Tuesday, January 31, 2023
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#MeToo movement should not spare Indian NGO heroes and I am speaking out

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After my ordeal, I realised that the Indian NGO network is a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours place. 

Indian #MeToo is here and it’s time we turned our attention to the NGO world.

Most NGOs, like their founders, are decades old. They preach social justice and freedom. But often NGO employees talk in hushed whispers about what happens behind closed doors. Our NGO heroes often have a strange mismatch between their personal lives and public work. I am not doing the naming and shaming exercise that I could do. That’s up to the women who have been victimised.

I’m revisiting one experience I had 18-years ago. I was not traumatised, just livid and seething with rage. My daughter had said, “You should write about it. It’s important.” I didn’t. I’m doing so now, because I owe it to all those young women who need this issue to be spoken about, so they will not have to fight the battles we older ones fought.

Also read: What do you do when your woke friend is named in #MeToo

I discovered that when I began writing about Adivasis, Dalits and oppressed people, men from NGOs were no different when it came to abuse of power. Many became megalomaniacs. I could write a novel based on the stories I’ve heard, but I will limit myself to one incident. And I have witnesses to back me up.

I had boarded a South African Airways Mumbai-Johannesburg flight to cover the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban. I noticed a man in front stretching his leg into the aisle almost tripping the air hostess. Deliberately, twice. A common ploy with creepy male passengers. I contemplated telling him to behave. But exhaustion won. I couldn’t summon the energy.

The lights went out. I was almost asleep. Suddenly, I felt a hand massaging my thigh. I sat up with a jolt. Was I dreaming? A nightmare? But no, the passenger in the seat in front of me had stretched his hand behind to rub my thigh. I screamed involuntarily. I pressed the
button for attendance. The crew arrived, pulled him to the back of the plane. I slapped him hard. Not satisfactory enough. Took off my slipper, Kolkata-style, and hit him with it. Manjula Pradeep, an activist joined me. The crew made a note of the incident. The man,
Mazher Hussain whom I’d never seen before, was the head honcho of COVA, a Hyderabad NGO and a regular on the national circuit. He has collaborated with Oxfam, Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and Ford Foundation in the past. Totally drunk, he stayed silent.

Also read: #MeToo can change the way we treat women in India

Cut to our destination, Durban. I wrote several articles for The Hindu on the Dalit demands for justice. Manjula, a feisty feminist and respected Dalit activist, demanded that Mazher Hussain be sent back to India forthwith. None of the men from the campaign agreed. Manjula reported that an old, close friend had said, “Even if he’d raped someone. I wouldn’t agree to send him back. He’s important and influential. The cause is everything. Making a noise about this would detract from our Dalit issue.” So Mazher Hussain stayed.

Many of my male colleagues avoided eye contact. I was not really surprised. This is why it’s so hard to fight sexual abuse. Because the old boys’ network always comes together to shut you out. They make you feel that there’s something wrong with you for blowing up a “trivial” incident out of proportion.

Fast forward to a few years later. I was vice-president of NCAS (National Centre for Advocacy Studies) Pune. Brilliant playwright, Vijay Tendulkar was the president. Someone proposed Mazher Hussain’s name to the board. I objected. An uncomfortable silence ensued. Some of the men looked at each other. A woman I counted as a friend, a famous human rights advocate, said, “You know I sympathise with you, but it’s just your word against his. You can’t prove anything.” I was shocked into silence. Some mumbled about “the great work” Mazher Hussain has done through COVA and that the NCAS had no other prominent Muslim leader.

Vijay Tendulkar, bless him, then said, “I’m shocked that the vice-president’s word is not enough for you. She is a respected name in the NGO circles and as a writer. We have known her for over a decade. If she is disbelieved here in our very own organisation, which
woman can be believed?” Tendulkar’s stature was such, no one raised a peep. End of story.

It struck me then, I was an established woman in my forties. Unafraid and willing to fight. Yet in a close circle of friends(?) and colleagues, I would have been demolished if Vijay Tendulkar had not defended me. What earthly chance did young, vulnerable women stand?

I repeated the story in Delhi and in NGO circles, to the country’s best-known feminists. Everyone tut-tutted. But not one person lifted a finger to take it further, although I had heard that there had been similar allegations of vulnerable Muslim girls being molested by Mazhar Hussain.

Also read: My #MeToo moment goes back 30 years and I have the right to be angry

Why? Because it’s hard to denounce friends. Because the NGO network is a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours place. Invitations from Vienna, Beijing, Geneva, Lahore and New York will come your way if you acquiesce. And so the game goes on.

Men in Indian NGOs must understand that even consensual sex is off the board. Because a boss has undue influence and power over employees. To reach a safe place, these rules are mandatory. In fact, the #MeToo movement only further proves NGOs, government and corporate organisations need a gender policy to spell out explicitly that people in senior positions cannot use their power to exploit women.

Caribbean women sing a song I love, “Woman-time is Come.”

The author is an independent writer and focuses on social issues of Adivasis, Dalits and women.

