Maitreyee Shukla & Asmita Kundu
When the #MeToo campaign started, we saw a floodgate being opened. Women tried hard to sum up their painful and often self-triggering experiences of sexual harassment within a hashtag as it garnered unconditional and explicit support from the stalwarts of feminism. Yet, to some of us, it felt unfair that even now it is but the women who are doing the labour of bringing sexual harassment to light as the discourse revolved around a woman’s victimhood rather than a perpetrator’s crime.
All the same, it was evident that women all across the world have come together to highlight the uncomfortable truth of how deeply pervasive sexual harassment is and how all of us are always vulnerable in a structure that constantly favours powerful men. But when C. Fair came up with her incredibly brave article of #HimToo, naming her assaulters and harassers, the movement finally seemed to point fingers directly at all the Weinsteins that she encountered in her life. Not surprisingly, Fair named a lot of academicians, including world-renowned Professor and historian, Dipesh Chakravarty.
It is no secret that academia not unlike other societal structures is rife with misogyny and has a culture of sexual violence entrenched in it. In order to shed light on this culture and as an attempt to caution women in academia against potential harassers, Raya Sarkar decided to come up with a list of the names of men in academia who have allegedly sexually harassed women. She invited survivors of sexual harassment to message her and within two days, the list was 61 names long.
We must clarify at the outset that unlike what many have been thinking, the list is not an arbitrary one. Raya spoke to the detailed accounts of women, and as the names were added to the list, a simultaneous list of the names of victims and substantial evidences which involve screenshots, forwarded texts and emails were also preserved. Raya says the list is not prepared with the intent of the institutional action, rather as she puts it, “it’s a cautionary list”. She says, “The list is primarily for students to be wary of their professors because in my opinion, knowing how college administrations function, harassers will continue to hold their positions of power.” (Buzzfeed)1
Almost immediately, there was a statement on Kafila (Lawrence Liang is a member of this platform and his name happened to have featured in the list) signed by seasoned feminists like Nivedita Menon, Kavita Krishnan, Brinda Bose, Ayesha Kidwai and Vrinda Grover2. It is no coincidence that most of the accused men on the list and their signatories belong to the same socio-economic background. All of them enjoy incredible power, status, and privilege. Their voice and actions directly affect the lives of students, scholars and young activists who have drawn inspiration and ideas from them.
This statement of the solidarity of the powerful begins with a very interesting phrase- “As feminists, we…” One must applaud them for this extremely crucial declaration as they embark in a long journey of playing “my feminism is better than yours” while absolving all possible criticism or counterclaim, because them being the most important voices in feminism, are truly infallible not unlike the reputations of their accused colleagues and friends.
Secondly, the writer(s) of this statement is ‘dismayed’ by the list where men are being named without providing ‘context or explanation’. First of all, the context is that they have allegedly harassed someone and the explanation for doing so can only be provided by them.
Now, even with our very limited understanding of the trajectory of feminist movements, we know that it has been an established stand among feminists that the burden of evidence should not lie with the victim while speaking about the harassment. In fact, to constantly question someone with the search of “proper evidence” counts as needlessly triggering and harassment in itself. With that being sort of set in stone for every feminist, how come the stalwarts are demanding context and explanations from the survivors?
As we clarified earlier, this list is not arbitrary. Raya didn’t wake up one day and decide to malign some of the top academicians. The list came up after she heard a lot of first-person accounts after multiple people from multiple locations named the same professors, and after they provided her with evidences, even though the victim’s words must have been enough to at least look into the matter.
If the Kafila feminists had considered the matter seriously, and in good faith, even a cursory look at Facebook would have shown them how many voices from the academia are publicly corroborating the list with their first-person accounts. Therein lays your ‘proof’. Not to mention, in a ridiculous turn of events, Raya mentions that some of the named professors and their cohorts are pestering certain students to withdraw names with the promise of recommendations and scholarships to foreign universities.
It is chilling to see the stalwarts of feminism suddenly putting the onus of proof on the survivors and asking them to go through the excruciating, triggering and futile ‘due process’. They seem to have forgotten that it takes a certain amount of privilege to be able to wade through it, and that is why in the past people like Krishnan herself have maintained that there should be zero pressure on the victim to access institutional and bureaucratic measures. (Remember the Tehelka case?)
All the signatories of the statement, who have taken up radical, non-normative and anti-establishment positions throughout their careers and in times of state retaliation, have received unanimous support from the students. It is but them who are now telling their extremely vulnerable students to access “due process” and anything otherwise is but akin to “kangaroo courts” and “mob violence”. The same feminists who have used social media campaigns as a means to voice their politics are today warning younger feminists against the futility of social media. #MeToo was a legitimate campaign for them, but they have problems with #HimToo. Makes us wonder, what sort of a feminist is okay with women coming up with the narrative of victimhood but not of assertion and courage of being able to openly name their perpetrators?
