In what is being hailed as a landmark judgment, a Delhi Court acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in the criminal defamation case filed by her alleged perpetrator MJ Akbar. The case was filed by Akbar shortly after Ramani and several other women named him during the Me Too movement in India in 2018. For the past two years, a courageous Priya Ramani withstood an onslaught launched by top lawyers hired by a very influential and powerful man, a minister nonetheless. The bitter irony is that a survivor of sexual assault was an 'accused' in this case while the man she has accused of exploiting her got to play the victim.
The much-anticipated judgment triggered a celebratory reaction from women across the spectrum. And, rightly so. This verdict came as the first win for the #MeToo movement in India; a moment of celebration. After all, MJ Akbar was not an easy person to fight a battle against.
"The biggest takeaway of the verdict is that women should speak up more and they shouldn’t be scared of the consequences of their truth," Priya Ramani told News18.
“The issue of sexual harassment at workplace got the attention it deserved, even though it was me- the victim- who had to stand in court as the accused. I’m grateful to the court for this very empowering verdict,” said Ramani.
And that’s the truth of it. Even though a victim of sexual harassment was the accused in this particular case, her being acquitted is empowering for all women. It gives them a legal precedent of not being silenced by intimidating defamation cases for speaking their truth.
The celebration today is because a survivor of sexual harassment is not being punished for exposing her perpetrator. The bar is set very low when women find solace in not being penalised for speaking up. True victory and justice would be when culprits start getting punished for their crimes and when women who have suffered are not further victimised by the system.
Judge Ravindra Kumar Pandey noted that "Women can’t be punished for raising instances of sexual abuse by complaints claiming defamation."
"Even a man of (high) social status can be a sexual harasser. Right of reputation (Akbar’s claim that Ramani defamed him) cannot be protected at the cost of right to dignity," the court said.
The court also observed, "Most women do not talk about the sexual harassment due to stigma that surrounds it. Sometimes even the victim does not understand what is happening. Despite going through extreme cruelty, they chose to stay quiet."
All of this is what makes today’s judgment extremely significant for the #MeToo movement in India. The court has answered the many questions that were raised in the aftermath of #MeToo. Questions like 'Why now?' 'Why social media' and 'What about the image of reputed men being named arbitrarily' dominated public discourse. They tried to discredit and drown out the voices of survivors who were ‘outing’ these men, especially those in positions of power.
MJ Akbar’s defamation case was yet another attempt at muzzling voices of survivors under the garb of protecting his ‘image’ and ‘reputation’. It is definitely a vindication for survivors like Ramani, Ghazala Wahab, Niloufar and many others when the court said: "Akbar was not a man of ‘stellar and impeccable reputation." It is certainly a big win when the court stated that the right of reputation can't overrule the right to dignity of a woman.
So perhaps it is not entirely wrong to be in celebratory mode. When darkness engulfs you, the slightest ray of light brings hope.
The judgment brings hope. The implication that women can speak out WHENEVER they feel comfortable- a day, a month, a year or even a decade after the exploitation, is comforting, is justice. The court also observed that women can choose WHICHEVER medium they can access to name and shame those who have violated their positions. Women can speak out against their perpetrators, no matter their social standing and influence.
For now, this is why we will celebrate. But let's not forget-- there's a long way to go before justice is served.