Workplace Sexism: Call for Gender Justice in Calicut Bar Association
After the December 2012 protests, the Indian media has given more airtime to the issue of gender – a welcome change. News about sexual harassment cases regarding Supreme Court judges makes it very clear that women face challenges even within institutions meant to uphold justice 1. Unfortunately these are not work-related challenges but those that women face simply because of their sex. The Supreme Court cases and the Tehelka case helped to bring sexual harassment and rape back into public discussion. These cases were also critical to demonstrate how rapists and harassers could be the very elite, even those who profess liberal values.
However another controversy started making its rounds in Malayalam media recently. Advocate Anima Muyarath was suspended from the Calicut Bar Association because she had dared to put a Facebook post which called out the sexist nature of her working environment. I write this article with admiration for this spirited woman. Many women, including me, have often brushed aside these forms of daily sexism and adjusted to the male dominated working environment. I am thankful to Adv. Anima for that post which says that this ‘norm’ need not be tolerated. In this article, I intend to focus on the primary complaint in her post. Before that, here is an overview of what happened.
I have tried to translate her post into English. My vocabulary fails to come up with an accurate translation for the most amusing description of a type of colleague that women tolerate in their workplaces. Introducing “The Ponganmaar” :)
“It has been five months since I started practising in the Kozhikode Bar. I do not know if all workspaces in the world are like this. However, in the Kozhikode Bar and office, I have met some ‘Ponganmaar’ who pretty much belong to my age group. They say to women, ‘You are beautiful’, ‘My dear’, ‘Sugarcandy’ as if in a Prem Nazir style. Looks like they do not see new movies. They continue to tag along with the old fashioned way of spoiling women, as people who need to be taken care of, and need to be treated as sisters and lovers. To all the above mentioned ‘Ponganmaar’, I would like to express my disgust for your type. Another kind of comedy is the type of nerve-wreck that some people have when they meet a young woman. These are the older uncles whose nerve-wreck disease makes them think, ‘why not find a groom for this woman’? Are they brokers and uncles?”
Advocate Anima made this post on her Facebook wall in October 2013. Anima did not mention any particular name, nor did she say that all men in the Calicut Bar association belong to the ‘Ponganmaar’ category. Her post clearly says that she expresses her disgust for those who behave in that manner. However the Calicut Bar association would have none of that. After a month or so, the Bar association sent her a show-cause notice for having posted this status message. According to the Bar Association, Anima had insulted the entire Bar Association. Advocate Anima responded by saying that the Facebook post was not intended to insult the Bar association. Unsatisfied with the response, the Bar Association called for a meeting to discuss the issue. Advocate Anima could not participate in that meeting as she had to travel to Bangalore for an examination. She let the association know of the conflict and also submitted a copy of the hall ticket of the exam as documentary evidence. However the association went ahead with the meeting in her absence and suspended her from the association 2.
Another meeting was called to discuss the suspension. Television news channels reported the events that happened during that meeting. According to Anima, a chair was hurled at her during the meeting! While the journalists interviewed Anima in the premises of the Calicut court, her male colleagues continue to hurl abuses at her. Anima even points to a colleague who had physically manhandled her during the meeting. The hostility that women advocates face in the Calicut Bar needs no more evidence.
What just happened?
A woman advocate makes a comment about sexism in the Calicut Bar Association in her facebook wall. Instead of engaging in a dialogue about gender sensitivity, the Bar Association takes disciplinary action against her. Her male colleagues hurl abuses at the woman who complained of sexism. These events occur at the doorstep of the state institution which is supposed to uphold justice. The irony cannot be missed.
Considering that these male advocates did not even care about the camera while hurling abuses at their female colleague, I shudder to think what they might dare to do in private? What society are we living in where so many men openly abuse a woman because she complained of sexism? Should our women tolerate such hostility in their work environments? The events that occurred at the Calicut Court premises are outright harassment and abuse. I do not see how those visuals can leave us unaffected. In this case Adv. Anima had the courage to stand up to their abuse. What about those who might choose not to or are unable to?
While such outright abuse is an important issue, in this article, I would like to focus on the primary complaint that Anima raised in her Facebook post – workplace sexism. This is discrimination based on sex. While media has focused on sexual harassment in workplace, sex-based discrimination at the work place has not been discussed as much in Indian media. I am thankful to Adv. Anima for raising the issue in very strong terms.
