Why the response to a list of sexual harassers has splintered India's feminist movement
A statement by 13 feminists on the progressive blog Kafila has led to a moment of painful reckoning.
- Total Shares
This is a moment of clear splintering within the Indian feminist movement, if such a movement can be said to exist - as I believe it can. This splintering has been caused in the aftermath of the creation of a public list of men in academia who have been accused of sexual harassment. This list was created by 24-year-old attorney Raya Sarkar, undoubtedly at great personal risk, and the very fact that it exists and names what vulnerable students have had to whisper to each other for years should give us reason to pause.
What is this splintering? Who caused it? I believe that it is the result of a statement that was published by a group of 13 feminists on the progressive blog Kafila.
Their terse statement begins with a claim to a certain kind of feminist ethics and politics:
"As feminists, we have been part of a long struggle to make visible sexual harassment at the workplace, and have worked with the movement to put in place systems of transparent and just procedures of accountability."
It then expresses "dismay" at the existence of Raya Sarkar’s list, because of the anonymous nature of the list, and because of the lack of "context and explanation" behind the allegations. It bemoans the fact that the importance of "due process" has been disregarded by the makers of the list.
What has been the consequence of this splintering? Photo: PTI
"Where there are genuine complaints, there are institutions and procedures, which we should utilize," it goes on to say. It goes on to appeal to the creators of the list to withdraw it, after which they will apparently "be supported by the larger feminist community in their fight for justice."
(Emphasis mine; the full statement can be read here.)
On the whole, the statement - as many, many people have pointed out - is patronising and dismissive. It does not even pretend to engage with the circumstances in which such a list came to exist. It does not even pretend to want a dialogue with Raya Sarkar, the person who led to its creation (in fact, it does not once name them). It does not express any concern for the students who came forward with their testimonies privately to Sarkar, nor does it commit to investigating the claims, which are very serious and in need of urgent attention.
This, then, is their response to one of the most damning lists to ever be in the public domain in India: utter contempt. If they disagreed with the methodology of the creation of the list, they could still have chosen to engage while simultaneously voicing that disagreement. They could have chosen to reach out to Raya and/or the people sharing and supporting the list to have a genuine dialogue with them about their reservations. They could have used their considerable resources and influence to offer a constructive solution, even while expressing their discomfort with the method and suggesting alternatives.
That would have been a truly collaborative position for them to take. But the Kafila statement does not do any of that. And I firmly believe that this is the source of the polarisation that we are seeing now - this action by powerful public figures from privileged locations talking down to younger people whose activism plays out in ways different from their own.
This is certainly not a new phenomenon. Speaking from my own experience, from what I have observed of my peers, as well as people I admire and see as feminist/queer and trans/anti-caste advocates, I feel that we are seeing this splintering because it was always there.
For most of my adult life, I have felt that there is a palpable sense of "turf" and territorialism in the movement. There are definite and multiple power imbalances based on gender identity, sexual orientation, caste, class, location, access, ability and other factors, which determine who takes up how much space, and who speaks for whom, and who speaks over whom. It determines whose labour is acknowledged in the form of cultural and social capital, and whose views are generally taken seriously and amplified when a "feminist" stance is sought.
I believe it is precisely these dynamics we are seeing playing out clearly in this particular moment around the list, and this is why it is so important to pay close attention to it. There is an intergenerational aspect to this to some extent, although "older" feminists from all over the country have had more nuanced and thoughtful responses to the list than the Kafila stance has demonstrated.
Let’s look for a moment at the absolutely dire circumstances under which such a list emerged. "Liberal" men (a la Tejpal, Farooqui, Pachauri and many more) in "liberal" institutions have crossed lines, and engaged in inappropriate to criminal behaviour with people over whom they have held positions of power. The police and justice system is heavily skewed in their favour - and when the man is dearly loved by ostensibly liberal folks, so is a section of (otherwise quite radical) civil society.
Within and outside of university spaces, due process has failed at being supportive, timely, and just. "Due process" has repeatedly failed survivors of sexual violence in workplaces, at homes, and in institutions such as universities. How can some of the most vocal and visible proponents of a movement that has always been about believing the victim be so unsympathetic to some extremely serious charges? How can they be entirely dismissive of the absolutely hopeless situation from which this list emerged? How can they not see past their own outrage and engage with it in ways that will actually support the students in question?
I am not the first to point out that in the face of overwhelming hostility, women, trans and queer folk have always had offline whisper networks to warn each other about known sexual predators. These have been "open secrets" and have meant at least one layer of knowledge and protection for victims and potential victims. If this is the primary function of the list as it stands today, how can charges of "vigilantism" and "mob justice" be applied to it?
