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Why it’s not okay to be called hot at work

Affecting every woman from Gwyneth Paltrow to Angelina Jolie, harassment at work affects women worldwide. Lawyer Karuna Nundy shares a rulebook of laws—from home to work—that every Indian woman should know.

To the woman I love,

I write to you today so you will know your power. Each time you exercise ethical power, you change the world a little bit for the better. You were born with natural rights, with the freedom to speak your mind, pluck the fruits of your labour and love who you want. The State exists to protect your freedoms. Laws are just the rights that courts and governments promise to enforce.

YOUR RIGHT TO SAY YES COMES WITH THE RIGHT TO SAY NO  Though Section 377 criminalises oral and anal sex, it is legal to be lesbian, bisexual or queer in India. It criminalises only the act, not anybody's identity. In fact, Section 377 criminalises consensual oral and anal sex for everybody, even heterosexual, married couples. The judgement is before the Supreme Court, hopefully, to be “cured.”

The Delhi High Court is hearing our petition to declare legal rape in marriage unconstitutional. Though you can't make a rape complaint even if your husband forces himself on you, you can register an FIR under Section 377, which covers forced anal and oral sex. You can also use Section 354 on sexual assault short of rape, which doesn't exclude married men.

If you are raped—by anyone— make sure you go to a government hospital immediately for a medical examination, call the police at 100 and call a lawyer. If the police don't register your complaint for rape, molestation or an attempt to strip you, tell them an FIR can be filed against them under Section 166A IPC for not recording your complaint, registering your FIR and providing you with a free copy. Shame belongs to criminals, not survivors of crime, but under section 228A of the Penal Code you can have anonymity, should you want it.

YOUR RIGHT TO HAVING A BABY OR NOT If you are pregnant and employed in the organised sector, you will get six months' maternity leave. If you are taking a longer time off, the financial loss should be shared if you are a couple. During that time, your partner could set his account to deposit half his earnings into yours, so you can share in the financial muscle and contribute equally to household expenses. Today you can have a baby as a single mother through IVF. Many studies now say children of “choice mothers” are better emotionally and more socially adjusted than children from troubled, two-parent families. The government has been threatening to take away single women's right to motherhood, but the guidelines of the Indian Council of Medical Research have not changed and still allow women—single or married—to have children through IVF and anonymous donors. The government also recently decided to give financially-stable single women over 40 priority in adoption.

You also have the right to choose not to bring an unwanted child into the world, but it is limited. You can abort a foetus up to the 12th week of pregnancy, and between the 12th and 20th week, if the pregnancy is a danger to your life. After 20 weeks, you are held back by the outdated, paternalistic law of 1971, though—in the vast majority of cases—medical evidence suggests abortions are viable until the 24th week.

YOUR RIGHT TO WORK IN AN EQUAL AND FAIR WAY The onus of ensuring you can focus on your work unmolested is not on you but on those in charge at your workplace. If there are more than 10 people at work, your office must have a well-publicised anti-sexual harassment policy and complaints committee, and must conduct workshops so that your bosses and colleagues know it's not okay to tell you “you're so hot” or even “you're really not that hot.”

The anti-sexual harassment law provides a solution if someone makes a sexual comment. But if your boss doesn't promote you because you're a woman, where do you go? I have worked with some well-known companies to put Equality Policies and Committees in place. This helps in expanding on the standard anti-sexual harassment policy. It's in an employer's interest to have talent flourish, whether it comes from a man or a woman. An Equality Committee can help look at a gendered pay gap or other gender discrimination that isn't sexual, recognising the unique difficulties of lesbian, Dalit or disabled women.

YOUR RIGHT TO PROPERTY, MONEY AND EQUAL PAY Your work is valuable. Make sure you negotiate what you're worth so that nobody can deny you your appropriate salary as an employee or the fee you deserve for your services, because of your gender.

If you're married, make sure that half the property and investments are in your name. As a joint enterprise with your partner, you may work part-time or give up your job to raise your kids. If you ever get divorced, you may get some alimony, but it's only the property in joint names that will be divided.

If you're the partner raising kids, doing the housework, or taking care of the elderly, you deserve to have half your partner's earnings transferred directly to your own account every month (with household expenses to then be shared). The reverse is true of course if your partner's the one doing the work at home. Feminism is about freeing one from society's gendered matchboxes. It is nothing if not fair.

The State must enforce your basic rights, but you are in charge of your flourishing. Promise me you'll back yourself when nobody else will. That you will keep daring greatly; you're more resilient than you think. Promise me that however odd your choices look to others, you will be your happiest, strongest self.

Your life depends on it.

(As told to Meghna Pant)


Originally published on vogue.in

Image: Ankita Chandra

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