There are three main things that Anima raises in her Facebook post:
- That her male colleagues call women “beautiful”, “sugar candy” “dear”,
- That her male colleagues treat women as sisters or lovers and as people who need to be cared for,
- That her older colleagues try to get her married.
What society are we living in where so many men openly abuse a woman because she complained of sexism? Should our women tolerate such hostility in their work environments? The events that occurred at the Calicut Court premises are outright harassment and abuse.
All the above three responses from her male colleagues are meant to achieve a single outcome - devaluation of a woman as a professional. The discrimination is so subtle that most women brush it aside, hoping that their work will start speaking for itself. My admiration for Anima is precisely because she decided to respond. When women call out sexist behaviour, often in the form of humour, one of the most common responses are these: What is problematic about a man calling a woman ‘beautiful’? What is wrong in treating female colleagues as ‘sisters’ and perhaps ‘lovers’? Why should women not be cared for by their male colleagues? Are we trying to build a working environment which is robotic and formal where all forms of informality are seen as trouble? The recent episode regarding Euphoria’s Palash Sen is testimony to this response 3. Women who found his jokes offensive were said to be wanting of a sense of humour. I am not going into that issue here. Workplace sexism may have far more subtle manifestations, making it even more difficult to call out. It is therefore critical to discuss Adv. Anima’s complaint in more detail. While the man is automatically considered to be the professional, the woman is the mother, wife, lover, the beautiful, fragile, to-be-cared-for person first, and much later a professional. The recent controversy on Golden Mother Award by the Calicut University is an example of such institutional sexism 4.
Let me hasten to add, that such discrimination is not just a Malayali or Indian phenomenon. Here is an excerpt from Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In5 where she describes a colleague who wanted her to date his son.
Since when it rains, it pours, on that same project, the senior client leader wanted to fix me up with his son. He declared this intention in front of his team over and over. I knew he meant it as a compliment, but it undermined my professional authority. How could I get my clients to take me seriously if their boss was constantly reminding everyone that I was his son’s age— oh, and that I should date him? One day, I gathered my courage and asked to speak to him in private. I told him (nicely) that I did not think it was appropriate for him to keep bringing up his son. He laughed it off and kept doing it. Having tried to deal with the situation myself, I went to my manager — the same “Sandberg”-shouting SEM. He listened to my complaint and then told me that I should think about what I was “doing to send these signals.” Yup, it was my fault. I told the two other Sandbergs, who were outraged. They encouraged me to go over the SEM’s head and talk to the senior partner, Robert Taylor. Robert understood my discomfort immediately. He explained that sometimes those of us who are different (he is African American) need to remind people to treat us appropriately. He said he was glad I told the client no on my own and that the client should have listened. He then talked to the client and explained that his behaviour had to stop. He also spoke with my SEM about his insensitive response. I could not have been more grateful for Robert’s protection.
Sheryl makes it clear – “It undermined my professional authority.[...] He explained that sometimes those of us who are different (he is African American) need to remind people to treat us appropriately.” Sheryl Sandberg and Adv. Anima Muyarath arrive at their respective workplaces every day with similar goals as any other man in their office. If in the name of informality and so called nicety, men consistently undermine the professional authority of women in the workplace, is that to be tolerated?
While the man is automatically considered to be the professional, the woman is the mother, wife, lover, the beautiful, fragile, to-be-cared-for person first, and much later a professional.
While Anima’s complaint focuses on some obvious remarks from her male colleagues, let me draw attention to the not so obvious remarks as well. For instance how do we respond to the sisterly affection in the form of care? The ‘caring’ men are being nice, aren’t they? I have no issue with nicety. If everyone was nice to everyone, we could all be one big happy family. :) However, nicety that is preserved for women alone is founded on sexism.
It is high time we called out the bluff that underlines male chivalry. Based on Anima’s Facebook posts, these male advocates seemed to be treating their women colleagues as sisters and as ‘dear’ colleagues. Yet, when one of them raised her voice and decided to rock the status quo, they hurled a chair and several abuses at her. There is no free lunch. Chivalry expects women to pay for it – with submission.