Granted that such a whisper network is transformed when it comes into the public domain via the internet, but the nature of digital activism and the forms it takes must be grappled with, and not dismissed. I’m sorry, but it’s simply not enough to label these activists as "social media feminists" and "internet Ambedkarites" - people have to accept that with greater and greater access to the internet, these forms of activism will morph and play out in the digital domain, and they are valid. To some extent (and there are huge disparities in privilege and access to consider here), they democratise people’s engagement with activism. These are new and difficult things, and they need to be taken very seriously. I don’t see the Kafila statement as taking this into consideration at all. I don’t think anyone ever argued against making processes more robust. It is false and misleading to create this binary in the first place.
Many of us who understand why the list exists (and please don’t see this as an uncritical reading of list-as-saviour) have been feeling deeply frustrated and betrayed by the Kafila reaction. I think we are legitimately furious at not being supported and at being condescended to by people who could very easily have chosen to do this differently.
What is their responsibility to the movement that they take up so much space within?
What has been the consequence of this splintering?
The focus has shifted away from the list - away from perpetrators of sexual violence, as usual. I think of the students, the generations of students who must have been affected by inappropriate behaviour at best - and criminal behaviour at worst - at the hands of the people who are supposed to teach them, and who purportedly work on issues of freedom and justice.
The focus has shifted from the men who have been accused. "Mob justice" implies that something has shifted in someone’s life - but we all know that the reputations and lives of powerful men are hardly that fragile. Are there any real consequences to their careers and positions? Are any universities even going to take cognisance of this list and initiate any enquiries? Going forward, will students feel safe coming forward in any way? This is the difficult work we should have been doing together. Instead, so much of our time and energy in the last few days has been spent in this polarisation. The survivors have been sidelined, yet again.
The list, as this excellent piece by Paromita Vohra points out, is about breaking certain kinds of silence around unequal relationships. As we are breaking the silence about powerful so called "liberal" "progressive" men who, while spouting grand theories of justice in their work, are crossing boundaries and violating their own students with impunity - we also need to keep speaking about the power imbalances within the feminist movement.
I’ve heard many feminists I’ve admired (including many of the signatories on the Kafila statement) say that the Indian feminist movement has always been diverse movement with many disagreements. But a disagreement implies an equal playing field, which we don’t have. A visible splintering is therefore useful in this regard, and requires a huge amount of self-reflexiveness on the part of the more privileged group, as the Kafila signatories undoubtedly are.
Even claiming that the movement’s "unity" is being threatened is a savarna construct and a sign of this privilege. Dalit Bahujan activists and still others who are in different locations have never bought into the idea of a singular "feminist movement" - why should they, when they have been systematically excluded by savarna feminists? First and foremost, we must acknowledge that there isn’t a homogenous movement, as the Kafila statement and subsequent responses from some of its signatories seem to be claiming. In order for true dialogue to happen, they must stop claiming so and speaking over people in such a hostile manner.
As a corollary, I’d like to reflect on Nivedita Menon’s latest piece, which has appeared on Kafila — the bombastically titled "From Feminazi to Savarna Rape Apologist in 24 hours". As I see it, the piece has many deep problems which will need another essay to fully unpack, but I’d like to offer the following preliminary thoughts:
Menon dismisses the role of caste in this conversation by mocking the fact that people have pointed out that the signatories are savarna.
When the piece was first published, Menon included a survivor’s full name despite that the survivor’s testimony on Facebook clearly requested privacy. It has since been removed, but this is a severe breach of trust in the first place.
Additionally, she makes a highly patronising and problematic statement about the accused often being from "small towns" and of subsequent "genuine friendship" between complainants and the accused.
Finally, she ends by accusing Sarkar of single-handedly destroying "all trust within feminist politics for a long time to come". There seems to be very little reflection on how the Kafila signatories may have had a part to play in the destruction of this trust, and why this trust was so fragile in the first place.
This is a deeply painful moment of reckoning within the movement, one that deserves our closest attention and engagement. It is a challenge, a difficult one, but also an opportunity for a shift in the mainstream understanding of what makes a movement.
(The thoughts in this piece are the cumulative result of many conversations with many different people. Special thanks to Shreya Sen for the conversation that we had right before it was written. Thanks also to Roundtable India, Shivani Channan - @DardEDiscourse - on Twitter, Nehmat Kaur at The Wire, and Paromita Vohra for their work around this issue, either on Twitter or in the form of articles - I have learned very much from it.)