The current debates around sexual harassment have been reduced to a simple binary between due process of law and hall of shame, without engaging with contexts that create the possibilities of silences.
Let us begin with what the recent list on Facebook naming alleged sexual harassers among South Asian academics has brought new to our existing discussions on sexual harassment. First, an overwhelming number of women have come out openly to talk about experiences that had either been shelved into the abyss of one’s memory or had been part of guilt and rage-ridden self-doubt. The list has removed the lid from both guilt and rage.
Second, the list and the consequent discussion has raised questions over the nature of ‘justice’ by falsely polarising the response between supporting ‘due process’ or upholding the spectral justice promised by the ‘name and shame’ list. While enough ink has already been spilled, questioning the righteousness of the method, with many interventions caricaturing the list as a form of vigilante justice, a welcome trend has been that it has transcended the list’s intended focus on men in academia. The momentous outpour and sharing of experiences in social media by working women across professional sectors such as healthcare, corporate as well as in print/visual media points to a much broader discussion about sexual harassment in general. In fact, it followed (and presumably drew strength from) a much general disclosure in Hollywood. It appears that the volume of discussion and engagement has surpassed the wider conversations that the case-specific university struggles managed to generate over the last few years. This is no attempt to demean those long struggles but simply an act of acknowledgement of what the list has done in the last few days.
It is also too early to say that the list method of name and shame has trumped the due process of law and institutional mechanism of delivering justice. Clearly, the call made from the protagonist of the former method to file cases directly at police stations by bypassing institutional committees gives the impression that ‘due process’ is the only recourse.
Programmatically, what is new?
Maybe nothing. But instead of endlessly interrogating the effectiveness of compiling a list, it would be more useful to look at it as a sign of the melting away of a familiar world.
We know that institutions around us, such as the courts, police stations and committees based at universities and workplaces, have consistently failed to redress cases of harassment. In frustration, we reach out to an industry of theoretical and ideological frameworks to make sense of this. But what exactly has failed us so badly is still not clear. Is it the lack of institutions, our political will or some unnamed ‘evil externals’ who just creepily wait to sabotage every meaningful step? Or away from all this focus on institutions and agencies, is it our inability to confront our own familiar world that has failed us?
Often used to delegitimise women’s claims to sexual harassment, silence is a ruse to attribute impunity on the victim and has served to lessen the severity of abuse. Women faced with the prospect of filing a complaint constantly doubt the truth claims of their own story and endlessly interrogate themselves. We raise the question of silence not to talk about culpability or complicity – two preferred catch phrases used to elide sexual harassment. We do it to raise the issue of predicaments and unease, discomfort and allegiance and questioning whispers that inhabit the world of familiarity.
We must make one difference clear. By asking to prise open the world of familiarity, we are not arguing for compulsorily making the ‘private’ public. Private and familiar are not synonymous. Familiar could include private, but extends much further beyond it to networks of friends and acquaintances, to institutions and dhabas, to house parties and living rooms. It obviously includes the sustained relationship between a supervisor and a supervisee.
By talking about familiarity, we also do not intend to flatten the obvious power differentials that constitute this space or intend to homogenise the differing nature of sexual harassment cases, depending upon the harassers’ social and institutional location. It is obvious that possibilities of consensual encounters, engagements and relationships also emerge from the same world of familiarity. We have to be therefore careful in delineating fine boundaries. Chances of harassment and consensus inhabit this world. What we wish to do here is to reflect on the contexts which possibly manufacture silence.
Silence manifests in many ways
One obvious form of silence is the collective silence denying the occurrence of an event of sexual harassment. Another form is when women are coerced into silencing their own experiences due to the fear of being shamed. The third could be the fear of ‘repercussions’, both in moral and material senses.
Collective silence operates in the world of familiarity. A more pernicious form of it manifests in situations of harassment and consequent silence when shared proximities tie the harasser and the victim. Friends, colleagues and academic mentors – the same ties of trust can also become the vehicle of harassment. While remaining sensitive to any breach that happens to this trust, crucial here is to remember, as the ongoing discussions have also shown, the role of power. We have been primarily dealing with a situation in which the power is abused. Power corrupts, but it also silences.
Why is this list so threatening? Would a list of Uber drivers enrage us so bitterly? Perhaps not. It has become so because it bores itself down, shredding away the world of familiarity. These are known names of someone’s friend, someone’s colleague and someone’s mentor. In such a scenario, we might need to ask certain unsettling questions about this familiar world.
Can the language of law and due process account for these social relationships that reflect a promise of equality peppered through the grains of inequality? Can we critically talk about this familiar world where women are confronted with the paradox of ‘so called’ male intellectual brilliance and equality, only to be mentored and tutored by them to become loyal subjects? Can we talk about this familiar world where the road to political education means the acceptance of an institutionalised mentorship in universities, political parties and even in informal exchanges, which are numerically and culturally male-dominated? Can we talk about this familiar world where intellectual acumen becomes an apologia for masking predatory behaviour? Can we talk about this familiar world where ideological, regional, caste, kinship networks, and privileges act as a smokescreen into creating a consensus about equality?
Chennai-based scholar V. Geetha, in her thoughtful Facebook post, has already given the call to rethink the structure of our institutional spaces formed around the notions and practices of adulation, conformity and mentorship:
Given the nature of intellectual mentorship in our context, or indeed in many parts of the world, where powerful men define the terms of scholarly engagement and demand either adulation or conformity. While this may seem unfair to those who are mindful of student concerns and questions and who do not draw on their intellectual authority to prey on their students’ minds or bodies, as the case may be, the fact remains that the temptation to do either is often great, and one may indulge in it with impunity.