Imagine an office birthday party. The cake has been set up. The candles have been blown out and the first piece has been cut and presented. Now, the entire cake has to be cut into pieces so that other employees can share it. Even if it was a room filled with male and female software engineers, who is the one who usually cuts the cake? I have had the opportunity of being a woman in such an office birthday party situation. The room had a majority of men and very few women. It also mattered that the women were younger than most men in the room. The awkwardness of the moment when none of the women offered to cut the cake was amazing. The women were present in the room not because of their culinary skills but because they were professionally qualified. Yet, there is an unconscious assumption that the junior woman in the team will cut the cake, write the minutes and get the photocopy. Even though there might be equally qualified men in the same room. Let me also add that there is nothing demeaning about cutting a cake. However, it is problematic when there is a systematic assumption that some work is best done by women. When women raise these instances of subtle discrimination as problematic, I hope male colleagues will listen and learn. Anima’s Facebook post refers to such devaluation of women’s professional skills.
Women are professionals whose ambitions, goals and aspirations are similar to that of men. It is offensive to treat women as fragile people who need to be cared for. Sexism need not be tolerated for its own sake, but it does have career implications too. Will managers assume that some assignments might be too dangerous for women? Will managers restrain from discussing international assignments with married women, because they assume that women will not travel? There can be several career implications for women if the organization does not see her as a professional equal to any other man in the office. Having said that let me also preempt another response from male colleagues when women call for equality in workplaces. “On one hand, women want equality and in the same breath, they say they want to go home early because they have kids. This is hypocrisy.”
When one argues for gender equality, the argument is for justice not an insensitive blind allocation of equality.
First of all, I am not sure if such anecdotal conversations accurately represent the amount of work that mothers actually do in office spaces. Secondly, when one argues for gender equality, the argument is for justice not an insensitive blind allocation of equality. It is neither equal nor just, when institutions do not consider child-care as an important aspect of an employees’ life. It is neither equal nor just, when organizations and work is designed for the typical male employee, who is expected to have a partner to take care of his private needs. Even when women work professionally, majority of caring work and household responsibilities are borne by women. Being cognizant of this unjust phenomenon need not be seen as hypocrisy. Nor should women feel ashamed to push organizational limits to cope with this anomaly.
One of the contributions of the feminist movement has been to make the invisible visible. To label the unspoken reality of women’s lives is an important function of feminist theorizing. As Gloria Steinem said, “domestic violence did not have a name earlier, it was called life”. Hochschild gave us the term ‘second shift’ to describe the double burden of household chores that women bore, after finishing their day job. What was sexual harassment called before it was named so? Perhaps it is time to label the systemic devaluation of women professionals in everyday interactions that Advocate Anima calls our attention to.
It is high time we called out the bluff that underlines male chivalry. There is no free lunch. Chivalry expects women to pay for it – with submission.
Considering that we are discussing the issue of subtle workplace sexism (which may have career implications), let me also draw attention to a dilemma that some men face. When it comes to the issue of chivalry, some men often voice their dismay about what is expected of them. Here is what a friend told me once, “Some women do not want me to open doors for them. Some others find it impolite if I do not. Some women expect chivalry and some others think that I am patronizing. I am confused. What am I expected to do?” I frankly do not have an answer. However, I believe that the genuineness of this confusion can be measured by how someone chooses to respond when they are called out for sexist or racist behaviour. I believe that most of us have internalized patriarchy and racism to levels that we may never acknowledge. Therefore when someone calls us out for being sexist or racist, we must offer to learn, rather than be defensive. Refer to Palash Sen’s response video to learn how not to respond 6. These are difficult discussions but who said change was easy. Or as another man told me, “Well, I just open doors for both men and women”. The key is equality. No one has trouble with people being nice. :)
One of the contributions of the feminist movement has been to make the invisible visible. To label the unspoken reality of women’s lives is an important function of feminist theorizing.Perhaps it is time to label the systemic devaluation of women professionals in everyday interactions that Advocate Anima calls our attention to.
However, in Anima’s case, the most baffling thing about the controversy has been the institutional response to a woman’s complaint of sexism. The Bar Association could have responded to Anima’s post with a thoughtful discussion which aims to make the work space more women friendly. Instead, it chose to discipline the very woman who raised the issue. The Calicut Bar Association seems to have rather strange ways of upholding justice!
In Solidarity with Advocate Anima Muyarath.
- 1. BBC Report dated 13th Jan 2013: India sexual harassment case: Supreme Court to investigate second judge
- 2. Interview with Advocate Anima
- 3. The blog post that called out Palash Sen's sexist humor.
- 4. Petition to withdraw the Golden Mother Award in Calicut University
- 5. Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
- 6. Video of Palash Sen's response to allegations