Southasiasphere is our monthly roundup of news events and analysis of regional affairs. If you are a member, you will automatically receive links to the new episodes in your inbox. If you are not yet a member, you can still get it for free by signing up here.
In this episode, we talk about the resurgence of #MeToo in Sri Lanka’s newsrooms, and proposed solutions to sexual harassment across the region. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we look at Twitter losing legal protection in India, military’s growing grip over Myanmar’s jade industry, prospects of Bangladesh’s graduation from the Least Developed Country (LDC) status, among other topics. Plus our culture section Bookmarked, where we discuss two recently released movies from south India, Cinema Bandi and The Great Indian Kitchen.
Raisa Wickrematunge: Hi everyone, and welcome to Southasiasphere, Himal Southasian’s monthly round-up of news events and developing stories across Southasia. I’m Raisa, and I’m joined by my colleagues Shubhanga, Marlon and Shwetha. Hi guys!
Shubhanga Pandey: Hello.
Shwetha Srikanthan: Hi.
Marlon Ariyasinghe: Hi.
RW: So, our big story in this edition is the recent resurgence of #MeToo in Sri Lanka’s newsrooms, and looking at proposed solutions to sexual harassment across the region. In Around Southasia in 5 minutes, we’re talking about Twitter losing legal protection in India and its display of a distorted map of the country, military corruption and jade mining in Myanmar, Bangladesh’s journey out of LDC status, and Afghan border control.
Let’s begin with #MeToo.
SP: Thanks Raisa. So last month, in June, a number of women journalists from Sri Lanka, and some non-Sri Lankans who had worked in Sri Lanka’s newsrooms in the past, posted a number of stories on Twitter of the sexual harassment they faced while at work. Now this included a range of incidents, some from several years back, and some more recent, but the key message was that sexual harassment has been going on and continues to be a serious problem in Sri Lankan media industry.
Now most media outlets reporting on these tweets and responses to them have called it the MeToo movement finally making some dent in the country. Although it should be mentioned that similar efforts to start conversations around sexual harassment in workplace – they’ve been made in the past, but didn’t really have the same kind of media impact we’re seeing now.
But I think that the other important point that came across in these conversations was also that a lot of these incidents have largely gone unpunished or have not even been investigated because many in the media sector (or the media fraternity) continue to defend the harassers or undermine the allegations. In some cases, it was also clear that women facing abuse and harassment are often silent also because of the fear of legal reprisals, even when allegations and perpetrators were unnamed.
MA: Exactly, Shubhanga. Now this issue was actually raised to the Minister of Mass Media, Keheliya Rambukwella at a briefing on the 23rd of June. The minister said that there has not been any official complaint so far and if there is a complaint, the ministry would investigate and take action. But it seemed he was quite unaware of what was going on.
RW: Yes Marlon, and this lack of awareness seems to be a bit of a trend among government officials in the Southasian region. I guess we all remember Imran Khan’s recent comments in an interview noting that women wearing little clothing was a contributing factor to rape, which has created public outcry across Pakistan.
MA: Yes Raisa, it’s quite a disturbing trend. So back to the Minister’s statement, it led to news outlets here and around the world, who reported that the ministry would take action and launch a formal investigation. But on the 29th, the minister clarified his statement, stating that the ministry will not launch an investigation based on social media reports unless a formal complaint is made to the police or the media ministry. He also said that launching an investigation into any media institution without a formal complaint will be seen as interfering in the media.
RW: Yes, and I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the media ministry sound so concerned about media interference, but glad to hear that they’re concerned about it.
So right now, several solutions have been proposed in Sri Lanka. A number of people for example have been talking about introducing sexual harassment policies in newsrooms. Now, there’s been an International Federatrion of Journalists (IFJ) report from 2015 on media and gender, focused on Sri Lanka, which noted that only 12.5 percent of survey respondents had access to an official complaints cell or sexual harassment policy at their workplace. Over 57 percent of women who responded and 42 percent of men had no such mechanism in their newsrooms. So as a result, people have been talking about perhaps drafting sexual harassment policies for their workplaces.
Apart from that, the Sri Lanka Young Journalists’ Association also wrote to the Government Information Department and they called for an impartial ombudsman to handle cases of sexual harassment. Now, personally I have to say I’m a little sceptical of government involvement in these processes – the Young Journalists’ Association did call for impartiality, but given the kind of politicisation of bodies like the Press Council, it’s not clear whether they would actually be able to achieve this impartiality, not to mention Keheliya Rambukwella’s lukewarm response. So, I’m personally a bit sceptical of that, but another important thing that they did point out in that letter was that harassment is also pervasive in Sinhala and Tamil media and that hasn’t yet come out. So that was an important aspect that was discussed.
