The year 2017 has been a tumultuous one for feminism and feminists in India. The year saw a lot of women in media (and elsewhere) facing and overcoming state-sanctioned prudishness, internet trolls, and the seedy underbelly of feminism in India that seeks to control any discourse around women’s issues – academic or otherwise. This article seeks to provide an overview of the watershed moments of the year in terms of their impact on the feminist discourse.
At home, Alankrita Srivastava fought to get her movie on female sexual desires screened despite facing hassles byCentral Board of Film Certification (CBFC), even as journalist Faye D’Souza shut down a Maulana who asked her to show up at her workplace in her underwear while she was parenthetically moderating a panel on trolling of female celebrities. Similarly, Dangal actress Fatima Sana Shaikh was castigated online for uploading a photo in swimwear during Ramadan and actress Priyanka Chopra was trolled for showing off her legs in front of the prime minister.
This tirade of abuse was not limited to actresses but also extended to sportspersons like Mithali Raj, the captain of the Indian Women’s Cricket Team who was slut shamed for wearing inappropriate clothes. While none of these women took this shaming lying down and gave befitting replies to trollers, people like Kangana Ranaut went a step further and made a parody video to call out the rampant sexism and misogyny in Hindi film industry.
Abroad, the Harvey Weinstein scandal in Hollywood saw social networking sites flooded with #MeToos, as women increasingly came out and recollected traumatic incidents of being sexually harassed. The campaign started by Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano on Twitter was a clarion call of sorts to victims/survivors of sexual harassment and aimed to give people a sense of the magnitude of problem of violence against women. #MeToo brought together 1.7 million voices from 85 countries and the trend continues to grow.
However, alongside praise came critique of cultural appropriation. The original campaign was started nearly a decade ago by Tarana Burke, a black activist as a grassroot movement to to provide “empowerment through empathy” to survivors of sexual abuse, assault, exploitation, and harassment in underprivileged communities who typically don’t have access to rape crisis centres or counsellors. While Burke isn’t upset to see people taking her idea, commentators argued that conversations surrounding sexual harassment of women in wake of the Weinstein allegations have largely centred around stories shared by famous white women.
When the movement started picking up in India, there was a similar critique which stated that the movement left out women living in rural as well as urban areas who did not live digitally mediated lives. Other critique put forth that such movements excluded the LGBTIQ community, arguing that limiting the action call to “women” implied leaving out trans, male, and non-binary survivors of sexual harassment. Mental health concerns were raised, wherein the performative nature of campaign was said to be triggering (and potentially harmful) for the victims of sexual violence.
In the midst of this social media storm, Raya Sarkar, a 24-year-old law student from the University of California at Davis came up with a purportedly crowdsourced list of as many as 58 academics from top institutions as sexual harassers in her Facebook post on October 24. This post was followed by a statement issued by veteran Indian feminists such as Nivedita Menon, Kavita Krishnan, Vrinda Grover on Kafila who asked for the withdrawal of this initiative. They urged victims to make use of the grievance redressal mechanisms available in their institutions and to abide by the principles of natural justice.
After Raya Sarkar’s list came out, there was yet another list under the name of Malati Kumari, an account that claimed to have been created by survivors of sexual harassment in academia and activist-circles. The survivors involved in the creation of the post chose to remain anonymous and insisted on protecting their identity. Similar to Sarkar’s list, this second list carried names of several social activists and academics accusing them of sexual harassment. These survivors purportedly included students from Dalit-Bahujan background and others from small towns/villages/marginalised communities studying in prestigious universities.
Unlike the first list by Raya Sarkar, the second list fizzled out without creating much uproar. However, both these lists were critical in starting a new discourse of sexual harassment in academia. Feminist author V Geetha articulates the power dynamics in academia beautifully by saying,
“Would it not be more useful to ask questions of the nature of intellectual life in universities, on mentorship, and what young people experience, when they confront dazzling scholarship combined with questionable ethics, brilliant minds that are insensitive to the lived realities of class, caste and gender, and intellectual acumen that is not always capable of self-reflection? Also, given that intellectual guidance can instil in those who guide, a sense of limitless power and entitlement which then translates into control and possession, how might students hold such authority to account?”.
While the battle in public discourse raged on, another set of battles were being waged inside the courtroom which were to pose significant future influence on the discourse around the rights of women. The Delhi high court in the Mahmood Farooqi Judgement, reaffirmed the old stereotype of “ladki ki na mein bhi haan hoti hai”, while acquitting a person charged with rape. The court made some impertinent observations including that a feeble “no” may mean a “yes”.
The Supreme Court in Shayara Bano case came to the rescue of Muslim women when it emphatically struck down the practise of triple talaq (instant divorce under Sunni Islamic jurisprudence) as being oppressive and discriminatory towards women. This judgment has now been followed by a triple talaq Bill which seeks to punish men who attempt to use this method which was just passed by the Lok Sabha. The passing of the Bill has drawn reactions both for and against, with a key counter-argument contending that it could have been covered under Section 498 A of Indian Penal Code (IPC) that punishes cruelty towards wife. Such criticism, however, seems shortsighted as the proposed Bill also covers custody of child and maintenance which would limit multiple proceedings being undertaken by the affected woman.
Another landmark judgement came in the form of striking down the exception in the rape law regarding age of consent for women, wherein intercourse with a girl above 15 was not considered rape if the girl was married to the perpetrator. The Supreme Court in the case of Independent Thought has decided to read down the exception in the definition of rape in the IPC with the provisions of POCSO Act. The exception provided in the IPC stated that if a girl above 15 is married then sexual intercourse with her by her husband will not amount to rape has been read down in light of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act) act which categorically states that age of consent is 18 years and any sexual contact with a person lower that 18 is an offence.
2017 has seen ideas of body autonomy, consent, and safe spaces take centre stage not only in the courtrooms and news channels but also our own drawing rooms. Many legal precedents were set that move towards recognising women’s rights and their autonomy, that ignited novel discourses. The constant engagement of the general public (and particularly women) with these issues shifts may have sparked the realisation that the battle against archaic mindsets needn’t be solely confined to courtrooms.
We also saw feminism and various facets of it enter into public discourse and take over social media, with new faces emerging, who challenged the old guard of feminist ideology. Not only did the word ‘Feminism’ become Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s word of the year, but movements like #MeToo saw increasing participation from women in the feminist movement from different walks of life who had faced sexual harassment. This decentralisation of feminist ideas coupled with the desire of the public to take ownership of them bodes well for the future of feminism in India.
Only time will tell what 2018 holds, but it is certain that the people of the country will no longer be mute spectators. The feminist discourse has evolved and now incorporates not only the idea of #MeToo but #HerToo as well.
Sumati Thusoo is Research Author at the Department of Sociology at Monk Prayogshala and Consultant (Research) at the Centre for Police Studies and Public Security (CPSPS) at Tata Institute of Social Sciences.