Being ‘selfish’ vs. Being ‘productive’: The Politics of Care


Welcome to ‘Decolonizing our Practices: Conversing about Care’, a three-part blog post series. This series is a culminating conversation between Tangent MHI and One Future Collective as a part of our collaborative initiative, which was undertaken in October of 2021, to work towards decolonizing the perceptions and practices of mental health in India.

This is the first post of this series – ‘Being ‘selfish’ vs. Being ‘productive’: The Politics of Care’. Read on to see why we think care is a political conversation and what informs our understanding of care. [Please note that for the purpose of readability, the speakers’ responses have been divided into paragraphs.

Each new response begins with their name (Ankita and Anvita), followed by their initials (A.B and A.W, respectively).]


Disclaimer: Before you go ahead, we would like you to remember that this conversation is informed by the personal and professional stances of the speakers, by their respective socio-political locations, and by the resources, they have been able to access. We recognize that this is not the only way one can think about the ideas mentioned here. We would encourage you to bring your perspectives, share your thoughts, and any other resources in the comments below!


Ankita [A.B.]: As we were thinking about the idea of care and when we came upon this topic, which is politics of care, something that, uh, I was discussing with my team and with Anvita is, what are some of the things–or what are some of the stories that come to mind whenever I think about the term, “politics of care”. I realized that it’s very hard for me to settle down on any one story or one thing that I can point out as, ‘Okay, this is what informs my thought when I think about politics of care’, because even the terminology in itself, has many layers and meanings that you can reach into. Whichever perspective you take, there’s plenty to uncover and speak about. So I’ll just try to summarize my thoughts. 


A.B.: The ideologies around the politics of care and particularly self-care, come from different personal/professional lenses. Something that I’ve noticed in my work with clients, especially over the last year and a half, is that when speaking about ideas of care, there is a sense of guilt that takes up space. This guilt may sound like, “Am I being selfish if I’m choosing to care for myself?” or “Am I being selfish if I’m choosing to set boundaries?” Even when there is a realization that these are necessary for an individual, it’s always underlined with guilt. However, if we switch the conversation with the same individuals and ask them to look at people in their life who might be debating about the importance of care – they do not hesitate to point out its importance. 


A.B.: Care can take different forms and at the end of the day, it is essential for the person to just be able to exist in society. This is what speaks to the idea of the politics of self-care – what are we learning to prioritize and why am I being taught and told by the system that if I end up prioritizing myself, I’m being selfish or jeopardizing something/ someone by putting myself at the top of this list.


A.B.: If I were to step out of the role of a mental health professional, I also can say that I am one of the people who struggle to care for themselves. We need to recognise that care can appear different for each individual and even for the same individual under varied circumstances. How I like to take time off when I’m by myself is different from how I would like to do it when I’m with somebody. That being said, I would like to hear your thoughts on this. 


Anvita [A.W]: Wow, thank you, Ankita. I agree that, oftentimes, anything around self-care can be perceived as selfish. And I think even for me, one of the first things that came to mind when I thought about the politics of care was that we can see it through so many different lenses; and how in different spheres of life, care is perceived in different ways. 


A.W: Even caregiving as a mental health professional–this is a formalized, professional way of providing care. But what about the kind of care work that home-makers do without being paid for it? You know, it’s not like they aren’t working, it’s just that unpaid care provision is not being formally recognized and valued as work. And not only do standard economic measures overlook this form of care, but often, we take it for granted in our own homes. In my household, we still automatically place certain care-related expectations on my mom that we just don’t put on my father or my brother; and I’m also guilty of doing this.


A.W: In this context, caring for others is equated with being selfless. It ends up becoming a form of sacrifice. It’s almost as if the sacrifice is what makes it meaningful and worthy of appreciation. But, of course, for centuries we’ve been placing these expectations on certain people or certain communities. And if they don’t conform to the norm of putting everyone above themselves, they’re perceived as selfish–which they’re taught is the worst thing they could possibly be. This affects their health, their social life, their autonomy—their very sense of self. What does ‘self-care’ mean for them, then? 


A.W: When I think about more formalized approaches to providing care…I completely agree with you about the notion of productivity. It also makes me think about our Sharing Circles, in which one of Tangent’s team members had mentioned that even therapy–even though it’s a form of care–ends up becoming this pursuit of productivity because, in our heads, we’re trying to meet certain goals to be ‘better.’ And that can give rise to all this pressure and, of course, so much guilt. 