Much of the novelty of the list initiative can be witnessed in the cascade of testimonies that have been publicly made by women, which opens up their familiar world in a way not done before in the recent past. A close reading of some of them demonstrates the diverse nature of social relationships, which reflect powerful men posturing as progressive well-wishers and mentors, only to breach the wall of trust and transform themselves into harassers. While we can endlessly debate the method of creating a list, the testimonies point to a world where trust, friendships, academic patronage and favouritism coalesce to manufacture silence about one’s own.
The power of the testimonies precisely lay in opening the realm of the familiar. It lay in exposing the inability to talk about a world where women are allegedly equal and yet were cornered into situations which no amount of feminist literature and due process of law had prepared them for. It is only ironic that while we have spent a lot of time talking about the all-pervasive capillaries of power, we have clearly not been able to whet our discussions with a closer analysis of our familiar world.
But what is this familiar world we are trying to construct?
As a former student of Delhi University, I (the following account in this section is based upon experiences and actions of Vidhya Raveendranathan alone) first came to know of a case of sexual harassment when there was a university-wide mobilisation of students outside the vice chancellor’s office, demanding action against an accused professor. We knew what we were fighting against and all we had to do was to organise and sloganeer against the administration. Swayed by a new-found freedom, I also led myself to believe that the right kind of people and the right mentorship would constitute the resources of hope that would help me navigate an unfamiliar space. I made the ideology and the group that shared the ideology a part of my familiar universe. I was more than willing to be politically educated, little realising that the same education and familiarity was also preparing me to remain silent.
Also read: Harassment, Silences and Indian Academia
My second encounter happened when a group of us filed a case against a teacher for passing a flippant comment about the campaign for equal women’s hostels that we were leading in St Stephens College. Again, we knew what we were fighting for. All we had to do was to file a complaint at the college complaints committee. Of course, the enthusiasm was short lived as we were told that the complaint did not adequately qualify as sexual harassment. Since I was quite young and still unsure about the taxonomies of permissible speech and conduct, I still held on to my optimism about the committees and its promises of justice.
In a third instance, I accompanied a student to file a complaint at the University Complaints Committee. I had thought the redressal to come easily as in my mind, the case was strong. Confronted with questions which were intended to establish her own complicity in the matter, we believed that if we created a pressure group outside the committees, we should be able to get justice for her. Fortunately, a case of sexual harassment was established and our belief in the committees was restored. What we really achieved in one case, however, paled in front of the countless cases filed, the lengthy deliberations and disappointments which women had to often go through.
Meanwhile, my political education happened in full swing in the form of study circles, meetings, disciplinary committees and street plays. I attended more and more protests about causes that were clearly not about me or my familiar world. Not belying the importance of broader solidarities, the protests, in a way, created a bridge between my world and the causes, the latter clearly belonged to the outside world for which I had to just take the metro or bus either to nearby state bhavans or police thanas and be part of the milling crowd. While this might seem like an unfair portrayal of the numerous protest marches that have happened over the years, what it unwittingly created is a false binary between ‘external causes’ and my uncritical familiar life. So much so that while I exported myself to issues in the outside world, I was hardly able to question the internal hierarchies within my own organisation, the logics of male mentorship underpinning it and the iron clad nexus between knowledge and authority.
Being part of an organisation gave me a political rhythm and a routine, a comfortable site and a shield, which I uncritically embraced. I kept searching for ways to my familiar world based on solidarity while tacitly accepting the logic of my own hierarchical political education. Reflecting back on those days, I wonder why I could be easily mobilised around certain kinds of issues and yet not have the courage to question the seductive power of the familiar world. Possibly, the fear of losing a shared world view and the perennial guilt of not being adequately radical might have blinded me to the looming contradictions of my own familiar world.
Where does this lead us to?
Entering into the zone of familiarity with the lens of self-reflection can be unsettling but can also hold possibilities of moving towards a new social order of post-patriarchy. It can help us to stop privileging intellectual and ideological superiority/purity on the basis of claims and labels, and make introspection the hallmark of our political lives. Probably, it applies on both genders with varying implications: men need to honestly think harder about their power and privilege and their abuse and misuse; women need to think about situations that coax them into silence, particularly those that are based on affinities, associations and familiarities. Vidhya’s first person account in this piece, in which she reflects on her early days of political education at a university campus, is not meant to reduce our reflections on gender issues to debates on political ideologies. Her account is a kind of public testimony which shows not her disenchantment with emancipatory politics but with the world that privileges loyalties, righteousness and definitive political visions. A world that promises to usher in transformation, yet leaves us tragically midway. We want to point to a symptom of this crisis that classifies us neatly into boxes of right, left, centre, yet does not equip us to handle the contradictions immanent to the process of being political or to the deafening silence of our political projects.
Sadly, the current debates around sexual harassment have been reduced to a simple binary between due process of law and hall of shame. It has not engaged with contexts that creates the possibilities of silences. This probably stems from the messianic nature of the name and shame list or, at least, the way it has been perceived, so much so that the whole discussion now rests on the personal credibility of individuals that have by default become representatives of ‘camps’. While this seems like a possible fallout of the method, we do feel that the list has generated a momentum which requires conversations and a broad-based dialogue that is not simply about camps and loyalties. We should not restrict this moment to simply asking questions regarding who has more right or authority to talk. Instead, we could possibly use this to unlearn the processes of how we construct our familiar political world and learn to identify inequality embedded in the promises of equality.
Vidhya Raveendranathan is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Goettingen. Nitin Sinha is a Senior Research Fellow at Leibniz-ZMO (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies), Berlin.