Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book ‘Empire’s Child’ has just been published.

Website: ramnikshah.blogspot.com

Men Behaving Badly was a highly successful tv sit-com that dominated the light entertainment scene in Britain all through the 1990s.  It was even exported to the US and remade for American audiences who did not however take to it and so was abandoned after two seasons. But later the original series was televised there, perhaps more aptly as British Men Behaving Badly, and an Australian version, It`s a Man`s World also then followed.  Whatever the title, it well encapsulated the essence of the plot line: a couple of male friends in their thirties engaging in lurid drunken banter about their sexual proclivities, both imagined and real. In their constant battle of wits and pointless chatter, mixed with some bodily shenanigans, they were seen forever trying to get the better of their girlfriends but did not always succeed, as often the tables were cleverly turned on them.  Overall however, what was dubbed as this `politically incorrect world of booze, burps and boobs` did was to indulge their macho vanity, and in that it was not far wrong from the reality, because surely men have historically always behaved badly towards the female of the species!

That was two decades ago. Much progress then followed in uplifting the image of women, or at least an awareness of their condition and concerns, across all parts of the world actually, but it only went so far. From around 2012, Britain was rocked by a spate of sexual abuse scandals involving a number of BBC talents, such as the late Jimmy Savile, who was exposed as a serial offender after his death, and the living tv and radio presenter cum entertainers Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris, both of whom were prosecuted, convicted and sent to jail.  Other sacred institutions, such as the church, parliament and even educational establishments, too have been seen as harbouring miscreants or failing to protect their victims. And countless cases of rape, indecent assault and other crimes of that nature are reported on a daily basis in the media and law reports. It is not as if sexual misconduct of one kind or another is an unknown phenomenon; there is a huge amount of literature and archival documentation to show that it has always existed.

But it is no exaggeration to say that ever since the Harvey Weinstein story broke late last year, something has changed.  There has been a continuing flow of sequels to it: the `Time`s Up` and `Me Too` movements, plus all manner of other voices of protest are being heard and causing waves. Hitherto, most of those who were at the receiving end of mistreatment were low level or other minor functionaries. What has gripped the imagination of the public everywhere now is revelations by many high profile celebrities (Kenya`s Lupita Nyong`o among them) about their experience of sexual harrassment, sometimes bordering on crime, by powerful men in a position to bestow favours upon them or otherwise further their careers.  Even where such allegations remain technically unproven, they have had a huge impact in popular perception as authentic and credible.

We are thus witnessing the emergence of a culture of transparency and confession, with much retrospective angst, all around. Prominent figures are re-examining their consciences and expressions of regret and apology for what they may have done years ago are pouring out of them.  But in this new state of altered relations between men and women, and indeed among all people of an unequal footing, is there not a hidden danger of presumption of guilt by the mere fact or force of accusation, at the expense of the basic rules of natural justice in terms of the evidential burden and a fair hearing? There may be situations in which innocent remarks or careless gestures are misinterpreted or magnified and so unfairly judged by our more enlightened contemporary moral worldview.  May be, but even so what is encouraging is the willingness of many men (or women, as the case may be) to admit to past wrongs and to make amends. 

There is no shortage of instances of this extraordinary paradigm shift.  At around the time of this year`s International Women`s Day (IWD), celebrated on 8 March, there was an upsurge in such cases.  For example, according to a British media report, Sir Michael Parkinson, a highly respected veteran chat show host, questioned his own behaviour towards women years ago, saying `If I was doing what I did then, I would have to watch myself. I could get arrested`. He described himself as `an outrageous flirt` but added that there were hardly any men of his generation who didn`t look back and wonder if their behaviour was entirely appropriate. To his credit, it has to be said that he has never been accused of any wrongdoing. When asked how he would feel interviewing Harvey Weinstein he said he would probably punch him first (he famously had a friendly bout with Mohamed Ali once on his show).

More recently, when another of our celebrity icons, Sir Michael Caine, was asked how he felt about the sexual abuse accusations against his old friend the film director Woody Allen, he said that while he didn`t regret working with Allen previously (as in `Hannah and Her Sisters`, for which he won an Oscar),  he would not do so again.

This year`s IWD was indeed a high point of the relentless global push towards recognition of women`s sense of grievance and fight against their second-class status.  On that day the BBC carried extensive coverage of the event`s celebration across the world, highlighting happenings in such diverse countries as Spain (where millions of women marked the event with an unprecedented 24 hour strike over gender inequality and sexual discrimination), Saudi Arabia (women defied custom to go jogging), Italy (Catholic women demanded greater say in Church governance), China (feminist activists demonstrated against patronising commercial gimmicks) and Ireland (a referendum on abortion rights was announced), with a catalogue of other developments elsewhere: in China, where a female graduate successfully sought removal of her male professor for sexual aggression; in Russia, where two female flight attendants also successfully sued their employer airline Aeroflot for unfair treatment on account of their body size and appearance; in Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan, where the laws that saved rapists from jail if they married their victims were scrapped; and in Afghanistan, where calling and identifying a woman in public by her first name is taboo, and where from wedding invitations to gravestones women`s names are left off, they started an online campaign, called #WhereIsMyName, to reclaim their identities.

As for Kenya, according to the BBC report, on 19 July 2017 three men were sentenced to death for robbing, stripping, and sexually assaulting a female passenger for wearing a miniskirt at a bus stop in Githurai district (their death sentence, if it did happen, seemed too harsh, compared to that in the much more shocking gang rape case of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi in 2012). Reference was also made in this context to the historic march on the streets of Nairobi in November 2014 calling for an end to sexual violence against women on public transport under the banner #MyDressMyChoice.

But while undoubtedly men have been put on the defensive, this climate of protest and reckoning with previous lapses extends to race and other scenarios too, especially in the corporate arena.  Also in the news has been Oxfam, whose travails of what its high ranking executives were up to in Haiti back in 2011 have been well publicised.  Other international charities, such as Save the Children, and One Campaign (operating in South Africa), have also come under scrutiny because of allegations of bullying or misogyny by some of their senior personnel.  And most recently, even the chairwoman and two board members of Britain`s Institute of Directors (IoD), a top ranking City institution, have had to resign after an inquiry into racism, sexism and management failings. There have been high level resignations in other areas of national life as well, such as that of two UK cabinet ministers. Bad behaviour is not of course confined to men (note the IoD case), though we have yet to reach the stage where the traditional asymmetric men/women equation will have been reversed. 

This then is the broad general picture, at least as it appears to us in the west. Things may well be different in other parts of the world. But what does it all tell us?  That every man should cry mea culpa?  Of course that is happening already, however it may be framed. But if I am being candid then, to echo Michael Parkinson, no men of my age can honestly say they have not been guilty of some form of sexual transgression or other inappropriate action towards women, of whatever age, at some time in their lives. We have all - individually, subjectively or otherwise – become more enlightened since, and so it is right to acknowledge those wrongs without shame or embarrassment.

But to end this on a hopeful note: all the signs are that there is a generational transformation taking place at this moment in time among the so-called `millennials` (Generation Y) who have grown up to be gender equal in their relations with each other. They are blind to their parents` and other older folks` prejudices and limitations.  Long may it continue!    


Ramnik Shah



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