She called out her harassers and it started a mammoth uprising that has seen the #metoo gain support across the country. Now journalist Sandhya Menon wants to work on safety for women in the work place and protecting women and their livelihoods
If anything stands out starkly, it’s that Sandhya Menon is ready to battle ahead. Her call of duty helped the #metoo movement gain momentum, with many women coming out with their own stories. Her story is one of courage and conviction in the face of debilitating fear and ridicule. The mother of two speaks in this candid chat… about her learning, victories in her fight for justice… and how powerful men cannot get away with harassment...
A young writer when the incident, when you were kissed, took place… what emotions played a part in mustering the courage to tell the world?
I was 25-26, and fairly clueless about what sexual harassment entailed. It was more of a shock (reaction), I got out of the car, immediately called a friend and said, ‘Dude, this is what happened, and both of us were giggling — Giggles of nervousness and shock. (she breathes deeply). We spoke about what we could do, and were utterly confused. When I went to office the next day, I was quiet as I didn’t know how to talk about it or what to talk about. Immediately, I started thinking, F***, I should not have put myself in that place, not been alone with him at 1.30 am. Did I say anything that would attract that kind of reaction. I basically scrutinised everything I said, did, to find if there was anything that (could have) prompted him to think he can behave that way. After I was told to keep quiet, I felt, ‘yeah ok, he was 30 years older than me, and I would be ruining something (if I opened up.) Maybe, I would be thought of as attention-seeking, people might turn it around against me, that I am making stories.I might be blamed, even though it was nothing I did. I might be spoken about as someone sleeping my way up the ladder. It was confusing. I think after two weeks, I started to talk about it to my colleagues. Who were like, “Oh really?” At that point it didn’t seem like courage but like a 25-year-old who didn’t know what to do, and was looking at the older women in the office to give her guidance. I didn’t get any. Then in 2011, I wrote about it in my blog, just my space to rant and rave. It was not courage but I was utterly sick of what was going on. I had been watching so much about men, in positions of power abusing women in the West. And they were all me. It had to stop by naming the harassers.
When you first came out, were you prepared for the trolls? How did you handle it?
No, I was not. But, it’s absolutely beyond time that men give up their entitlement. I mean each of us who has been laid a hand on, kissed or improperly propositioned to, all this is not coming from a desperate need to have sex, it’s coming from a sense of power. Knowing that, ‘Hey, I am in a position of power and I am going to try this because she cannot do anything. I am entitled.’ It’s beyond time that men realised — that they cannot do this — ‘I don’t care if hormones are raging, I don’t care if this gives them a sense of power but you cannot do this.’ Unless it hits them monetarily, and unless they are ostracised socially, they are not going to stop. It is incredibly important to call them out socially so they are hit monetarily. A lot of these men are manipulative, and will inveigle their way into a new job.
But if you have them on record — that these are the men that were called out on harassment and were investigated and were asked to step down: That record stays online. With the Internet thankfully, it has a way of coming back to bite you — it’s for posterity. It’s the only way that men will know how to behave in professional environments with women.
The recent accusation on musician Ravi Kiran (and others)… one thing is concerning, how can one tell the truth from the rabble rousing?
The rabble rouser, we have to ignore, you have to follow the process. I have a very simple process, I do not take anonymous an account’s story. I whet the account, what happened, look for language… after reading so much, I have a sense of what is authentic and what is not. If there are common people between us, then I ask them. All the time, it’s held me in good stead. Not one person has turned around and said no, this is not possible. Or that, ‘this guy, no way he can behave like that.’ If there is a false accusation, if someone is working in a company where a person has been accused, no company is just rapping them and saying, ‘Ok, you can go, bye.’ They are putting it through investigation and due process. Now, the Internal Complaints Committee is getting convened, and investigating it, right? So first of all, false accusations have been only magnified on Twitter, and I haven’t yet come across a false accusation. Every single women (who has made accusations), I have asked them to send me an email from their legit ID, and phone number. And also asked them, if I were to go to court, to be sued for defamation, will they back me up in court, anonymously? Not one single women has refused, they’ve all sent me emails, numbers. So tell me what that says? And I am sitting over 200 DMs. What does that say?
How do you take a breather, and how do you stop from reacting with those misinformed and cruel?
For the first 13 days, I literally did not take a breather. Even for a glass of water. When ever my partner came home, he would give me a glass of water. Now, what I do to take time off is to be with my children. Try and get my life back in order. I have turned to water colours, started writing for myself. I spend an hour on my balcony — things have started to come back slowly into my life right now.
What are the major victories in your fight? Your tweets are a lesson in speaking up, what have you learnt?