Apart from that, there have also been calls to expedite the ratification of ILO’s Convention 190 which protects workers from gender-based violence and harassment. Sri Lanka is actually in the process of ratifying it, but it has been delayed. So, this spate of stories has now revived conversations to push that through a bit faster.
SS: And if we look at the mechanisms in place in India for example, in 2013, India enacted the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act to protect workers in both formal and informal sectors.
Now, this act was a significant legislative step for India but for most women workers, especially those in the informal sector, government enforcement of this law is quite weak.
There was a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report from last year that finds that, while women in India are increasingly speaking out against sexual abuse at work, many, particularly in the informal sector, are still constrained by stigma, fear of retribution, and institutional barriers.
The report also highlighted some key recommendations where the government should – in collaboration with civil society organisations, activists and trade unions – enforce this act, monitor the operation of committees, sanctioning employers who fail to comply, and ensuring access to remedies for victims, including complaints mechanisms, and compensation.
MA: So, looking at the mechanisms that exist in Pakistan. In 2010, Pakistan introduced the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, which stipulates all public and private organisations to adopt an internal Code of Conduct and a complaints/appeals mechanism aimed at establishing a safe working environment, free of intimidation and abuse, for all working women.
SS: In a survey conducted by the Dawn newspaper in 2018, it was found that 35 percent were told to remain silent by their colleagues and bosses about workplace sexual harassment. And when it comes to formal reporting mechanisms only 17 percent of those who experienced harassment approached their organisation’s internal inquiry committees. Which suggests a lack of faith in the process.
MA: You’re right Shwetha. And I think this lack of faith is understandable given how even the legislation has been weaponised against such allegations. I mean, if we take the Meesha Shafi case – which is the most high-profile #MeToo case in Pakistan – Ali Zafar, the alleged harasser, has filed a defamation case under the Civil Defamation Ordinance 2002, and then filed a complaint to the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) cybercrime wing under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. In 2020, the FIA booked Shafi and eight others, and since then one of the women who was part of the case has issued an apology, and then her name has been retracted from the case.
RW: That’s right, Marlon. And you can see that even in the Sri Lankan case, those who follow formal processes have not seen redress. So, in Sri Lanka, there’s the case of Mihiri de Silva, who did report harassment to the head of her HR department and senior management, and there were no consequences for the perpetrator, leading to her leaving her position at a top corporate.
But we’re also seeing this worldwide more recently, with the overturn of Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction due to the violation of his due process rights and of course, the acquittal of the Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal. So, in that sense, Rambukwella’s promise of investigations into formal complaints is kind of an empty one. In Sri Lanka, there’s also been more recent discussion that sexual harassment policies will do little by way of protection unless underlying issues of sexism are addressed – and that’s definitely true, but it’s also telling that despite many journalists including the Young Journalist’s Association agreeing that sexual harassment is a pervasive issue, no one has discussed possible methods of redress or protection for workers.
SP: Yeah, and the point about institutional solutions reminds me of a recent case in Nepal where this journalist who used to work at an English-language daily wrote on Twitter about her being sexually harassed and threatened by a frequent contributor to the newspaper, and that she told her editor about it. Now this contributor was not an employee but a freelance writer, but regardless of that, what was quite shocking was that she never actually got a response from her editor or the organisation on this matter. And maybe it was easier for them to do that because the perpetrator was not employed by the newspaper.
Some people and organisations working on this issue have made the point that it’s important to bring protections against sexual harassment within the larger ambit of labour protections, and that enforcement of anti-harassment policies need to be part of broader workplace rights, and it’s not a separate entity. Also, given the fact that governments in the region have been quite willing to weaken labour protections, it’s unfortunate but maybe at this point essential for professional groups and unions to actually start working on these more structural and institutional responses to the issue.
MA: Speaking purely from my experiences, I know that international organisations, when they employ you as an external party, say on a freelance basis or for a consultancy – in addition to the contract, you are made aware of the workplace sexual harassment policies, child protection laws, and I think this should be the standard for every organisation who employs external parties. Big corporates, they have extensive procurement policies where their suppliers have to be responsible and accountable when it comes to sustainable procurement etc. So, the case that you alluded to Shubhanga, about the freelance journalist in Nepal, I don’t see why these policies should not be applicable to freelancers as well, so that all parties need to be aware, responsible and accountable.
