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Sexual harassment is a pervasive issue for women. From their homes, to commute, and even in their workplaces, they face some degree of risk of sexual abuse. Personal lives and spaces are a lot more difficult to regulate, but workplaces can easily be. Women leave their homes and go to work where they expect to be treated as equals. Where the bare minimum expectation is that they will be treated with dignity, appreciated for their labour, and paid for what their work is worth. In a way, companies, along with regulations imposed by the state, strive to make workspaces safe for women - at least to a certain extent.
In India, one such law which protects women from sexual harassment at workplace is 'The Sexual Harassment of Women At Workplaces, Prevention, Prohibition And Redressal Act, 2013.' More simply called POSH. Under this act, it is mandatory for all workplaces to have a sexual harassment policy and all the staff also needs to be trained to follow its provisions. The need for this law and its strict provisions are sometimes questioned by people receiving the training - mostly men. The questions range from the need for the act, and technicalities, to whether they can interact with women at all. The short answer is, looking at the patriarchal constructs, workplaces generally were considered domains of men. Women traditionally weren't allowed to go out for work. When they do step out, and this continues till now in many sectors, they are treated as inferiors and consequently, constantly put under pressure to perform better than their male counterparts to 'prove' themselves.
Recently, I watched a movie which brought home the point of how important it is to have a sexual harassment policy at work. It might be a little dated - set in 1989, but it is based on a true story and illustrates how men consider some areas to be theirs and will go extreme lengths to keep women out of them.
North Country, a 2005 movie, directed by Niki Caro, and starring Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Jeremy Renner, and Woody Harrelson. The movie is based on true events and was inspired by the 2002 book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law by Clara Bingham. The story revolves around a woman named Josie Aimes, who with her 2 children leaves her abusive husband and moves in with her parents. Her father, who thinks she is sexually promiscuous is less than thrilled to have her back. An old friend, Glory, played by Frances McDormand, suggests that she work at the mines because that would earn her more money. Now, the movie is set in 1989, in a period when women had just been allowed to work at coal mines, and like many other professions mining was considered as a "man's work". For context, her father, and her ex-boyfriend from school Bobby Sharpe, also work at the mine. Josie gets a job at the mine and is immediately subjected to inappropriate and suggestive remarks by her boss. Soon, she learns that all women working at the mine were subjected to sexual harassment and ridicule.
There are comments about women's "racks", someone finds a rubber penis in their lunch box when they opened it at the canteen at lunch time, there is sexual graffiti on the walls of the locker room, one woman opens her locker to find semen deposited on her clothes. She tries complaining to her supervisor, but he blames her in return. When she tries to talk about it with her father, he says that he has been going to the same workplace for years to which she replies that he had never had to go with fear. Her ex, Bobby tries to sexually assault her - an incident she tries taking up with the President - who had earlier assured her that he would be there if there were any problems. However, when she reaches him, he suggests that she resign. Dejected, she goes back to work, but the incidents of harassment have now escalated. Words like slut and whore are written on the walls of the women's locker room with actual shit. A couple of men topple the porta toilet used by one of the women. Josie has finally had enough and takes her case to a lawyer and soon other women working at the mine join in and it becomes a class-action suit.
The case, this movie is based on, Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. is the first-class action sexual harassment lawsuit in the United States. It is historic as it paved the way for private corporations to seriously put in place sexual harassment policies. Besides showing the importance of sexual harassment policies, this movie also highlights how a workplace can devolve into a practical nightmare in absence of state-mandated regulation.
The workplace we know today is a lot safer because of these laws which protect women. When staff is trained on sexual harassment policies, they often realize their unconscious biases towards women. While there are still incidents of sexual harassment at workplaces, and equity still has a long way to go, women can mostly work without fear and rest assured that their complaints will be heard, and action will be taken.
Cover Image Courtesy: A Still Of Charlize Theron From North Country/Netflix