My name is on the list of sexual harassers in academia on Facebook, this is what's wrong with it

Vigilante feminism by trolls only consolidates institutional trivialisation of sexual harassment.

 |  5-minute read |   26-10-2017
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(Disclaimer: The author has been informed that he is also on the list of "sexual predators in academia" after his public criticism of it, though, of course, with no specific charges, no evidence and no need of a defence. As an out gay activist who has faced sexual harassment in educational institutions across the country for almost two decades now, the irony and dark humour of being on the list is not lost on him.)

The hit list of alleged sexual harassers doing the rounds in the hollow, self-echoing chambers of social media is a sad and sorry symptom of our times. While struggles for gender justice on the ground in universities remain sparsely populated and almost totally ignored, self-appointed heroes of social media produce lists like this and feel like the job is done.

Where are these cyber warriors when cases of sexual harassment are registered in universities on a regular basis? Why is there no day-to-day coverage of them on the social media by these self-appointed feminists? Where is the support for victims who have to fight alone and under pressures of all kinds? Why is there never any social media to offer support to them? Why is there no Facebook outrage at every sexual harassment case in universities which ends with no justice for the person at the receiving end? Why is there no public tracking of every sexual harassment case in the social media, no naming and shaming based on concrete evidence, procedures and failed attempts at getting justice?

We need a strong, supportive framework for women and other victims of sexual harassment to be able to continue the struggle, to boost their morale, to be there for them in their fight. This is the necessary supplement to the law, which will give the law teeth by creating a social context within which sexual harassment is taken seriously.

We have had social media for a fairly long time now. Why is there no supportive network for victims of this culture of sexual harassment, but only a sensational list instead? Where are these gung-ho internet warriors when victims of sexual harassment in universities need support on a daily basis? What has prevented them from forming a network even on social media (since they don’t seem to believe in the real world) to support people who have taken up the fight and are struggling against powerful people and institutions?

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The answer is simple. That requires hard work. It requires real feminism that counters the systematic trivialisation of sexual harassment in educational institutions on a daily basis. It requires a movement and long, drawn-out struggles on the ground.

It is much easier to have lists on Facebook. The hard work of feminism on the ground actually fights abuses in concrete locations. Indeed, the list borrows names from some of these struggles to give itself credibility with no accounts of those struggles.

We have had the Vishakha Guidelines since 1997. We have had policies in educational institutions for over a decade now, some carefully drawn up over years, like the one at Delhi University. We have a law on the sexual harassment of women at workplace. Yes, all of these are flawed. Yes, we all know that the law is not enough. Those of us who have seen cases of harassment in educational institutions know the many ways in which they are mangled and used against complainants, trivialised, thrown out.

But does that mean we throw out the law altogether?

Do we give up what feminists have fought for (the sexual harassment law is the only law which reposes faith in the idea of the woman as an autonomous subject) and produce lists instead? Do we replace courts of law with kangaroo courts? Do we replicate the khap panchayat and produce rough and ready "justice" at online chaupals?

What is the ethics and politics of this list? The government produces lists of anti-nationals/Naxal supporters who are then hounded by the state. No evidence is offered or required. How is this list different? Indeed the timing of this list when the Hindu Right has hollowed out most educational institutions is appalling.

This is exactly how women are targeted by patriarchy. They are given names: no questions are asked, no answers are needed. Anyone’s name might be put on a list. The person who puts the name is anonymous, the specificities of the charge undeclared, the evidence irrelevant, the defence unnecessary, the condemnation total.

That’s a great world for a nationalist and patriarchal video game, but not one to which feminists might aspire.

Academia has a deep-rooted culture of sexual harassment. Anger at that is justified but has to be productively harnessed and put in the service of a feminism that cares about persons damaged by sexual harassment, that offers them support, that is in for the long haul, that fights the good fight, on a daily basis, and on the ground.

It is a complex and difficult struggle, with many more setbacks than victories, but it is one worth fighting. The dwindling of the autonomous women’s movement has to be reversed. The process is on with collectives like "Pinjra Tod", which does not produce lists, but fights specific campaigns in university spaces and is a powerful, growing movement.

What we do not need is a vigilante virtual feminism run by trolls on social media that doles out smear campaign justice which only consolidates the institutional trivialisation of sexual harassment and feminism.

Also read: Why a Facebook list of alleged sexual predators in academia has spooked vocal Indian feminists

Writer

Ashley Tellis Ashley Tellis @politicalrandi

The writer is an LGBT rights activist based in Chennai.

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