I think one of the biggest victories has to MJ Akbar’s resignation. I mean within two weeks of speaking up, we had his resignation, which I think is a huge signal. Anybody who is a journalist and who is above 25, knows of MJ Akbar, and just the brazenness of his defamation suit is laughable to me — you know the fact that he has done so much, and he actually thinks it’s ok to sue Priya (Ramani). Yeah, that is the biggest victory. Personally, the two victories are — Gautam Adhikari was asked to step down from his position at the Centre for American Progress, and Sreenivas was asked to resign. The problem does not end there. What happens when neither employees are working at the organisation anymore — what do you do with the investigation? How do I hold the ICC accountable? For me the victory is that they have been asked to step down — I might sound militant but this is not going to be driven home till men face the same losses that women do, in terms of reputation, respect, self-respect, and money. Unless men face those losses, it is not going to be hard enough a lesson to change their behaviour. A subtler victory is to see the many reasons that women have turned around and said, ok, I am going to add my voice to this. Or women who have come anonymously first, and then wanted to put their names behind it. Those are the true stories of courage. The third aspect of victory, which I am still sceptical about, is where the NCW and the women and child development have sat up and taken notice. Now, that group of ministers has been convened with Rajnath Singh (I don’t know what he is doing there) and Nitin Gadkari, Menaka Gandhi and Nirmala Sitharaman, I don’t know if it’s an eye wash, it could be. Maybe there are just making the right noises because this has created its own loud issue. The point is they are thinking about it, and legislative changes are something that we’ve been wanting to push. The other victory that I don’t think a lot of people talk about are the stories from small towns. I have, in the past three weeks, a sizeable chunk of stories coming from small towns, the only problem there is that maybe it is not sexual harassment, it diverges into other types of harassment. So it is all the more imperative on us with our privilege to push for better due process so that these women are not traumatised.
You say the Brett Kavanaugh incident made you come out in the open… yet the mammoth task before you and each of us is not only difficult but history has shown that the power brokers usually get their way…
Women are terrified of being unemployable, I have already been told several times that no one is going to give you a job. Women are terrified of men taking revenge. Not just revenge that defamation suit mar diya, but revenge in terms of, ‘if I am alone in my house, I don’t put it past him to send goons and have me kidnapped, and have me raped,’ that is pure terror of power because the people accused are powerful. Even me, within the first two days of me calling Sreenivas out, someone called and said very clearly, I know about your defamation suit. I had no idea, but after that every second person was being told, that listen you are being sued for defamation for `5 crores. It is a nice little defamation tactic, it took 24 hours of my life. My anxiety skyrocketed, my gut started to clench, what do I do now, I don’t have time, money… but I said ok, let him intimidate me, let him scare me, that’s the thing right? Women are terrified of not just monetary loss but physical fear of being raped, kidnapped and murdered. Fearing that of someone you know because you turned them down is huge.
How are things now?
I am working on catching up. I am behind all my writing deadlines which means no money in the bank, and that is so terrifying. I moved house in the midst, dealing with the emotional impact and my children who didn’t want to move. I am thinking about how to take this beyond social media, we want to take this further. How we can implement policy changes and compelingly ask for changes so that women are more protected in their work places. That work places are safer for all. I am steeped in understanding (after the media circus has died) the law better. Steeped in research. This is something I feel very strongly about. I have (also) lodged a complaint with the NCW.
Your life as a single mother of two…
I was a very reluctant mother, my children were born very quickly, they are 14 months apart. When my son was six months, I learnt to accept him completely. They are really close in age and are like twins, and are fiercely independent and individualistic. We are learning and growing together. I would not have been who I am if not for my mother as she said you have to be independent and instilled those qualities. My father is a regular nine to five guy — hugely dependable, knowing my father had my back gave me courage. They have disagreed with my marriage choices — I was married twice. They are deeply protective of me, had a tough time accepting my diagnosis of a mental illness … with that generation of people if you are feeling low, you just have to get up and get to work, and get going.
Isn’t it worrying that there are many people using this for their own ends? The general unease and paranoia is making it harder for women to get jobs because people are afraid?
It’s simple — take 10 minutes, and think about it. Why would a women put her name, face and time behind rabble rousing or false accusations against a well-known man? Who has more to lose, history has shown us time and time again that public memory is short and divided. People continue to watch Woody Allen and Polanski movies. Aishwariya Rai went on record and said Salman Khan beat me up, but he continues to be the biggest bloody star in Hindi cinema, so men just enjoy that kind of place. Tell me, when a women is going up against that, if we just sit down and think about it for a minute, we realise that even if it is anonymous, what does she gain? People accused (the women) when I posted an anonymous screen shot that she is looking for fame. Exactly what kind of fame is she getting because she is anonymous? Someone said she is looking for money. What money? It’s not like she is asking for anything. About Ravi Kiran, anybody who is in the industry in Chennai, for them Ravi Kiran is not a surprise, right? And it’s the same with MJ Akbar. It is the same with serial offenders, it’s not a one off. They are repeat offenders because they have gotten away with it before. I think it is important to follow the process and continue to believe the DMs. If only these detractors could see the pain and anguish in the DMs. You can tell that from dramatic language, this is understated with confusion, pain, fear and guilt. I just wish these people could see that.