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M.J. Akbar is not the only predator, sexual is not the only harassment for woman journalists

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There was so much misogyny and such oppression and humiliation of women in the many organisations I have worked at that M.J. Akbar was just one of them. 

This morning, I was quoted in The Indian Express on an issue that is fast gaining momentum — the allegations against M.J. Akbar, a tall figure in journalism who is now a minister in the BJP government. Akbar was my boss at my second job, and his name has come up repeatedly in the snowballing #MeToo movement, which is outing predatory men at the workplace.

A journalist called me for my quotes, like he did other journalists who worked with Akbar at The Asian Age — the paper he launched. As a woman, as a journalist, I felt obliged to recount my experiences to the press on this issue concerning women’s rights. It is uncomfortable and not very pleasant, but it is, I felt, only the right thing to do.

Also read: Modi govt, BJP plan to ride out #MeToo storm against minister M.J. Akbar

I have said on the record that I knew about the rumours even before I joined; that Akbar also invited me to his hotel for a breakfast meeting. But because of his reputation, I did not go. I have said he accepted my excuse of oversleeping and not showing up, and has never been vindictive about it.

“He was OK with it. He never bothered me and I continued to do well. He never subjugated me or took it out on me,” I told reporter.

“Gahlaut said that Akbar ‘did not push’ once he was told no. ‘However, I totally understand that some women, because of the power he holds, might feel the fear in taking a stand, that I did take.’ She added that ‘it’s always a risk to speak your mind to power, because you don’t know how it will be taken. I totally understand that and I understand that not everyone cannot be forced to take that risk’,” The Indian Express quoted me as saying.

This is, of course, my experience. If he has pushed himself on someone, it is their experience. I believe them. If he has been vindictive over a refusal on a possible pass disguised as a meeting, again, I have no reason to disbelieve them. This however, was, not my experience. Is it still wrong if it’s a consensual relationship? Yes — I don’t know if the law currently says if you can have a relationship with your boss, but it is considered an abuse of power by all estimates today, and rightly so. However, Akbar is not alone in this; I know this has happened in other instances in other newsrooms.

So, when the journalist asked me for further comments on the issue, I said: “There was so much misogyny, oppression, demeaning and humiliation of women in the many organisations I have worked at that Akbar was just one of the many.

“Akbar always gave me my due,” I said, and I also “learned a lot from him”.

I am getting congratulatory calls for my “brave stance” on outing “that predator”, and more calls and requests from TV and print to relate my experiences.

But there is a reason why in my closing comments I didn’t single out Akbar as specifically guilty.

When I think of my 25-plus years in the media industry, a lot of injustices come to mind. Instances that made me angry at the time or deflated, or anxious and undermined my confidence — instances that I would have been spared, if only I was not a woman.

Gender-based humiliation

I recall reading Mail Today — the paper I then worked at — one morning, and finding out that an assignment that ought to have belonged to my department had been given to another, with a byline from that department.

When I asked the editor why this happened, and if the organisation did not take my role seriously, his answer was “of course I take you seriously, I invite you to my morning meeting”.

Also read: On M.J. Akbar, Narendra Modi doesn’t have luxury of staying silent

It was another blood boiling moment. I had earned my right to morning meetings, clawed my way in there. It was not a personal whim or favour; it was owed to me on merit and the designation I held.

I remember swallowing my anger and still insisting on a proper explanation, which finally came — Aroon Purie, supreme commander at the organisation, had wanted a specific story slightly late in the day and called the editor. The editor passed it on to his deputy to get the job organised.

In the newsroom, in the thick of our careers, we thrive on such moments to make a mark. A story the top editors have their eye on must be done brilliantly. It is a chance for one’s department to shine.

However, the deputy had chosen to give this chance to another department. When I raised my objection, the editor asked the deputy, whose explanation was: “How could I call a lady late at night and ask her?”

I’m sorry I don’t know if this is indeed the Stone Age attitude of some or many men in newsrooms, or actually a comfort with male colleagues that led to this wrongful assigning. Till date, it is not a satisfactory explanation.

At another leading daily, where I led the weekend Saturday and Sunday features teams, there was an enormously powerful executive editor. Now, I did not report to him — I reported to the editor — but most of the paper reported to the number two.

