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Shuma Ruha’s article in National Herald contradicts her own allegation of sexual harassment

The stories that have tumbled in the #MeToo movement have been overwhelming, to say the least. The mighty have fallen and how! From the film industry to media, the women have braved being gaslighted and shamed to come out and name their abusers. Among the prominent names to have cropped up as someone who allegedly abused his position of power to make sexual advances has been Union Minister of State, MJ Akbar, who has been accused of sexually exploiting young women when he was a journalist and editor of various media outlets.

As reported by The News Minute, as many as twelve women, have come forward and put on record their stories of sexual harassment by the junior minister. One of the women who has accused Akbar, Shuma Raha, has claimed that Akbar invited her to his hotel room and then later asked her to join her for drinks.

She said that he didn’t “do” anything, but had a rattling and deeply uncomfortable experience. Interestingly, in an opinion piece published today in Congress mouthpiece National Herald, Raha tries to draw everyone’s attention to not “give credence to unsubstantiated rumours and third-hand accounts of victimisation.”

She explains how while it is “gratifying” to see “well known sexual predators getting their comeuppance”, one should not forget the blurry distinction between harassment or assault and “creepy, uncomfortable interactions with men who were trying their luck.”

A woman who had accused MJ Akbar in the #MeToo allegations cautions against believing rumours

In what seems like an afterthought of putting out her allegations, Raha explains how all behaviour by men which make women feel uncomfortable should not really fall under the ‘sexual harassment or assault’.

According to Raha,

There are grey areas in certain cases and not recognising that could give a free pass to wild allegations as well. Some have argued that only the woman has the right to decide if a particular experience constitutes harassment. They may be right. However, if we muddle the apparently non-threatening situations with those that are unquestionably so, we run the risk of diluting the #MeToo movement.

She further argues,

Similarly, the movement gets undermined if we give credence to unsubstantiated rumours and third-hand accounts of sexual victimisation by this editor or that performer. When it comes to #MeToo, you can’t be too careful — neither about the accusations nor about investigating them as thoroughly as possible.

Now, my personal views on the stories that have tumbled out against Union Minister MJ Akbar are no secret. I had tweeted when the stories came to the fore that most of the tales are harrowing and that, indeed, action must be taken against him.

This article is not about MJ Akbar or the veracity of claims by other women. This is specifically to evaluate what Shuma Raha has said and how her theory digresses with her practice.

She argues that while some say that only the women have the right to decide if a particular experience constitutes harassment if we “muddle the apparently non-threatening situations with those that are unquestionably so, we run the risk of diluting the #MeToo movement”.

If one applies her logic, one wonders whether she tried to portray an apparently non-threatening situation (since in her own words as shown in the tweet above, she says Akbar didn’t “do” anything) which made her uncomfortable as against the ones which are unquestionably so, did she risk the diluting #MeToo movement?

When a woman accuses a man, it is indeed true that it is only the woman who can ascertain whether that act constitutes harassment. There are several circumstantial cues that help a woman ascertain the nature of that exchange even if it doesn’t fall within the strict purview of the law regarding sexual harassment. However, when a woman, in this case Shuma Raha first accuses a man of sexual harassment for ‘not going anything’ but asking her for a drink, and then writes an op-ed asserting that women need to differentiate between when men ‘made them feel uncomfortable’ and when it is ‘sexual harassment’, urging them not to conflate the two, it is obvious for us to ask whether she herself branded an ‘uncomfortable situation’ as ‘sexual harassment’.

Going by her logic, if we give credence to her accusations on “this editor”, the movement runs the risk of getting undermined. Since as the logic she gave above, she just had an ‘uncomfortable’ situation which she added to the ‘#MeToo’ movement, which in her own words is “cultural inflexion point when woman after woman breaks her silence and outs a powerful man who subjected her to sexual harassment and exploitation because he felt his position entitled him to do so.”

So, I have a few questions for Shuma Raha. Did you feel harassed or assaulted back in 1995 at the hotel in Kolkata or was it a ‘creepy, uncomfortable interaction with a man who was trying his luck’? Does what she claims, fall under the “wild allegations” bit?

One has to wonder that whether the fact that she claims Akbar didn’t “do” anything, falls under the grey area which could give a free pass to wild allegations? I am genuinely curious whether the alleged interview or the invitation for drinks that followed, falls under a non-threatening situation since Akbar “didn’t do anything”?

I must also ask Raha what torch she bears when she writes for Gandhi family owned National Herald whose Executive Editor Uttam Sengupta too was accused of sexual misconduct and the paper chose to remain silent on the same and brazen it out.

I believe sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious concern. It breaks a woman’s spirit. It breaks her will to achieve. It just breaks her. I applaud the woman who has spoken out after being victims of genuine harassment. However, a man, when accused falsely loses just as much. Somewhere between radical feminism and radical men’s rights, lies a path of green where justice prevails.

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Nupur J Sharma
Editor, OpIndia.com since October 2017

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