LIFESTYLE

When Women Called Out Alleged Sexual Harassment In Pune's 'High Spirits' Bar, A Conspiracy Of Silence Emerged

Keep talking, ladies.

15/10/2017 9:59 AM IST | Updated 15/10/2017 11:21 AM IST
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If there's one thing we've learned about the culture of sexual harassment, it is that so often, it's happening within plain sight. When the abuse finally gets called out, the darkest secrets about bro-codes, conspiracies of silence and perpetration through inaction are revealed. Harry Weinstein and Bill Cosby are living, breathing proof of how much men with power and privilege can get away with.

Closer home, in Pune, a similar pattern emerged in the last few days, with an outpouring of allegations of sexual harassment against Khodu Irani, the owner of a popular local bar, High Spirits, on Twitter.

It started with a series of tweets from blogger Sheena Dabholkar talking about being publicly shamed on the Facebook page of High Spirits for calling out sexism on its premises. She went on to talk about the extent to which the harassment and objectification of women have been normalised, by constantly dismissing it as a part of Irani's gregarious, 'mad' nature.

Whenever someone comes forward with their story of harassment, a whole lot of people predictably respond with disbelief -- many called Dabholkar a liar and an attention-seeker. Several men and women were skeptical, because they'd never seen women being harassed and abused themselves; while even more were of the opinion that if the harassment was such common knowledge among Pune's party-goers, women who still went there were tacitly giving consent to what happened when they went there. Apparently, the fact that women were still going to the club was proof of Irani's innocence.

All of this, of course, makes one wonder, once again -- what does a woman have to do to be believed when she talks about the corrosive bro-culture and benevolence with which sexual predators are shielded, effectively creating an environment so toxic that women are constantly feeling unsafe and objectified?

But despite all the hemming and hawing, and the cringeworthy #NotAllMen rhetoric making an appearance once again, something wonderful emerged from the sordid mess.

As Dabholkar's tweets began to get retweeted, she started sharing the stories of all the women writing to her privately, revealing how they too were harassed by Irani. While many requested anonymity, a bigger number drove the conversation forward by publicly talking about Irani's appalling behaviour.

As more and more disturbing details came to light, several stand-up artists declared that they would no longer perform at High Spirits.

As a venue that is known for hosting popular stand-up artists from around the country, it is undoubtedly important that comics publicly boycott a place that allows women to be treated so poorly on its premises. But that's not nearly enough. Two comics, Aditi Mittal and Agrima Joshua, tweeted about how most male comics treat feminism as a good-for-business act they studiously maintain on stage and in public, while privately, they're very much a part of the bro-culture that enables the harassment of women.

It is evident that the problem is far bigger than one man's allegedly sexually harassing women. The real problem is the entire machinery that makes it possible for him to do it with such impunity, without any fear of consequence. How do the aggressors come get to be so confident in the protection that sexism affords?

It's because it never fails them.

Every time such an incident comes to light, there is an unending list of questions for the women: Why didn't they speak up earlier? Why are they coming forward now? How is it possible that he could harass so many women for so long?

So many questions for women, none for the men.

How is it that male performance artists are now claiming to be "shocked" by the perpetrator's behaviour, when, by all accounts, the alleged abuse seems to be a matter of common knowledge for those on the inside? It is telling, that 'why women choose to stay silent' –- a question that is literally asked and answered every time the topic of abuse is discussed on any platform, anywhere in the world -- is asked with more scorn, disdain and suspicion, than 'why did you know and continue to pretend like it was all okay?'.

Stand-up comedy in India is not exactly an overcrowded industry, so it's a bit difficult to swallow that within a small group, so many people could be so utterly clueless about what was going on at a venue they often perform at.

Even so, the reality of the matter is that a string of tweets from frustrated, exhausted women on Twitter is unlikely to solve the problem of sexual harassment. Nor will it stop people from using feminism as a battle-cry to market themselves as socially conscious and aware artists, while happily indulging in misogyny and reaping the benefits of a sexist culture in private.

Despite that, conversations like these serve a very important purpose. Because when women come together to prop each other up, shore each others' courage and lend their voices to the narrative, it becomes that much harder for people to ignore the problem or shout the victim down. Case in point being that at the time of writing this article, High Spirits had made its Twitter account private and was steadfastly ignoring the matter on its Facebook page.

According to a report in Pune Mirror, Irani defended the allegations against him, saying, "High Spirits is 13 years old. I wouldn't dignify this baseless allegation by responding on Twitter. I am a victim of harassment here. We are deeply shocked and saddened by the allegations, and completely deny them. It appears that these lies are emanating from a single person, with an agenda, who appears to be a motivated by the desire to tarnish the reputation of a bar that has an unblemished record of not having any issues like this."

HuffPost India has reached out to High Spirits for comment.

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