SP: Yeah, and with so many people working remotely now, and just the changing nature of the workspace – maybe that’s the way to go.
So, moving on to our next segment, Around Southasia in 5 minutes. Raisa, do you want to start?
Around Southasia in 5 minutes
RW: Yes, so on June 16, the Union Government in India circulated a statement noting Twitter had lost its legal protection for third-party content, for failing to adhere to the IT rules. Now this means that instead of being considered just a platform hosting content from various users, Twitter will be held directly and editorially responsible for any posts published on its platform. Shortly before the announcement, the Uttar Pradesh police named Twitter in an FIR along with seven others including journalists, for spreading misinformation on the attack on a 70-year-old Muslim man in Ghaziabad. But internet rights groups say it’s not in the government’s power to revoke Twitter’s status as an intermediary. Digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation explained that the “intermediary status” is not a registration that is granted by the government but rather it’s a “technical qualification” which is conferred under the IT Act.
SS: And another incident in this ongoing stand-off between Twitter and the government, was the recent charges against Twitter India for posting a map that showed Kashmir as a separate country. Now, even after they took this map down, they are still facing charges.
MA: So over in Bangladesh, the government is making preparations for its graduation from an LDC (Least Developed Country) into a developing country. According to the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDP) and according to their recommendation, the transition will be effective in 2026. It means until 2026, Bangladesh will be able to enjoy all these benefits that are applicable to LDCs, like duty-free quota for exports, favourable intellectual property rights and foreign aid.
And as you might know, we are currently working on a special series of articles to commemorate Bangladesh’s 50th year since Independence. Watch this space and go to our website for more information.
SP: And in Myanmar, efforts to minimise the human and environmental cost of jade mining and trade is now at the risk of being undone, with the military and armed groups tightening their grip on this lucrative mineral resource. This is according to the latest report by Global Witness, which is an international organisation that looks at the intersection of natural resources, conflict and human rights. This is not the first such report to be done on jade mining in Myanmar, and the dangerous impact of jade extraction and trade on people living mostly in Kachin State in northern Myanmar, it’s been extensively reported. We also did a story on this in 2019 after a mining disaster killed over 50 workers. Apart from this, jade trade also finances conflict in the region and it’s a major source of revenue for the army, which basically owns several mining operations and licenses. So now that the military government is in power, the concern is that this will basically allow them to revert all the reforms made by the civilian government over the last few years on this matter.
SS: With the US troops withdrawing from Afghanistan faster than anticipated, the Taliban has captured Afghanistan’s main border crossing with Tajikistan, which was important because it controls the trade between Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia. And after a series of takeovers in other districts throughout June, about 5,000 Afghan families have fled their homes in the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.
And now we’ll be moving on to our Culture section, Bookmarked, where we’ll be talking about a Malayalam film called The Great Indian Kitchen and the Telugu language comedy Cinema Bandi.
SS: I’ll start with my recommendation for the month, which is the Telugu indie comedy Cinema Bandi, directed by Praveen Kandregula and produced by Raj and DK. Cinema Bandi is a simple lighthearted film with lots of snarky humour, set in Gollapalli; a small village on the Andhra-Karnataka border. Now in this village, there’s a lot of issues, like it hasn’t rained in years, there’s frequent power cuts and young people are migrating to big cities. Veera, an auto-rickshaw driver, finds a camera left behind in his vehicle and the story follows his journey together with this quirky film crew that gathers, consisting of the village wedding photographer Gana and a barber called Maridesh – their journey to cast and shoot this film.
Marlon and Raisa, you guys have watched this film as well, what did you think?
RW: Yeah, I really liked it. I liked how funny it was and I really enjoyed the innovativeness of the crew and how they kind of use the tools around them to try to get really interesting shots.
MA: Yeah, like waiting for the rain.
RW: Yeah, waiting for the rain and even the pulley system that they created to get high shots, I thought that was so clever and funny. And I also kind of enjoyed how it showed the deprivation in the village by just showing the obstacles they had to overcome, just to charge the camera for example. So, I thought that was really interesting and it was a really funny film, I enjoyed it a lot.
MA: So, I found it charming and I did find it funny, but I didn’t like it that much. I mean, of course, you have the juxtaposition of class and poverty and this noble act of creating a film to uplift the community, I got all of that, and I don’t want to be mean, but I actually thought – you the premise of the story is that the tuk driver finds a good camera and tries to shoot a film in his village – I just kept thinking that maybe the director of the film just found a good camera and decided to make a film.
