Over the last few days, my Facebook timeline has been flooded with gut-wrenching reminders of the pain and trauma that many of us have faced, of appalling instances of sexual assault and harassment that my friends and family chose to reveal, after years of remaining silent-some of them even decades.
With the #MeToo campaign gathering storm, suddenly the issue of sexual abuse was no longer one relegated to the newspaper headline on a Monday morning. It came closer home – in the form of a junior at school posting about her experience. It reared its ugly head again and again across the day – an older relative unsure about hashtags but not unknown to sexual abuse writing about the trauma she faced, a close friend speaking of her ordeal at the age of six – half confused at what was happening, her cries muffled under layers of shame and shock.
Every ‘Me Too’ had a story to tell. Every ‘Me Too’ was an expression of breaking the silence maintained over the years. Behind each of these hashtags was a story of utter sadness, of sheer helplessness – the little girls and boys in us all giving vent to the wrong done to them, after years of putting things under the carpet.
In the midst of this, a post on Facebook left me completely pained and shocked. Posted by Chandana Agarwal, Managing Partner of Ogilvy and Mather Delhi, it is a supremely insensitive take on the #MeToo campaign and the experiences of the survivors of abuse and assault.
Agarwal, very casually, lumps ‘things like someone grabbing at you or pinching you as part of part of growing up in India. In her explicit description of these painful experiences that many have faced in crowded buses, in lonely lanes, in half-lit rooms on the roof – she categorically says that all of these ‘things’ are not abuse. It seems that in her world, getting groped or pinched is simply a rite of passage, one of the hurdles that one must cross as one transitions to adulthood. Like passing a trigonometry test, like tripping and getting your knees scraped, like getting vaccinations for measles, getting grabbed at and pinched seems to be a part of growing up.
Not only that, she has highly problematic views on the ‘growing up experience’ across the world as well, which she elucidates with great elan. Apparently, a teacher trying to ‘get fresh’ with a student is not abuse in her books. Neither is a boss or a colleague inappropriately displaying sexual interest in you. Again, she asserts that these experiences do not constitute abuse.
In an age, when corporate offices across the world have moved from wood-panels to glass cabins for the senior management to fuel greater transparency, in an age when the sexual harassment policy of a company under the Vishakha Guidelines is mentioned at inductions and company orientations, such views being spouted by the head of office of India’s largest advertising agency are nothing short of draconian, derogatory and disrespectful. I wonder what her outlook will be if an employee reports an office harassment issue to her.
Actually, after this, I wonder if people will actually report anything.
Adding insult to injury, Agarwal takes it upon herself to dictate a narrow definition of what abuse is. Nothing really seems to make it to her obscure and vague benchmark of what abuse is. You’re a college girl who got groped on a bus? Nope, that’s not abuse according to Agarwal – it’s just toughening you up for life, sweetie. You’re a 7-year-old boy who was flashed by your middle aged, pot bellied art teacher? No, that’s not abuse either – it’s just going to leave you in good stead later in life. Did your experience not leave you in a life-threatening position? Then why are you complaining?
According to her, anything short of being life threatening is not abuse. Yes, she categorically said that.
Moreover, she advises everyone to not be ‘in that vulnerable position again’- the subtext: putting the entire blame squarely on the victim’s shoulders. In no way, is she showing solidarity with the stories of hurt and pain. Instead, she prescribes ways to avoid these experiences by not being vulnerable – subtext: not stepping out at night, not stepping out unaccompanied, not dressing skimpily, not seeming ‘available’. How to avoid a stomach upset? Avoid the roadside pani puri. How to avoid abuse? Don’t be vulnerable. Apparently, it is that simple.
By making it about avoiding abuse on part of the victims rather than not committing abuse on part of the perpetrators, she puts the onus of the entire issue on the victims only.
Such comments, coming from a senior professional of an advertising agency, that has time and again created ads that speak of sensitivity, of acceptance of difference, of compassion for fellow human beings- is painful. Her comments are a stark contrast to the work of Ogilvy and Mather – the agency that has given us ads that have made us laugh and cry- ‘Miley Sur Mera Tumhaara’, the Dove ads – you name it, work that has made us proud and inspired generations.
At a time, when we are trying to lift each other up, these views are deeply disappointing.