He was in the vicinity as I and my team went about our jobs one weekend in the newsroom, and casually began an innocuous discussion with us, which I don’t recall. What I do recall — in fact, I remember freezing in shock — is when this executive editor turned to me and said: “But you’re not married, are you?”

I wasn’t. “But a woman’s worth is only determined by her marital status,” he said. I really don’t know if it was his idea of a joke, his sincere opinion or what.

I remember in that moment feeling humiliated in the presence of various teams in the middle of the newsroom, an attempt at undermining my authority — only for being a woman.

Or another top level editor who — when I gave an opinion that differed from his — instantly shot me down, saying “oh, she always has to disagree”. It was a professional disagreement and only to be expected in news meetings, and I would expect a reasonable argument in return, not this public character judgement. I am pretty sure a male opinion that differed would not have been shot down like this.

There are so many other instances like this that flash across my mind, apart from the discomfort of whether I should or should not accept Akbar’s offer of breakfast early in my career. On an outstation assignment, for example, there were the incessant sleazy messages from a photographer in the other room to hook up.

In my experience, these other instances are in no way any less of a gender attack, though all of them may not have the requisite sexual predatory colour that is the hallmark of #MeToo. They carry only the colour of gender-based humiliation. which caused a variety of emotions including anxiety, self-doubt and rage.

There are so many instances, I have only related only a few. I’ve spent my life trying to analyse why these men behaved the way they did.

A sexual pass is not the only harassment

I don’t think sexual harassment is not a problem. I maintain it is. However, it is one of the other problems arising out of the imbalance of power in newsrooms. Bullying, silence, humiliation and misogyny continues in the imbalanced, male-dominated power structures.

In my experience, and on purely journalistic yardsticks, M.J. Akbar did not discriminate on the basis of gender in the newsroom. He empowered women journalists’ decision-making and roles, identified and nurtured talent. He led to many reputed journalists — men and women — coming out of his establishments, though he also did target women for sexual advances, as documented by so many women, including me.

Also read: #MeToo in India should not forgive women who enable patriarchy and rape culture

I find it hard to identify him specifically as a villain while others go scot free and even market themselves — and perhaps believe it themselves — as being raging feminists. For me, all of it was unjust, uncalled for, and an attack on me for my gender. It was a real as well as psychological hurdle in the way of me performing my duties all through my career, hurdles that men would not face on account of their gender.

I continue to seek an apology and redressal for all of these and more, none of which have come.

Sexual crime is heinous, and speaking for myself, M.J. Akbar did not commit this on me, though again I emphasise that I am only speaking for myself and not for others who may or may not have had a different experience. Any crime that anyone has committed must be punished.

As for what constitutes harassment, shoot me if you will, but I beg to dissent from current popular opinion that only a sexual pass is harassment. Of course it is, but I feel all of the instances I have related felt like harassment to me. I felt violated.

Kanika Gahlaut is a Delhi-based senior journalist and author.

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  1. Men may be capable of moderate to extreme frivolity when interacting with women; their attitude ranging from being patronising to predatory. But many of the instances that have been exposed on social media (inviting for a drink, ‘inappropriate’ touch), could be termed as frivolity of yesteryears that is only now classified as sexual harassment, and has harsh legal consequences. If in the past, women were mute, men were ignorant, and perhaps blatant with their behaviour as a result of ignorance and silence. One can see large scale anger against the entire spectrum of frivolous male behaviour; a huge cry for respect perhaps. But, if this barrage is accompanied by insinuations and allegations that are equally frivolous and absurd (e.g. Aditi Mittal, and now Piyush Mishra), then it may not end very well for this serious issue. Perhaps, it may be time now to shift the gear from ‘metoo’ to ‘this will not be acceptable’.

  2. Me Too is not seeking to give half the sky to women, 50% of the corner offices. That is a larger battle. Nor even to redress the power gradient between men and women, which gets reflected in so many ways, some of which are listed in this column. The limited purpose is to draw a Lakshman rekha before each working woman, whose sanctity should not be breached. If we can achieve that in our lifetimes, it will be a huge step forward.

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