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.
Last year I was publicly shamed on the Facebook page for an extremely popular bar called High Spirits in Pune for calling out sexism— Sheena (@weeny) October 11, 2017
Both the owner and his cronies, all known misogynists, were in on it. Neither I nor any of my friends have gone back to High Spirits.— Sheena (@weeny) October 11, 2017
The behaviour is literally excused and the abuse is minimised in favour of they're harmless, arrey Irani dudes are like this, a bit mad, etc— Sheena (@weeny) October 11, 2017
Oh also High Spirits gives awards for best breasts. Are you fucking kidding me— Sheena (@weeny) October 11, 2017
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.
Why did they go there repeatedly? To get molested? Wasn't once enough to shout? Twitter is old. Why now? Something fishy— Looking for identity (@4closedhearts) October 14, 2017
Men go to pubs to hang out with other boys and get drunk - we still aren't too sure WHY women would want to do the same— kgrao (@kgrao1980) October 11, 2017
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.
She worked with him pic.twitter.com/OAt5ifwuhk— Sheena (@weeny) October 14, 2017
I don't know these women and I have made 0 call outs for victims to join me because I know it's awful. pic.twitter.com/bAshj3FTda— Sheena (@weeny) October 14, 2017
Here's another gem. The owner of High Spirits constantly bullied female patrons who dared to visit ANY other establishment pic.twitter.com/XWtQgLX66F— Sheena (@weeny) October 12, 2017
Here's some of that wonderful male privilege we see in action here by the owner of High Spirits. Abuse a woman and then call her mum crying. pic.twitter.com/OTgRyonQXp— Sheena (@weeny) October 12, 2017
I have heard horror stories of Irani coming and tugging at college girls' bra straps or suggesting that they do a little shimmie for him for free drinks ughh— Ok gal Riri (@Rheadangs) October 11, 2017
As more and more disturbing details came to light, several stand-up artists declared that they would no longer perform at High Spirits.
Disgusted by the stories of harrasment and misogyny at High Spirits. I'm never doing a show there again.— Karunesh Talwar (@karuneshtalwar) October 12, 2017
I was once on stage at High Spirits when Khodu jumped onto stage and groped me, you know, coz I'm overweight.— Tanmay Bhat (@thetanmay) October 14, 2017
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.
I knew about this behaviour at High Spirits since 2016. Heard about it from friends. I stopped taking shows there-but I never mentioned why.— Aditi (@awryaditi) October 1
And it breaks my heart when even after I tell male comics that someone has been sexist and gross that they carry on working with them.— Aditi (@awryaditi) October 14, 2017
That's why I think I stopped saying anything- coz my mind reasoned- what difference will it make. There will be declarations of boycott-— Aditi (@awryaditi) October 14, 2017
-from all the male comics, in tweets and podcasts for the world to see and men forgive each other easily and work carries on as usual.— Aditi (@awryaditi) October 14, 2017
I have 0 faith in comedians being the feminists they declare themselves to be. It's all performative feminism.— Aditi (@awryaditi) October 14, 2017
1/5 A woman recently Tweeted about her experience of sexist practices at a popular club in my city. This was discussed on a Whatsapp group. pic.twitter.com/ce2OBCzfNM— Agrima Joshua (@Agrimonious) October 12, 2017
2/5 The men on the group chat first responded with light hearted jokes - "kya chal raha hai" and then, denial - "Maine to nahi dekha". pic.twitter.com/JLYeEK8pzg— Agrima Joshua (@Agrimonious) October 12, 2017
3/5 Men continued with some more denial, then placing the blame on women ("why aren't women complaining to cops"). pic.twitter.com/mDJ3kj0OBv— Agrima Joshua (@Agrimonious) October 12, 2017
4/5 Then a man stated this logic that since he knows the club owner, these allegations are probably lies. Finally, another voice explained. pic.twitter.com/yXUkHCUG8N— Agrima Joshua (@Agrimonious) October 12, 2017
5/5 A man finally concluded that he sees "no wrong" in the practice, since the women participate "voluntarily." pic.twitter.com/dqddTE4Fbq— Agrima Joshua (@Agrimonious) October 12, 2017
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.