A.W: I think, we’re currently in an age and in a culture where, you know, not sleeping or forgetting to eat or relying on caffeine to make it through the day is almost glorified. Uh, not always in an overt manner, but often in subtle ways; and even if it’s not glorified, it’s normalized to a certain extent. And when these behaviours become the norm is when they become a cause for concern because then we don’t question them; we just go along with them despite how they affect us. Even though we realize that they’re unhealthy. ‘Cause if you’re not conforming to the norm, then you’re not good enough to be in the system. Again, I am not immune to this. There are days when even if I have worked for a long time–for like, you know, hours and hours, and then I take a break for 10 minutes, all I think about for those 10 minutes is how I’m not being productive anymore and I’m wasting time, or like, I’m not doing my best, or something like that. And I think a lot of my self-worth is also related to being productive. This really affects how I seek and receive care. 


A.W: Yeah, these are some things that immediately come to mind. Would you like to share any reflections that may have come up, and perhaps we could also explore the next question? 


Ankita [A.B.]: Thanks Anvita! There were quite a few things that I resonated with, but there is one in particular that I would like to talk about. You mentioned how in the present system(s) we’re a part of, our worth is equated to productivity. The more productive a person is, the more they can contribute to the system. In association with this idea, I would like to mention a post I came across on Instagram. The post was made by the CEO of an organization, where they were talking about two of their employees who are very good at their job. Even so, this person is unhappy as these employees stick to time and do not stay beyond work hours. The CEO was quite aggrieved about how to address this ‘issue’ with them. From how I see it, this instance highlights your point around worth and productivity.


A.B.: If I could speak from personal experience, I am a stickler for keeping to time. My teammates will account for this! However, I also know that my association with punctuality is heavily influenced by the idea of perceived productivity. My desire to be punctual isn’t just motivated by respect for other people’s time but also by personal (sometimes overwhelming) anxiety. This anxiety further drives the idea of being an ‘ideal’, um, colleague/employee/student–whatever an ideal individual looks like. I think it’s only now that I can question the anxiety and understand if it comes from within or if it’s one I’ve learnt from the system. That is what came to mind when you were sharing. And I think I just wanted to kind of put it out there. Um, is there something that you’d like to add? Would you like us to move to the next question? 


Anvita [A.W]: I’d just like to share this one thought: what if someone actually needs that extra time? And I absolutely relate with you; I also have this thing where I try to be there before time or go out of my way to make sure that I’m not causing an inconvenience to someone because of my own learnt anxiety. 


A.W.: But also…what if the reason for someone being late is not because they don’t respect our time? What if someone genuinely needs that time because they have a mental health issue or a physical impairment or a disability? What about working people that also have to carry out unpaid caregiving duties at home? What about people who have to balance multiple jobs to make ends meet? Even the idea of a 9 to 5 workday is patriarchal. I’d come across this tweet that explained how these work hours and productivity norms were designed by men and for men during a time when their wives did all the behind-the-scenes work for them—from cooking to copy-editing. Workplaces still don’t account for the gendered division of domestic work. What if someone needs accommodation for reasonable purposes? Would they hold space for that? And I’m actually saying this from a place of privilege, too, because I don’t do most of the domestic work at my house. And considering these norms, I know I wouldn’t be able to manage to study and work if I did; and I shouldn’t have to. Nobody should.


A.W.: Also, if you don’t meet this standard of work, you’re automatically thought of as lazy or as slacking off. But these standards are defined by people who are able-bodied or who don’t have to do as much domestic labour or who aren’t working round the clock to survive. If our idea of ‘normal’ and ‘standard’ is being defined by people who have all these privileges, how does this affect those who don’t? They are constantly having to keep up, and understandably, falling short because the world wasn’t designed keeping their needs in mind. And so, what would ‘care’ look like for all of them in this unequal world, you know? That’s why the idea of care is not simply a personal matter; it’s a political issue. It’s a rights-based issue. 


A.W.: Yeah, this was a small thing that I wanted to add!

Thank you for accompanying us on Part 1 of our dialogue around care! This conversation continues in the next blog post. 

To access resources that have shaped our ideas of care, please find our resource list here. You can also find the summaries of our Sharing Circles 1, 2, and 3 with Mental Health Professionals here, here, and here, respectively; and that of the Participatory Workshop for Mental Health Users/Survivors here.


