space for them, I am not saying women of 45-50 will get harassed, that’s not what I am saying. I am saying that unless right from the beginning for 20-22-year-olds, you create safe spaces, they are not going to get to 45 and leave positions of power and you need women in positions of power.

Pankaj: You do. Absolutely.

Sandhya: To come back to why I haven’t used #MeToo is because I don’t want to mix these two up. I really don’t want to. I want to stay focused. There are lots of other strong, brave women who are handling the social aspects of bad behaviour that men indulge in but I want to stick to this. And also there is no telling where hashtags go, right! I cannot deny the fact that there are people settling scores, there are people falsely accusing, there are people fulfilling an agenda, I cannot deny this. It’s bound to happen. And politicizing. That’s the other thing. Right?

Pankaj: Yes, it’s a world we live in. I mean, when we did our reporting, last year, a bunch of people said that ‘because this person is anti Aadhaar is why…’ (sentence left incomplete).

Sandhya: It’s ridiculous. I had a whole bunch of people tell me yesterday, ‘In two months, there are going to be elections here, that’s why you are doing it now’. I am like, ‘What planet are you from?’ So then I don’t want to be tagged on to that because then it’s just a big mess. So I have stuck to my narrative without the hashtag and this is entirely my opinion and I don’t judge anyone else who does it but if, it makes me feel kind of performative and little shallow if I hashtag the witnessing of my story. My timeline is mine, my Twitter feed is mine and I am going to say the way I want it. The impact it has on others is a different thing but I am not going to tag it with a hashtag unless If I am making a joke or something, I’ll use a hashtag or if I want to add to numbers of a certain kind, I’ll do that but this I am telling my story and I don’t want to stick it with a hashtag where everything else will pile on and then it just gets lost, the story gets lost. That’s not what I want to do.

Pankaj: I know you have a much bigger battle to fight so I won’t take much of your time. But if you look like what has been happening and then going forward, clearly even from our experience I can tell you that it’s going to be a long battle. You should be prepared legally.

Sandhya: Yes, that’s what I am doing now. I am lawyering up, I am talking to lawyers, trying to figure it out. I haven’t received a notice yet but I have been told that I am being sued for defamation. So we will see where that goes. I am talking to lawyers, I am trying to figure out how to deal with this. Really not much else I can do. And I think it’s only going to get worse from here, really because guilty men act in two ways, they either keep quiet and disappear or they come down on you very hard, right.

Pankaj: Tell me about it.

Sandhya: Because you have to protect so much, right. So we will see where it goes. So I am lawyering up, I am hoping, that you know that I find a lawyer. That’s the other thing. I have had, not just me, all of us had such great support, lawyers online coming forward and saying, ‘we’ll do this pro bono’. So that’s fantastic. So I am sure, I will be in good hands.

Pankaj: Just before we sign off, how do you ensure that this movement outlives you? What I am also trying to understand from you is Outliers come and go, you know as a storyteller, we will come and go but how do you kind of not institutionalize, I don’t know what to say but how can you ensure that… (sentence left incomplete).

Sandhya: That this becomes the way of life, right?

Pankaj: Yes.

Sandhya: Really, is there is anyway? I don’t know if you can ensure this but I think one of the first things is education, Pankaj. Because this is the one thing I have realised, the debate of what constitutes a sexual harassment at a workplace, why is there a debate? The Act very clearly tells you, this is this. It’s very clear. Why are you saying, just because an office creep stood very close to you or tried to get physical, it is. It says very clearly in the law. So (a) educate yourself. Once each of us knows what we are up against, then we can take it forward. Then I know, should I complain, should I not? That doubt is not there. I know, I can complain about this.

And the other thing is the creation of safe spaces. This is so easy for me to say, just these words mean nothing. Create safe spaces at work or make workplaces safe. It’s easy to say this, how do you do it? And that answer is so ridiculously picked. It has to be top down. If a male editor is at the top of the food chain so to speak, and he is not trustworthy, you can have all the systems in place but I am not going to go and complain, I will go to Twitter. So like, men need to introspect and I can’t, me or no one can push them to introspect.

But I also know many, many good men in my life. And I think each of us, women know a lot of good men and if these good men are there, I am sure there are other good men we don’t know. So I am hoping that day will say, ‘Ok, now it’s our time to do something and figure it out.’ So I don’t know how this will outlive me or anyone else who is working towards it but I am hoping that fact that if we push this consistently and I have had fathers DMing me saying, ‘I am thanking you not just for my colleagues or you, I am thanking you for my daughter who is three years old because when she moves on and goes to college or goes to work, she is going to be in a better place.’ And I am hoping that will happen. So, if there are people who are thinking that far ahead, then we just need to keep pushing here till we die, that hey every time, someone steps out of line, Check, Complain, Check, Complain. I think that is the only way to do this.

Pankaj: Great. A good way to sign off. And Godspeed and more power to you. We are in this together.

Sandhya: I know.

Pankaj: If someone wants to connect with you, who is listening to this conversation, what is a good way?

Sandhya: My blog has an email, you could write to me on that. My Twitter.

Pankaj: What is that?

Sandhya: It is @TheRestlessQuil, so I will spell that. If you go to my Twitter, my blog address is there and there is an email on it and Twitter is the best way to get in touch with me. You can find me on Facebook but I rarely check Facebook. I am open to communication from absolutely anywhere.

Pankaj: Awesome, more power to you. I am on pankaj@factordaily.com, so do look us up. Thank you, Sandhya, more power to you.

Sandhya: Thank you.

*Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over 8 years. 


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