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  1. Men who undermine women with sexual harassment will always feel empowered if we constantly dismiss the experience shared. It does not matter when you tell – it is very important that you do tell!
    Thank you Mari

  2. A month and a half has past since the COVA Exec Comm formed a committe to look into this matter. Anyone knows what is the outcome?

  3. I write this as a clarification, as they have been beseiged by calls after my Print article appeared.

    NCAS, of which I am a founder-member has done very good work over the decades.
    I’ve been assured by reliable sources that NCAS had nothing to do with Mazher Hussain after my denouement, over a decade ago.

    It would however be wonderful,in my opinion, if it undertook a cleaning up operation, with regards to sexual exploitation as it knows the NGO world so well.

  4. It’s so true. I have so many instances where women were not allowed to speak up within organisations and rather were forced to leave. I just feel that ensuring that you fight your cause is the first step, you will also get support.

  5. It takes more than courage to speak up and pin point this ugly intolerant behaviour . Thank you Mari for speaking out and trust more women traumatised will take courage to stand for their rights and shun men who use their power and position to humiliate women they pick on. It’s time for introspection and redemption.

  6. Public Notice
    COVA executive board met on 16th October in the context of the sexual harassment published in the online news portal THE PRINT on COVA Executive Director Dr.Mazer Hussain. The board unanimously decided to set up a 3 women member committee drawn from the social sector. The committee will enquire into the entire issue and submit a detailed report to the board within one and half months time. The board also asked Dr Mazher Hussain to go on leave for three months.
    – Rama jyothi, President
    -Varghese Theckanath, Secretary

  7. It takes immense courage to speak out, both then and now. In the bleakness of current political scenario both locally and world over, you bring hope. Thank you for being an inspiring role model. Woman-time HAS come!

  8. Ashok, (first comment on this article) has clearly missed the point. People like you are part of the problem when your only takeways are to be worried about this bring generalized to tarnish the whole sector and that went ought to speak up – in this case she DID speak up and nothing happened.

    We need to change and start believing survivors, and actively support them and have zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assualt. THAT is what you should takeaway from #metoo.

  9. I can confirm that the Mazhar issue led to his being unofficially banned from being invited for subsequent NCAS GB meetings. I hope that ban is still in place. And I can also confirm that I myself know of at least two other NGO leaders who had relationships (presumably sexual) with women (other than their wives) who worked under them. I am not sure whether these were consensual relationships, but as Mari pointed out, even consensual relationships in such situations need to be questioned. So this is definitely an issue that needs to be called out, but unfortunately, like those who supported Mari with their comments, it is difficult to speak out unless the women involved are willing to speak up. Mari has offered a role model for others to take up the baton. I wonder how many will.

  10. Mari, your story is so inspiring and should be read by hundreds across the world to stop these dirty old men misusing their positions of power. So glad to see that all your supporters are women too and ofcourse the ‘old boy’ network rears it’s head to nay say your opinion. Ignore them.

    This movement will hopefully help our next generation of women, be strong and slap back any misuse of power by any man. Yes, the time has come and your article vocalises it perfectly.

  11. Well said Mari and I hope your courage spreads to other women in India and even here. Its a hard call for any woman which must change for our daughters sake!

  12. You are a role-model. I am happy you wrote about this since there have been other cases as well where seniors kept mum because of the money and emoluments. As Marx says finally things boil down to who belongs to which class, and I add gender has not yet cut across class. Women too speak the same language as men when they belong to the same class..and NGOs are all about funds. I have never been beguiled by their sweet fake words!! All NGOs may not have predators but they definitely don’t speak against them.

  13. Well said, Mari! All too often, ‘progressive’ men get away with sexist and prurient behaviour because women judge them by different standards. Glad you had the guts to call him out.

  14. I know a couple of old fools who think that Mazher Hussainshould get a national award for his work. I know the man and have heard countless women complain about him. Im glad this puts paid to his Nobel prize hopes.

  15. Who would have believed other women if Mari herself was not listened to. Thanks Mari for talking about it.

  16. Thank you, Mari, for your courage in speaking out about this sorry incident, for how courageously you responded at the time – and for sharing the even sorrier response of some of your colleagues. You DID speak up at the time and were not heard – like so many others in that situation. The airline did not ‘book’ him, the conference organisers did not ban him… If his crime had been financial dishonesty I suspect he would not have been let off so easily. Hopefully Woman Time* coming means that professional status will no longer trump (pun intended) sexual abuse, just as it doesn’t trump other crimes. But this is not just an NGO malaise – it is a societal malaise… which sector can say that it hasn’t experienced such sorry stories? For the NGO sector this is the #WeToo moment.
    *I found the song! https://youtu.be/hSOaXReL_98

  17. Lots of people are gunning for NGOs nowadays, which I think is unjustified. Have no personal knowledge of how much good work they are doing on the ground, which could be substantial. It should not be nullified because they get a few foreign junkets. It would also be unfair to generalise and use one incident to paint all / many of them as predators. 2. The constructive takeaway from Me Too is that women, especially those who could have lived with the consequences of so doing, ought to have spoken up much earlier. Mazher Hussain should have been booked eighteen years ago. The airline would have dealt with the paperwork.

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