About the Speakers


Anvita Walia is a student, researcher, and eternal learner. She is a Senior Program Officer at One Future Collective, a feminist social purpose organisation with a vision of a world built on social justice, led by communities of care. To know more about OFC’s work, please click here

Ankita is a listener, a mental health professional and one of the co-founders of Tangent Mental Health Initiative. Tangent MHI began in 2020 and works in the field of mental health service and advocacy. Their work is informed by the values of intersectional feminism, inclusion and accessibility. To know more about Tangent MHI’s work, you can click here.

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice

COVID-19 | What One Future Collective is Doing


Hey there. We’re writing to you today on behalf of #TeamOneFuture. Before we start, most importantly, how are you doing?  Continue reading “COVID-19 | What One Future Collective is Doing”

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice

The History Behind Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Law


Sexual harassment at the workplace is widespread. Women all around the world have faced instances of sexual harassment, calling for a strong law to curb these acts. In India, the framework for the Sexual Harassment at Workplace law was laid down in the landmark judgement of the Supreme Court in Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan (1997).

In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit woman who was a social worker employed with the Rural Development Programme of the Government of Rajasthan was gang raped. This highlighted the extents of sexual harassment incidents in India’s workplaces. It struck a chord with the nation and revealed the hazards working women face in the workplace. The Supreme Court framed guidelines and issued directions to the Union of India for a law to combat workplace sexual harassment.

The main intention of these guidelines was to provide a platform for redressal and grievance mechanisms against workplace sexual harassment. It was these guidelines that motivated the formation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH). The Act is very important as it discusses the various instances of sexual harassment and how a woman can complain against this kind of behaviour.

Timothy Hale.

International conventions to protect women against violence had been in place for a long while. The Vishaka Guidelines drew from them in the following ways:

1. General Recommendation 19 to the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW): India, which is a party to this convention, has taken from it aspects of equality of women in the workplace, gender-specific violence, and unwelcome sexually-determined behaviour and adopted them into the POSH Act.

2. International Labour Convention on Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (No. C111): India ratified this document on 3 June, 1960. Through this Convention, India has an obligation to prohibit and prevent any gender-based discrimination in the workplace.

Early developments in the Statute

Before the introduction of the POSH Law, there was no statutory remedy that directly addressed workplace sexual harassment except the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The only sections under the Indian Penal Code that could be used for sexual harassment are under:

  • Section 354 (Outraging the modesty of a woman) and
  • Section 509 (Insulting the modesty of a woman).

Women who were sexually harassed at the workplace had to go to the police and file a complaint.

The application of the Indian Penal Code can be seen in the case of Rupan Deol Bajaj vs. K.P.S. Gill (1995), where a senior IAS officer was sexually harassed by a superior officer and the recourse to the limited provisions of the IPC under Section 354 and Section 509 was not found sufficient by the High Court. This gap in the law was very apparent and the need for further reforms on sexual harassment was obvious. It was in the light of instances such as these that the Supreme Court set aside the judgement in the Rupan case. The unfortunate circumstances in the Vishaka case finally addressed workplace sexual harassment, its prevention, and redressal mechanisms.

What is sexual harassment?

The Vishaka Guidelines called for the need to define sexual harassment. The guidelines did this, taking a definition verbatim from the General Recommendation 19 to the CEDAW Convention. ‘Sexual Harassment’ includes such unwelcome sexually-determined behaviour (whether direct or indirect) as:

  • Physical contact and advances
  • A demand or request for sexual favours
  • Sexually-coloured remarks
  • Showing pornography
  • Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or nonverbal conduct of sexual nature.
  • Any sexual acts carried out that are directly related to the victim’s employment or work
  • Conduct that can be humiliating for the woman
  • Any sexual conduct that affects the health and safety of a woman.

The creation of a hostile working environment and non-consensual advances or requests of a sexual nature both amount to sexual harassment.

With the advent of Section 2 (n) of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, India finally had an explanation for what constituted sexual harassment. You can see in detail what the Act refers to when it comes to sexual harassment. Only women are protected from sexual harassment at the workplace. Men in India cannot file a case of sexual harassment at the workplace against another male or female employee. Any working woman is protected from being subjected to sexual harassment at the workplace if she falls under certain categories.

What is a workplace?

As per Section 2(o) of the POSH Act, ‘workplace’ includes any place visited by the employee arising out of or during the course of employment, including transportation provided by the employer for the purpose of commuting to and from the place of employment. In the case of Saurabh Kumar Mallick v. Comptroller & Auditor General of India 151 (2008), three criteria were laid down to determine what would constitute a workplace for the POSH Act to apply:

  • Proximity from the place of work
  • Control of the management over the place/residence where the working woman is residing and
  • That the residence be an extension or contiguous part of the working place.

