M.J. Akbar sexually harassed me as a teenage trainee in his newsroom.
“What was she wearing?”
That’s the question that’s often asked about victims of sexual assault in India. I will tell you exactly what I was wearing the day my story of workplace sexual harassment began: a fitted white top with a deep green skirt down to my ankles. Sensible shoes. An older female colleague in the newsroom with whom I had recently begun working as a teenage journalism trainee in 1999 looked at me and said with a smirk, “today is the day he’s going to notice you.” He began calling me into his office soon after, a claustrophobic room with a big wooden door that ensured no one could hear or see what was going on. M.J. Akbar, editor of the national English newspaper The Asian Age, with its flashy colour photographs on the top pages, including those of skimpily clad women, was a formidable presence. He towered over me and his hawk eyes seemed like they could bore through steel.
It started off slowly, the mighty intellectual newspaper man, author of several books, who just wanted a conversation with a starry-eyed trainee keen to learn about journalism in a newsroom where interns floated in and out, solitary figures scurrying around without much guidance from the experienced hacks surrounding them. If I ignored the fact that Akbar was staring at my breasts during these interactions I could almost believe he was interested in what I had to say. He was a man three decades older who “just wanted to talk,” and had so much time for me when away from prying colleagues’ eyes. I was so desperately out of my depth and out of breath inside his chamber, always waiting for him to make a move, trying to dismiss the attempts of this incredibly powerful man to constantly get within touching distance of me in a large room. Like the young heroine of “One Thousand and One Nights,” I wondered which stories I could tell to keep him entertained, to distract him from what seemed to be the sole goal of these sessions.
Inside the newsroom it was only marginally better. Others have written about how The Asian Age had the appearance of a harem, filled with journalists making bawdy jokes and rumours about the pretty young women Akbar had placed in bureaus around the country because they accepted his advances. I watched an older female colleague squeeze a young male editor’s butt in the centre of the newsroom and he just laughed. So she did it again. The women around who noticed that Akbar had turned his gaze on me were either dismissive or contemptuous. They had already assumed I would accept his Faustian bargain. The men were perfectly pleasant to me but absolutely disinterested in what Akbar may be saying or doing to young interns.
Like any good journalist, Akbar asked so many questions, wanting to know every small detail to be used in a slow-burn game of sexual conquest. He started asking me to proofread the new book he was writing, in his office, sitting on his dark leather chair while he stood close behind and offered massages ostensibly because I looked stressed. And when I refused, he would try and kiss me as I squirmed away. The newsroom was filled with seasoned journalists, many of whom had reported on wars and regional conflicts. Yet he wanted me who was writing about restaurant reviews and city events to tell him what was wrong with his latest book on the conflicts between religions. Then he began pitching me a transfer to another bureau, where he said he would set me up in an apartment and come over for home-cooked meals. When I said I can’t cook, he replied sandwiches and instant noodles were just fine, all the while ogling at me. The conditions for my promised new job had been made very clear. He also seemed to be tiring of the closed room interactions and began pestering me to come out for dinner or drinks alone, all of which I steadfastly refused. Then he began throwing into conversations how attracted he was to me and how much he cared about me.
I was in journalism school when I began working at the newspaper. While my male classmates were wondering which stories they could try reporting to get an edge in the vast, intensely competitive media world, I felt trapped for months trying to avoid a predator’s constant overtures while worrying about losing my first shot at becoming a successful journalist. There were no mentors and no one was speaking about sexual harassment in the workplace then, not in class, where a male professor would tell jokes about how rare it was to see a female reporter that when a man he knew first saw a woman wearing a PRESS badge he leaned forward and pressed her breasts. She was impressed, the professor continued, and that was a happy ending. Not at home, where relatives were asking what I thought of marriage and babies. My college friends and I were busy talking teenage crushes and celebrating the new freedoms of leaving high school.
On the streets of Delhi as a young girl, getting groped was routine. Men on bicycles slapped your ass as they rode past, you may feel a stranger’s hand between your legs in a crowded space. Some girls carried large safety pins and chilli powder in small vials while travelling on the city’s overflowing public buses, in the days before the metro came with its life-saving separate compartments for women. Akbar understood the world young women operated in, every day the papers would run stories about horrific rapes — in cities, towns and villages, often leaving the women grievously injured. Yet, studies estimate about 70 percent of rapes go unreported in the country. The idea that sexual violence against a woman is something the woman should be ashamed of is a pervasive one in India. And that makes young women more vulnerable to predatory men in power with a veneer of respectability. I know when I was in the middle of it I didn’t tell people, thinking, like I am sure some others in my position may have, that I needed to forget it and not make a fuss.
I’m making a fuss now, finally standing up to a predator I knew would be outed the moment the MeToo movement began in India. Even as a naïve teenager I could tell he had tried this on other young women, and one of my greatest regrets is not doing more to stop it happening to others when I finally left. I kept thinking: who would believe a college student’s word against that of an established, long married newsman who also had strong political connections. No mission seemed more suicidal than outing him. I hinted to my parents what was going on and they said I should leave immediately, didn’t matter if I had another job lined up or not. I mourn for the many young women for whom an independent career was seen as a fanciful pursuit, who came from small towns and cities with no money to pursue jobs in different industries and met men in positions of power like Akbar, forcefully peddling the idea their dreams could be fulfilled only if they slept their way to the top.
I waited for Akbar to leave Delhi before resigning, I wanted to avoid standing before him in that closed room again while he shouted and screamed or worse laid a hand on me. I had already been told I shouldn’t expect to get paid for the last month I had worked if I left before payday. Minutes after I handed in my resignation his assistant was calling me in for a phone conversation with him. It was the longest resignation conversation I have had my entire career. He told me he was in Bombay and thinking of me. He told me how well I would fit into the office there, how fast my career would progress if I just let him move me, what a fool I was to give up such an opportunity. Days later there would be an email saying the same, I had made the worst decision of my life, he could have easily gotten me into Columbia University (he knew I wanted to study outside India and didn’t come from a wealthy family so couldn’t afford to go on my own), he could have transferred me to London, and turned me into a real journalist.
God was merciful. I went to a U.S. university on a full scholarship and have been working in London for the past six years at a news organization where all the rooms are surrounded by transparent glass. And I’ve met many men and women along the way who have been wonderful mentors and asked for no sexual favors in return.
Our time is now Mr Akbar.
It has taken two decades and so many brave women across the world sharing their painful stories of abuse for me to speak up. Including other women who started out as interns at The Asian Age and whose accounts sound so sordidly similar to mine. But may there be many more who raise their voices in protest so that every last citadel of abuse men like you have built continues to fall.