When she was 23 years old, Indian journalist Priya Ramani was sexually harassed during a job interview, but she didn’t say anything about it at the time.
Twenty-four years later, she published an open letter in Vogue India describing the encounter. She described the man asking her personal questions about her boyfriend, offering her alcohol, singing to her, and gesturing for her to come sit next to him on a small sofa near the bed. Concerned for her safety, she had left the room. She did not name the man.
A year after that, the Indian #MeToo movement was gaining momentum, and Ramani decided to accuse the man directly in a Tweet, because, as she said, “Lots of women have worse stories about this predator. Maybe they’ll share.” And they did. More than 20 women journalists came out to accuse then-Minister of State for External Affairs and former journalist M.J. Akbar of sexual misconduct. According to the New York Times, Akbar was “the most prominent figure so far to be felled by the #MeToo movement sweeping the world’s largest democracy.”
His response was to file a criminal defamation suit against Ramani; then resign from his post. Facing a prison sentence of up to two years, Priya Ramani responded Not Guilty. She posted bail, the case dragged on, and she was asked to consider settling out of court. Despite intense negative pushback from parts of the public, she refused. In court, she testified: “It was my hope that the disclosures, which were part of #MeToo, would empower women to speak up for their rights at the workplace. This case has come at great personal cost to me. I had nothing to gain from it. . . . By keeping silent, I could have avoided the subsequent targeting. But that wouldn’t have been the right thing to do.”
The court’s decision was to dismiss Akbar’s defamation complaint against Ramani. Part of the judge’s ruling: “The time has come for our society to understand sexual abuse and sexual harassment and its implications on victims. The woman cannot be punished for raising (her) voice against the sex abuse on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation, as the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman as guaranteed in the Indian Constitution.”
Priya Ramani says the outcome was worth all the difficulties she’s endured. “I feel vindicated on behalf of all the women who have ever spoken out against sexual harassment at the workplace. It feels amazing to have your truth validated in a court of law.”