How the Feminist Conversation Around Sexual Harassment Has Evolved

Equality and freedom will always be horizons that structure our politics, but they will keep receding as new voices emerge, with new claims and new notions of freedom.  

What do we understand when we identify ourselves as feminist?

The Wire’s Histories of Feminisms project is an attempt to emphasise that there is no linear or one way of understanding and experiencing feminism. Through a series of articles, The Wire draws your attention to some of the different narratives and debates that, over the decades, have come to define feminism. For instance, we recall the first generation of feminists in Kerala, the first women lawyers who surmounted formidable challenges to claim their rightful place in the legal system. We shine a light on women authors who pushed the boundaries of feminism in literature, bring before you the perspectives and experiences of feminist Dalit and Muslim women. We talk about how protagonists of many radical movements and uprisings in public memory are usually male.

Side by side, we bring you important debates around 19th-century cultural nationalism and gender reform, the discussions around sexual violence, the law and the MeToo movement.


This is the second article in a two-part analysis of sexuality, violence and the law. Read the first article here.

At the end of 2017, in the wake of the #MeToo moment in the US, a list of professors, alleged sexual harassers in Indian universities, was circulated. It was collated by two Indian women living in the US. They claimed these names had been sent to them by a large number of other women, but provided no explanation or context of the harassment. It included the names of

  • at least two men already found guilty of sexual harassment through university committees set up under the Vishakha Guidelines,
  • some men known to have had consensual affairs with their students (although the women involved made it clear that it was not they who had put the names of their former lovers on the List) and
  • a large number of other names.

All these names were simply listed, with the information provided above not mentioned, so that convicted men; men in inappropriate but not illegal consensual relationships; and other men who were supposed to be sexually predatory professors for unspecified behavior, were all on the same plane. It was also relevant in hindsight that all of them but one were upper-caste men. The one non-upper caste man on the List had died a year ago.

Hundreds of feminists in Indian universities have conducted militant political struggles for years, with varying degrees of success, to put in place procedures according to the Supreme Court’s Vishakha Guidelines, to deal with rampant sexual harassment on campuses between students as well as by teachers of students. The circulation of such a List with no accountability, information or context seemed to endanger the gains of decades of feminist politics that have succeeded in naming and defining what constitutes sexual harassment, and in building a climate in which students can speak up without fear.

Especially in a context in which university committees set up under the Vishakha Guidelines were being closed down under pretext of compliance with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (2013), we felt that the issuing of a mere list of names with no context, only strengthened the opposition to feminist politics. Some of us issued a brief statement raising these points and appealing to those who had circulated the List to withdraw it and work towards justice using ‘due process,’ in which we said the larger feminist community would back them.

This is an old tradition in Indian democratic politics, to conduct debates publicly through statements. For instance, some of the signatories to that statement had been on opposite sides of an earlier debate on the screening of India’s Daughter, a documentary on the 2012 gang rape. Vrinda Grover and others had asked NDTV not to show it for reasons of prejudice to the ongoing case, while Shohini Ghosh and myself among others, had publicly criticised this as feminist censorship. There was no personal animosity – we disagreed, we debated, and continued to work together. The statement, therefore, was not senior academics addressing young students, but one feminist voice addressing another.

The storm of recrimination that erupted on social media was unprecedented. Vicious personal attacks were made on the signatories to the statement alluding to their caste identity (12 are Savarna Hindus, one Muslim and one Christian), as the primary initiator of the List, Raya Sarkar, initially claimed to be Dalit, which the statement signatories were unaware of when they issued the statement.

The statement was made out to be Savarna women protecting ‘their’ Savarna men. Now, the two Savarna men on the List who had already been punished through due process, Bidyut Chakrabarty and B.N. Ray, had in fact been brought to justice by campaigns which some of the signatories to the statement had doggedly spearheaded at great personal cost. This was not made public because of an older feminist tradition of collective functioning. The current culture however, appears to be about demanding individual credit.