Quite visibly, their arguments are skewed up because the named men are their buddies, mentors, partners, and comrades. There is a huge anxiety about the public image of these men being tarnished. This anxiety to ‘save’ the dignity and public image of the accused reflects their anxiety to preserve the structures of privilege which has let them create a Savarna ivory tower of entitlement. As Priyamvada Gopal puts it, “Feminists are feminists until you come for our mates. Then we’ll show you!”
Let us put your anxieties at rest. We live in a world where Trump is the president after multiple charges of sexual assault. In fact, this whole thing has snowballed because a serial molester is still ruling Hollywood despite his predatory nature being something of an open secret. Similarly, it is hard to recall an instance where a powerful academician lost even a night’s sleep, let alone an entire career in spite of innumerable complaints of harassment. You are fooling no one into believing that you are naive enough to feel that the men here are threatened, or at any risk. It has always been about your privileges, and it is still about your privileges.
A friend of mine likes to narrate how Prof Menon started her first class with Foucault’s power structure and blew his mind; but now we realise, it is easier to theorise, talk about and challenge the power structures as long as it is an abstract or a relatively distant thing. Just like it was easy for them to take over the struggle for Rohith Vemula and talk about institutionalised casteism, but when Muthu Krishnan was institutionally murdered at JNU, the same bastion of professors came up with deplorable reasons to immediately rid themselves of the accusations by making it about his mental health. Similarly, as long as sexual harassment was a distant concept to be discussed in books and classes, a radical stand was possible, but as soon as friends and colleagues were named, the moment their positions were brought into question, it became a matter of their dignity and reputation.
In a later post, Krishnan equated this list with something like blackening of the face. Few others have equated it with Khap panchayats, Kangaroo courts and even mob lynchings. What they are deliberately overlooking is the position this list is coming from. All of the above, Khap, Kangaroo court, blackening of faces are in fact hyper-masculine, patriarchal structures which emanate from a position of power with the intention to shame or intimidate. This list, on the other hand, is coming from victims of the said masculinity and patriarchy which till date remains unchanged within the academia. When a 24-year-old Dalit- Feminist, and victims (who have shown enough courage even to name their professors in private, fearing any kinds of backlash) come forward to bring out a list of assaulters, it is but assertion and not oppression.
While we are on the topic of public trials, please note that JNUTA, under the presidency of Ayesha Kidwai is holding public trial of the JNU- VC. Which is perfectly fine by us, but then they should stop acting like their public trial is more legitimate than ours. (Although, to reiterate, this list is not a public trial, it’s just a cautionary measure.)
If we recall correctly, they were absolutely fine with a woman ‘outing’ an abusive Uber driver along with his name and picture on Facebook without any ‘proof’ as a cautionary measure for other women. They took her word for it, rightly so, and stood in solidarity with her. But then why is the reaction different when the assault is happening inside the well-furnished offices and apartments of their colleagues?
This statement is a classic example of a little thing called Gaslighting, not to mention borderline victim- blaming and to be fair, their Kafila statement comes nothing short of a blackmail to deter women in future from naming their harassers. As far as ‘due procedures’ are concerned, do the signatories still believe in them after the Farooqi verdict? Does Nivedita Menon no longer stand by this statement of hers:
“At this historical moment, feminism must reconsider its engagement with the language of rights and the law. The experience of the last decade not only raises questions about the capacity of the law to act as a transformative instrument, but more fundamentally it points to the possibility that functioning in a manner compatible with legal discourse can radically refract from the ethical and emancipatory impulse of feminism itself”. (Menon, 1995)3
Was Kavita Krishnan not a feminist when she tweeted “why should we ignore abuse? Why should we not name and shame?” Can you not see how deep-seated this culture of abuse is that Aditya Nigam has the temerity to write that he will not even try to prove his innocence against “mere innuendo”. The fight against institutionalized sexism in academia is an uneven one at best, in fact, under current circumstances, it looks like an impossible one.
At this juncture, let us state clearly that we stand with Raya. We stand with all the anonymous victims. We stand with feminism. Not the elite, Savarna, hypocritical one, rather with the inclusive, intersectional and infallible one.
We are glad that Tarana Burke, the woman who started #MeToo has come out in support of Raya. Meanwhile, the Scroll feminists can rejoice in the fact that they enjoy enough power to have caused enough outrage and access the “due process” of Facebook security to block Raya Sarkar from posting, editing or commenting for one week. Our dear and respected teachers, we hope you realise how your “due process” has yet again successfully silenced women in the very last recourse of social media that they had.
Maitreyee Shukla (M.Phil Research scholar at IIT-B and an alumna of JNU) and Asmita Kundu (Ph.D. research scholar at JNU).