If older feminists will not listen to the youth, who will?

Rituparna Chatterjee
Rituparna ChatterjeeMar 15, 2018 | 16:28

If older feminists will not listen to the youth, who will?

If there’s one thing that the anonymous account of a young woman on a date with comedian Aziz Ansari teaches us, it is to rigorously question all established practices of verbal and non-verbal cues of intimacy.

But the episode also exposes the chasm of thought that divides generations of feminists as practices of social interactions change radically to include people from diverse backgrounds with better access to tools of empowerment.


It made a section of women, many of whom identified as feminists, uncomfortable enough to term the account an elaborate form of revenge porn and shift the focus on the woman’s conduct (“why didn’t she leave?”) instead of keeping it firmly trained on the man in the given circumstance.

I find a repeat of this behaviour reflected in eminent feminist Nivedita Menon’s response to an internal committee of Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD) finding scholar Lawrence Liang guilty of sexual harassment. Menon makes it clear that her response is independent of Kafila’s, the organisation she and Liang are associated with. At the time of writing this, the Kafila website still displayed Liang’s name and bio in their “about us” section.

The language Menon uses to dissociate the gender rights activists associated with Kafila from any moral responsibility of prior knowledge of Liang’s digression from decency is telling.

Menon is right to call for accountability and transparency on both sides. 

“We learnt from media reports that a duly constituted committee of AUD has found Lawrence Liang guilty of sexual harassment. We did not know about this earlier, as some characteristically self-righteous and ill informed twitterati assume we did. Those whose social concern and activism is limited to busy fingertips obviously have no idea about the processes that have been carefully put in place in sexual harassment policies in universities, which protect confidentiality primarily to protect the complainant,” Menon writes.


With due respect to Menon, who has fought for women’s rights longer and harder than many of us have, the statement practically crackles with self-righteousness characteristic in those who regard themselves as morally superior. Several times in the course of approximately 1,400 words, Menon slams “fingertip activists”, presumably a group of women who circulated and endorsed a list of names of alleged sexual harassers in academia.

Menon repeatedly stresses the value of due process while acknowledging that it’s not fail-proof. Let’s parse Menon’s response in the context of “fingertip activism”.

As an educated, feminist woman in my late 30s, I have found that while my trigger-response to injustice is concurrent with other women due to the universal nature of patriarchy, my lived experiences often vary vastly from younger women negotiating a complex labyrinth of bias due to many reasons, the main being class, caste and urban privileges.

As a member of several women’s groups, I have found that a safe platform that allows women self-expression without being interrupted is also a form of the “fingertip activism” that Menon so disdainfully dismisses. Fingertip activists were sharing stories of abuse under the hashtag of #MeToo a few months ago.


Student-led protests across the world are organised by finger-tip activists through social channels of communication. Whisper networks of victims whom the system has failed operate through fingertip activism groups. Menon’s apparent anger at "list-makers", ironically also a term used to describe millennials who use the format to infuse youth and brevity to stories, probably stems from the fact that women are daring to bypass “due process” and take control of the narrative. Months after Raya Sarkar’s list, Liang is the only one on it held accountable for his actions.

Contrary to Menon’s assumption, women who have accused men of sexual violations aren’t looking for a public hanging at the town square at dawn. They are challenging “due process” to hurry up or face resistance. A few months ago, I spoke to several women of a business school in Chennai who had accused a professor of sexual harassment.

Despite a formal complaint, the professor returned to teach at the college. Years later, another university's sexual harassment committee finally found him guilty and he was sacked from his job. So much for due process. The system of reparation in India is often under male influence. To deny that and belittle, as Menon does, the women who are tired of waiting and fighting that influence, is a failure of feminism as a whole.

As long as we lead public lives, our actions will be up for scrutiny. A civil argument is one thing, but to be vengeful towards those who question our biases is another.

Menon is right to call for accountability and transparency on both sides. No one is denying that law will have to take its course. But using the platform of Kafila to call women who’re taking on their abusers “finger-tip activists with no historical memory” is collectivism at best, and feminism can never benefit from collectivism.

Feminism is a dynamic concept that enriches itself from the learnings of generations of women in constantly changing environments. In repeatedly attacking the List-makers, Menon exposes the very bias we accuse society of – shifting the focus of the narrative from the accused to the accusers.

“Does the AUD report establish the validity of the List? On the contrary, it thoroughly invalidates the politics of the List which I still hold to have been an act of abdication of responsibility, as was established by the defensive and vacuous responses of the administrators of the List to Partha Chatterjee’s direct question as to what the complaint against him was,” Menon writes.

A man from the dreaded list that accused several men of sexual harassment has just been found guilty of sexual harassment, pending appeal. In the face of this, I find the lack of empathy for women fighting for the same cause as hers, the abrasiveness and the haste to justify herself when no justification was called for, frankly baffling.

As older feminists we can’t close ourselves to young women eager to learn from our collective experiences, just as we cannot stop learning from theirs. To forget that we are fighting the same cause is to hand patriarchy an easy victory.

Last updated: March 16, 2018 | 16:51
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