In an interview after India’s #MeToo exploded, Raya Sarkar is quoted as saying, “But I don’t mind how the [MeToo] movement is framed as long as it acknowledges my labour.” Sarkar acknowledges Bhanwari Devi in this interview, as we should. But there was a collective process by which Bhanwari Devi’s courage translated into the Vishakha Guidelines. A large number of feminist individuals, some of them lawyers, NGOs and political groups worked together with Bhanwari Devi to develop the intervention in the Supreme Court. They remain nameless. Because feminist politics has been about collective functioning, collective credit and collective blame taking.

Also read: Discovering the First Generation of Feminists in Kerala

Since Sarkar’s supposed Dalit identity became the key point of attack on the statement, it is important to note that gradually she publicly distanced herself from claiming to be Dalit, raising serious ethical questions which we shall let pass for now. Had this claim not been made, would the issue of sexual harassment and male privilege been foregrounded, rather than the caste identity of some feminists? After all, it was never claimed that the women who named men for the List were Dalit. Nor was there any disagreement between the List and the statement on the prevalence of sexual harassment; the disagreement was on how it should be dealt with.

Soon, a second List emerged, issued by Dalit-Bahujan students, which named mostly Dalit-Bahujan men, but this List received no attention. It became clear that the issue of rampant sexual harassment in the academy had been displaced by the equally real issue of Savarna privilege, except that the targets of attack were supposedly “powerful” feminists, not sexually predatory men or Savarna male elite.

Interestingly, the first List contained no names of right-wing professors (one was named in the second List), and almost all the universities named had been at the centre of dissent against the Hindu Right. As the feminists who had signed the statement were known for their public opposition to the Hindu Right, another front of attack rapidly opened up – Hindu right-wing Dalit activists, using their Dalit identity to attack them as anti-Hindu and anti-Dalit.

Problems with the List

There were some other troubling points about the politics of the List:

It individualised the occurrence of sexual harassment rather than seeing it as a structural problem which can be tackled only collectively.

It romanticised a politics of ‘rumour and gossip’ networks among women, over a feminist politics of women standing up to and facing down sexually harassing men. Even with the teacher-student power imbalance, it should have been possible anonymously to specify the behavior. Among the post facto justifications produced by the originators of the List was that this would identify the complainant to the harasser, and thus they justified a culture of victimised silence.

This was accompanied by the call to Believe all Women, which can never be a feminist position. Recognising the other power differentials that constitute the category “women”, how can we assume that women have no other solidarities than gender? Every claim made by a “woman”, even for equal rights, is not necessarily “feminist”. (For instance, #WomenAreNotUntouchable in the Sabarimala context is about upper caste privilege, not feminism; although there were anti-caste feminist assertions too, around temple entry.)

It had a strong streak of sexual conservatism, displayed in the equation of consensual relationships with sexual harassment. While most feminists agree that romantic liaisons between professors and continuing students creates a hostile work environment for other students, and should therefore be discouraged as a matter of policy, these cannot be treated as harassment in any simple sense.  

One young critic of the List felt that its politics reduced feminist consciousness to trauma and sexual violation, thus creating a consensus that “the female body is always, already under threat”, in a discourse similar to the oppressive one it claimed to be fighting.

The List assumed what feminist politics has worked actively to produce – an understanding that certain kinds of behavior constitute sexual harassment – by not explaining the behavior that put the names of those men on the List. When Partha Chatterjee asked in a public statement what the allegation against him was, the two initiators of the List responded on social media, passing the buck to each other, saying they were not sure of details, but claiming they had ‘raw data’ on record. However, nothing was produced and soon they, along with others, challenged him to think of his own behaviour over the years to figure out what could have offended women students. Surely as feminists it is our responsibility to specify the many kinds of behavior that have been considered normal, but are offensive and must be transformed?

Where to go next

The politics of the List was, overall, one of abdicating responsibility, although it named a real issue. This is why it is incorrect to say that the List kick-started India’s #MeToo. In fact, the #MeToo movement in India learnt from the mistakes of the List, and marks a break with its politics. It draws its genealogy from the #MeToo movement in the US, as the claims, anonymous or otherwise, gave context and spelt out the violation. This enabled it to garner widespread support that went beyond the larger feminist community. Of course #MeToo also has resonances with the militant feminist campaigns around sexual violence and sexual harassment since the 1980s in India, including protests on the streets, in classrooms, seminar rooms.

Nevertheless new and troubling questions have emerged. Has “sexual harassment” become the label for the all-pervasive patriarchy and misogyny we face? Is all of that behaviour really ‘punishable’ or does it need to be made visible and transformed? Are bad/exploitative relationships, or consensual sex which ends up being about male pleasure alone, sexual harassment?

Also read: The Indian Women Who Fought Their Way Into the Legal Profession

Here it is important to note the strong Dalit feminist critique by Asha Kowtal of “the toxic and unethical nature of online campaigns, which often don’t have a system in place to support survivors.” This is a serious problem with exclusively social media “activism”, with no roots or grounded link to movements. Of course a lot of democratic movements creatively use social media, so my own critique is of activism that remains only on social media, in which the instant opinion of any privileged twitter user has the same weight as someone who works on the ground.

Kowtal, Cynthia Stephen and others have pointed out that while women from Dalit and other marginalised voices face systematic harassment, their voices do not reach the public domain. Nevertheless, Kowtal asserts that a separate Dalit feminism is now “redundant”, and that we should all work towards an Ambedkarite feminist standpoint as the core of a transformative politics. In her vision, “centring the voices of Dalit women and other oppressed communities by establishing genuine camaraderie to combat Brahmanical class based hetero-patriarchy” is the way forward.

I join her in asking, is it possible to have multiple feminist conversations along the axes of class, caste, community and sexual/gender identity, not through mutual recrimination and accusations, but with mutual trust and in the hope of building solidarity? Just as oppression is not necessarily a permanent status, nor is privilege. Otherwise we would be saying that all politics is determined permanently by birth. We would also be denying the way in which different privileges and oppressions undercut one another – surely transformative politics is what destabilises both oppression and privilege? Is it this destabilisation, perhaps, that constitutes freedom?

Finally, what after the testimony? Once a man has been exposed as a sexual harasser, what sort of justice can we work towards? Is a current employer responsible for punishing behavior from a time when the harasser was not in their employ? What other strategies can we think of in such cases? Is justice only punitive, is it possible only through institutional means? Does the very exposure of these behaviours in the public domain help produce a new feminist normal? This is the point where we begin to think of restorative justice.

It is perhaps necessary to clarify here that ‘due process’ as the signatories to the statement used it, never meant law alone. A feminist practice of justice has been ready to play off eclectically, various systems of regulation against one another depending on the situation – laws against rules, rules against laws, judicial orders against government – and, when necessary, as a community, making public the violation with responsibility. All of this within the context of live feminist movements; demonstrations, protests, media campaigns – due process is all of this.

Recently, 1,500 women students of Jawaharlal Nehru University wrote to the president of India asking for the restoration of the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment. They underlined that one of the ways in which GSCASH had managed to ensure a relatively safe space was by enabling conversations surrounding such issues in the campus. This was the way Vishakha guidelines were interpreted in universities by feminist struggles, as not merely punitive but transformative.

The silence around sexuality, violence and desire was broken almost four decades ago by feminists in India. Gradually the other silences masked by that speech began to open up, and we must recognise that there is no moment of pure ‘speaking up’ that liberates absolutely. As speech proliferates, there will be more arguments, more conversations. Equality and freedom will always be horizons that structure our politics, but they will keep receding as new voices emerge, with new claims and new notions of freedom.  

Nivedita Menon is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.