RW: One thing that I will say is that, I thought the ending was a little bit Kumbaya, in the sense that it felt like – they had such dreams, which was also nice. They were dreaming about being able to bring change in the village and then that clash between the person whose camera was stolen and the villagers was interesting but then I didn’t feel like it was properly resolved. I didn’t feel that I was – like what happens after that? Are they just going to screen it in a cinema and what happened?
SS: Yeah, the ending was definitely too perfect, too neat.
RW: Yeah, it was a bit Kumbaya. That was my main thing, but I did find it funny and fun.
MA: Yeah, it was funny. I loved the photographer, his classic shot – the Titanic shot. I didn’t get it at first, I was like what is this guy doing – but then it’s mentioned at one point.
RW: It’s also so relatable, because if you look at the wedding photographers here, they also have these classic poses, right, which are like the Titanic poses and the noses touching, so that made me really laugh because it’s familiar.
SP: These are wedding shots?
MA: Yeah, so he’s the guy who was recruited to make the film, so he has to change the medium, basically.
RW: Yeah, and that was also the funny part – like when he’s shooting, first he just goes to what he knows, so he’s asking the actor and actress to do that Titanic pose and then the person cuts in and says ‘what are you doing, just follow the script’. That was also pretty funny.
MA: And the scriptwriter was quite funny too, right. He’s just there. Does he speak at the end?
RW: He does. He basically implies that he didn’t write it. That was another thing, I was like who wrote it then?
MA: So, I did like it, but I didn’t like it that much. The acting mostly, I just couldn’t get into the spirit of it.
SP: So, my recommendation for the month is also a film on marriage, but not funny at all. It’s a Malayalam-language film called The Great Indian Kitchen, directed by Joe Baby. I think it’s on Amazon India, if I’m not wrong, but it came out recently and it’s been reviewed everywhere and it’s getting good reviews. So, it’s basically about a woman who has an arranged marriage, and whose life gets completely transformed when she starts living with her husband’s family, and she ends up doing all the domestic labour of the household. So, the movie is basically a critique of marriage, and the predominant form of marriage maybe in large parts of Southasia, and makes the point that for many women marriage basically is a form of labour obligation to this new household you find yourself in. So, it’s quite powerful.
Raisa, I think you’ve also watched it, and there are other aspects of the movie also, but that labour aspect was what really got me. Especially those shots of the mess that people make after the meal and someone else has to clean up, and I was like okay, finally someone has made a film about Southasian men leaving a mess after the meal and not cleaning it up and you see what happens after that.
MA: Yeah, it’s always the scrumptious feast, the banquet – you don’t see the aftermath in films.
SP: Exactly, and in this case it’s a household, so it’s someone who has to deal with it several times a day, every day. But the ending of the movie was, like Cinema Bandi, a bit too perfect.
Raisa, what did you think of the film?
RW: Yeah, I also feel like it really brought this – I think the term that is often used is unpaid care work – it brought that into the foreground and it really showed how much additional tasks and chores that women often have to take on in the context of marriage but also, in this film it was in the context of marriage. And it was quite slow building, it went on for quite a long time and not much happened, it just really focused on just the daily repetition of these tasks and the stress building up, and it just suddenly started escalating. And yeah, again the ending was a bit too neat perhaps, but I thought that it made a really important point and it brought this invisible labour into the limelight, in a sense. So that was pretty interesting.
SP: Yeah, and they tried to kind of relate it to also some recent political events – I guess the Sabarimalai episode where women were not allowed to go to temples because they could potentially pollute the temple by being in period. But the movie isn’t about that episode, it’s about this woman again, facing constraints in the household during her period – that was kind of the latter half of the film.
RW: Yeah, that was definitely interesting as well. And you could see that judgement was kind of unfolding in the backdrop and then she was also negotiating what that meant for her as someone who’s supposed to be doing all these tasks – that was also interesting, the way that even then, it was just passed off to somebody else and it was just this endless cycle of these tasks that had to be completed. I thought that it’s also relevant to Sri Lanka because we do have similar practices here, not necessarily about temple entry, but there’s quite a few children who don’t go to school, for example, when they get their period. And so, I was thinking about that as well when I watched that part.
And on that note, that’s it for this edition of Southasiasphere. Do head to our website himalmag.com to see the cartoons illustrating this episode by Gihan de Chickera, and while you’re at it, check out our membership plans and support our work.
Thanks everyone. Bye!