Impact of cases in India

After the Vishaka case came two important cases which strengthened the legal framework for workplace sexual harassment. In the Apparel Export Promotion Council v. A.K. Chopra (1999), the Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of a superior officer of the Delhi-based Apparel Export Promotion Council for sexual harassment. The court enlarged the definition of sexual harassment to state that physical contact is not always essential for an act amounting to workplace sexual harassment.” Sexual harassment is seen as any ‘unwelcome’ act.

Later, in the Medha Kotwal Lele & Ors v. Union of India & Ors (2013), the Supreme Court placed emphasis on States to follow the Vishaka Guidelines and to ensure its effective implementation. Further, the court asserted that if the guidelines are not complied with, then the aggrieved persons or the victim could approach the High Courts.

Impact of the POSH Law

The effect of the law is three-fold:

1. Prevention of a hostile work environment: When a woman is exposed to sexual advances and harassment it affects her sense of security, health, and mental stability. In instances where it occurs daily, it can damage a woman on a long-term basis, and this psychological damage may lead to an unstable, unhealthy life. The POSH Law and various judgements have been a saviour in this regard.

2. Understanding Unwelcome behaviour: The debate on advances being welcome and unwelcome is a never-ending loop. Some state that it is subjective in nature based on the ‘reasonableness’ of a woman, but a test to determine if unwelcome behaviour has taken place was deemed necessary after the POSH Law. In the Report of the Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law headed by the late Justice J.S. Verma (Author of the VishakaJudgement), unwelcome behaviour was discussed as follows:

“However, it is important to note that the definition requires some clarification since any interpretation of the word “unwelcome” as contained in the said definition must give due weight to both objective as well as subjective criteria in order to ensure that women of differing perceptions and comfort levels are given appropriate protection. Therefore, we suggest that after the definition of “sexual harassment”, the following explanation may be inserted: In determining whether the behaviour or act complained of is unwelcome, one of the factors to be given due weight shall be the subjective perception of the complainant.

3. Quid Pro Quo Harassment: The key element of Quid Pro Quo Harassment is when a demand for a sexual favour is requested based on a threat of consequences for the job at hand. The person making threats is usually placed at a higher rank and the consequences may range from demotion in position or wages to loss of maternity benefits etc. For example, Akshay tells Radhika to perform a sexual act. Radhika refuses to do so, but Akshay tells her that she will get demoted and earn a lower salary if she doesn’t. This is a clear-cut example of Quid Pro Quo Harassment. The Vishaka judgement recognized this important factor. Now, under the POSH Law, all the woman has to prove is that the threat was made in the first place.

New Dimensions to Workplace Sexual Harassment

Now, times are changing and technology is playing a very crucial role in our day to day activities. For instance, in order to gain sexual benefits, if Anil threatens to circulate a naked picture of Remya via social media in the office, it amounts to an act which is not only sexual harassment but also a form of online abuse where he is outraging her modesty. Cases like this should definitely be filed with the Internals Complaints Committee set up by the organization, as the form of sexual harassment need not always be physical. In today’s world, it can be through online platforms and social media.

Sexual Harassment — A Human Rights Violation

The Supreme Court took note of the fact that the inadequacy of the law to tackle workplace sexual harassment was a human rights violation. In India, other than the Vishaka Judgement and the cases that followed, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH) has been put in place. The Act is grounded in the constitutional guarantee of the right to life and liberty (Article 21), right against discrimination (Article 14), and freedom to practice any trade or profession without hindrance (Article 19(1)(g)). The introduction of POSH Law was very important for all women in India as it was central to the promotion of a women’s rights and safety. The safeguards under the POSH Law are available only for women.


The POSH Act is over half a decade old, and is it indisputable that the law is protecting many working women around India from being sexually harassed at their workplaces. It not only strengthens and gives confidence to female employees but also plays a major role in the widespread removal of such incidents in India. This law has empowered women and has been a platform for them to voice their concerns. In the future, the aim should be to completely eradicate such instances and bring about a safe space in workplaces.

Malavika Rajkumar is a legal researcher at Nyaaya and she has always wanted to be part of a movement to promote accessible and practical information to the common man. She is also a Volunteer Researcher at One Future Collective.

Featured image: erhui1979/Getty

Originally published at Nyaaya on March 8, 2018.

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice