Monday, July 17, 2017

But. What. Was. She. Wearing.

Vaishnavi Sundar
Vaishnavi Sundar, activist and filmmaker from Chennai, is working hard on an interesting project - a documentary film on workplace sexual harassment. Here's an interview with her on the journey so far and all that lies ahead.

What is the project all about?
Our documentary film, ‘But what was she wearing?’ is a result of over 6 months worth research and a lot of hard work. The film will critically examine the nature of workplace sexual harassment by speaking to both the lawmakers as well as the people for whom such laws are made. What constitutes a workplace? What happens if the harasser is your employer? What happens when you are on a daily wage? What are the policies and rights of women, and how are the governing bodies responding? I intend to portray the reality of being a working woman in India, by juxtaposing the laws that are supposed to govern the safety of women. I hope to tell the tales of crimes that have gone unpunished and/or unreported despite such laws.

How did it come about? What inspired you to take this on?
It was December last year and Hannah got in touch with me regarding her interest to do an internship in India. So I wanted to make the internship duration worth both our while, and decided to pick a topic to make a film on so she can learn every aspect of filmmaking from ideation to fruition. For the film, I wanted to pick a topic that is largely urban, and at the same time address a pertinent issue that haunts women, an aspect that I have been very vehemently focussing on all my films. I think workplace harassment was easily the first thought that came to mind, who knew the suppressed anger from all my corporate jobs would spring up this way!

What are some of the key take homes you want the audience to have?
I hope that the film would be a powerful reminder that women won’t tolerate abuse and their inaction should no longer be the veil abusers hide behind. I also hope to provide every single information for legally ensuring a safe space for working women, and consequences that employers or abusers would face for not conforming.

What were some of your challenges while making the film? Challenges - can we say, while doing research?
The challenges with research were many - The amount of information that I ended up digging scared me so much that I was very close to giving up many times in the past month. And there is no information available to access after a point. For example: if you are a housemaid (or anyone from the unorganised sector like construction laborers, manual scavengers etc), you are supposed to have a redressal mechanism that is accessible and functional. Let’s just ask ourselves this question: WHO ARE WE KIDDING? As per the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, every district in India must have a Local Complaints Committee, where women who work in organisations with less than 10 employees, independent professionals, unorganised sector workers including domestic workers can lodge complaints in case they face harassment. But this information is not available, so this is what it means: there is firstly no awareness that these women can actually make a complaint, and that there is (allegedly) a governing body to cater it, and secondly, there is no data as to who is this committee, where is their office or what on earth is going on in the government? I got in touch with Prajnya and Red Elephant Foundation’s POSH wing to seek their help with RTIs to the Social Welfare Department of the Govt of Tamil Nadu, asking for details of the Local Complaints Committees in Tamil Nadu, I realised how difficult it is to get such information from the government. In such cases, the lack of information itself becomes a subject matter of discussion about legalities chapter of the documentary.

Workplace Sexual Harassment is always seen as a white collar problem - no one even accounts for the blue collar dimension, or account for the fact that that these women themselves don't know that they have a right not to be sexually harassed and that they can complain. What do you believe is a solution to getting conversations going on this front?
Even though workplace sexual harassment is universal, the specific experiences of women in India (and other developing countries) are a lot more layered and complicated. The term ‘workplace’ is quite convoluted, and works in the favour of a judicial system that conveniently lurks in its ambiguity. The reason that a strong legal binding is practically impossible in India is because of the endless sub-categories of oppression that women are subject to. Take manual scavenging for example, it is the most horrific human experience that is forcefully thrust upon a certain section of the society alone, owing to the marginalized nature of their caste. This is obviously not new, it has been going on for years and exists even today(!), but on paper, manual scavenging has been abolished by law as a dehumanizing practice. Sure, that would be true if there weren’t these uniform clad women sweeping the roads past midnight while the rest of us watch the news on how unsafe Indian outdoors are for women. When these women tidy up the city at night or early in the morning, they are subjected to constant harassment. Is that workplace harassment? Yes. Can they hope to find redressal for their experience? It is extremely difficult with the way our judicial system works. The side of India that the world is largely familiar with is consumed wholly by the glitters of Bollywood—and a limited amount of independent films that manage to find distributors internationally—that such traumatic stories simply remain within the country subject to censors and bans. The idea of speaking to people across industries and different types of workplaces is to essentially make the film intersectional. To hear every woman’s story without an excuse or exemption, I am interested in portraying this other side to the world, bare and devoid of any disguise.

Any incident of GBV is definitely a concerted crime - needing an enabling environment, some actors in order for it to occur and no action being taken in response, among other things. What did you find yourself seeing in this prism? Was this what you observed too? Can you talk about the three components in WPSH contexts?
The war on women is on - there is simply no denying that. The sooner we accept it, the better equipped we are to wear the armor to fight. Based on my research online, as well as offline speaking to many women, one thing came to my understanding - women rather not talk about their abuse in public. And often, the reason they state is:
  1. Why bother, there won’t be any action taken anyway
  2. Why bother, there will be more abuse coming my way
  3. Why bother, I might lose my job
  4. Why bother, I will be character assassinated
  5. Why bother, because WHY EFFING BOTHER
If you notice, none of these reasons put the onus on the harasser not the environment (an organisation/workplace) ever, it is always, ALWAYS what the woman did, said, or wore. History is proof - and I am sure their tribe is only growing (half the human race no less), take the likes of KPS Gill, Pachauri, Phaneesh Murthy, Gopal Kanda, Tarun Tejpal, Meghalaya Governor V Shanmuganathan, and the man who claims he did nothing wrong, Arunabh Kumar, Brock Turner, certain cow-worshipping idiots, DONALD TRUMP - this is the reality for women, this is the world we live in, even when we did not ask for it - this is all the bullshit we put up with, every minute of every day - and yet, it boils down to what I was wearing? No, I’m not angry, YOU ARE ANGRY. If you are not, well, I command you!

How can people help your campaign?
Of the four films that I have made, two of them have been crowdfunded, this is my third. I have immense faith in the power of the crowd, and the fruits that we can enjoy together when an entire community works towards a common goal. In my experience, both as a filmmaker and an activist, it has always been formidable to have so many people backing your dream, whether or not they get a direct, tangible benefit from it. It is a validation for filmmakers too, to strive on despite (and especially during) difficult circumstance. Every single contribution will help us get one step closer to making corporate and government decision makers to take workplace harassment seriously, and ensure to a fundamental redressal forum is set up. We hope that through our film we will also give voice to the women who have been systematically sushed, and whose trauma has been trivialised. The link to contribute can be found here.

What do you hope for next, in the weeks ahead of you?
Right now, I am desperately appealing to people’s benevolence to make sure the campaign is successful - that will put my 6 months’ labor and the 6 months to come, slightly easier. This film has sort of become my life right now, and of all the challenges we are willing to face in this journey, I sincerely hope money won’t be one of them. This request to raise $11480 is hardly going to cover my year long research and work in the project, but I am willing to forgo that because I now just want the film to be made, come what may. I am also desperately trying to get in touch with male victims of sexual harassment, which I believe, as a feminist, is my prerogative to address. But owing to the man box men find themselves in, thanks to patriarchy, this is seeming almost impossible.
Also, I intend to address various aspects in my film as chapters, like:
1) Corporate
2) Unorganised sector like house maids, manual scavengers or daily wage labourers
3) Media (news, journalism, ground reporting etc)
4) North east Indians who experience an implicit bias in rest of India
5) Cinema
6) Academia
7) Politics
8) NGOs, training companies providing SHW sensitisation
9) Law and order
10) Sports
11) Doctors and women in STEM
So I would love for women from these fields to come forward and get in touch with me. This is all our film, I'm merely a catalyst.

Follow Vaishnavi's work here:
Twitter: @limesodafilms

The opinions expressed in this article are the interviewee's own and do not reflect the view of The Red Elephant Foundation.