London: Season of MeToo & a snowless X-mas

Kishwar Desai

Dreaming of a white Christmas? Alas — not in London! It looks like it’s going to be fairly warm, with a weather forecast of at least 12 degrees Celsius. Indeed, Delhi may be colder than London. In the absence of snow, those typical images of Christmas, with snowflakes and snowmen are only going to be part of the shop-window decoration this week. Snow from above, Santa flying across the skies, and Christmas lights are what we will seek out when we walk down Oxford street, with suitcases filled with last-minute bargains. It is the season to be jolly, and to forget about Brexit for a while.
Meanwhile, the MeToo campaign has taken one of the more active campaigners against caste discrimination in the UK, Lord Lester. His accuser is a well-known activist with an Indian connection, Jasvinder Sanghera, who set up Karma Nirvana against forced marriages, having been the victim of one herself. Though her accusations have been denied by Lord Lester, it does indicate that sexual harassment can be found everywhere. Ms Sanghera has alleged that Lord Lester had propositioned her, and touched her inappropriately 12 years ago. He apparently also invited her to have an affair with him, and pointed out that she could be made a baroness at the House of Lords if she complied. Her allegations as well as the possible action to be taken against Lord Lester were discussed at the House of Lords — especially as this incident took place over a decade ago — and a suspension of five years was contemplated for Lord Lester. This kind of discussion has never happened before in Parliament, and shows the seriousness with which sexual harassment is being taken. However, Lord Lester has resigned from the House of Lords rather than face the ignominy of being suspended.
Ms Sanghera’s action has led to other accounts of sexual harassment in Parliament spilling out, some of which are being investigated further.
Ms Sanghera, who waived her rights to anonymity, has only recently spoken about the toll the entire episode has taken on her, too — as questions have been raised about why she took so long to reveal what happened to her. But she has alleged that Lord Lester had warned her there would be repercussions subsequent to her refusal of having an affair with him, and was concerned that her campaign work would be affected. Indeed, she feels there was a negative impact as she was no longer invited for meetings to Parliament for sometime.
While the story has shocked many, it demonstrates that even in the UK, with all its emphasis on equality for men and women, the message still requires to be reinforced that women are not to be touched or propositioned without their clear consent.
And this is surprisingly the twist the Brexit debate has taken, as the former home secretary, Amber Rudd, has condemned the “ghastly” behaviour of Jean Claude Juncker, EU Commission president. She has said she has often pretended that she had a cold whenever she met the EU president, as he would invariably hug her. Videos have gone viral of Mr Juncker ruffling a woman’s hair, and apparently “manhandling” British PM Theresa May. Coming so soon after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was thought to have mouthed “stupid woman” following some remarks made by Ms May, it does seem to give the impression that both in the UK and in Europe, men still need to be taught about being more respectful to women.
While I am not checking with you about how much shopping you have indulged in this Christmas — one is relieved to know that now the concept of “sharing” is in fashion. Literally. Just like book libraries, some fashion-oriented startups are setting up “fashion libraries,” which means that anyone can borrow an outfit from their favourite brand and wear it for a day or two if they become members of the fashion library at a fixed monthly fee. Of course, if the “fashion library” works anywhere, it will work in London which is the home of uber fashionistas, with a wear and throw lifestyle. This will also mean that high fashion becomes more accessible.Meanwhile, some fellow travellers from London and I were all together in Delhi receiving awards for the work we have all done in promoting India’s soft power abroad, whether in history, politics or hospitality. Sameer Kochhar is the entrepreneur behind these SKOCH challenger awards — and I am grateful to have been awarded for the “preservation of history” through the creation of the Partition Museum at Town Hall, Amritsar. And it was a great platform to speak about the exhibition a group of us have set up on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre — which is due to be displayed in Manchester, Birmingham and London next year, the centenary of that terrible tragedy.