Smear Campaign Against Kashmiri Women Saying #MeToo An Attempt to Force Them Into Silence

Labelling of women who don’t tow the patriarchal line as promiscuous and pro-state is intended to intimidate complainants, their advocates and women who are yet to come forward.

On October 9, the Kashmir Women’s Collective (KWC) released a Google document on Twitter naming multiple men in Kashmir – from political analysts, media personalities, editors, journalists and bureaucrats, to political workers – of sexually inappropriate behaviour. The list included allegations of forced kissing, repeated and systematic harassment, molestation, inappropriate touching, messaging and sustained requests to meet in private. In all circumstances, the accused men targeted women junior to them in age, employment status and social power.

When the global #MeToo movement began, KWC highlighted the physical and psychosocial aspects of sexual harassment of women in Kashmir through a series of workshops on gender sensitisation. When the Indian #MeToo storm hit newsrooms, KWC was deluged with calls and emails from women who had experienced sexual harassment at the hands of prominent public figures, relatives or neighbours. Feeling empowered by being believed in a supportive space, and not being alone, women entrusted KWC with the information they had kept secret, often for years, to release their stories and break their collectively enforced silence.

KWC’s release of the ‘Kashmir List’ was intended to pressurise the named individuals on the list, “and others into behaving more responsibly”. It also intended to raise awareness of the number of conversations and experiences men corner women into “with absolute disregard to the girl’s discomfort, silence or disinterest”. This public act was an attempt to overturn the long existing fear of reprisals and backlash that has suppressed women into silence. The intended consequence of ‘The Kashmir List’ was that serial harassers would be called out and made to realise that they no longer have the protection of anonymity, and would encourage a greater sense of self-reflection, thereby resetting social norms.

Attempts to discredit ‘The List’

Since issuing the list, KWC members have been individually and collectively vilified by a smear campaign, insidiously circulated by the friends of those named. Members of the KWC have been labelled as pro-statist, and by extension anti-Kashmiri, and as members of RAW. Such an attack ‘others’ these women from a locally powerful and emotive discourse and renders them vulnerable to violence in a politically volatile environment.

Younger members of the collective are being portrayed as sexually promiscuous with un-substantiated accusations they have used their sexual agency to progress in their professions or student life. Such attacks are deliberately intended to dishonour and damage their reputations, jeopardise their marriage prospects, and affect their careers.

Also read: Why Do Men’s Rights Groups Feel the Need to Defame Women Saying #MeToo?

Attempts to discredit other members’ right to execute work around sexual harassment because of their familial affiliations have also been made. Subsuming women’s identities under those of their male relatives will not work. This is a vain effort to reassert patriarchal gender norms and to intimidate women into silence. It is an aggressive act which fails to recognise women’s commitment to the pursuit of women’s equality in standing against violence against women. Kashmiri women have an identity, a set of opinions, lived experiences and agency to act outside of their patrilineal identity.

KWC has always asserted that women in Kashmir have been suffering for decades because of patriarchy, militarisation, systematic violence and denial of rights. #MeToo is aiming to reset social realities. The tactic of painting women who don’t tow the patriarchal line as promiscuous, and pro-state is intended to silence and intimidate complainants, their advocates and women who are yet to come forward. Attacking members of the KWC is a repetition of the most underhand and historically overused method – attacking the messenger, so no one listens to the message.

Proactive response

Despite these attempts to discredit the list, society and employers are proactively responding. Firstpost has reportedly suspended the services of two Kashmir-based journalists whose names are on the list until enquiries into the complaints are complete. This mirrors national events where employers and high-profile individuals, notably significant men, are actively participating in the movement by refusing to work with those accused of harassment. Akshay Kumar has given his name to the campaign and publicly requested the producers of Houseful 4 to cancel filming until an investigation has been conducted. Sajid Khan has now stepped down from directing the film due to public pressure.

Also read: Multiple Harrowing #MeToo Accounts Emerge Against Sajid Khan, Kailash Kher

Within Kashmir, men are also publicly supporting the list and women’s efforts to right historical wrongs. These voices recognise the social importance of standing up against discrimination and violence – whatever its source – and that the fight against oppression and violence should not solely rest on the shoulders of those who have already experienced its trauma.

Since releasing the first list, the KWC has been contacted by more and more young women and the second list will be released shortly. For many of the complainants, accessing existing judicial remedies is not an option. In addition to the low conviction rates, accessing judicial remedies is often time-consuming, costly and due to the adversarial nature of the court process, is degrading for many women. Further, the current judicial system is not created to respond to the wide spectrum of gender-based violence women routinely experience.

Challenges ahead

The challenges ahead for women to be able to access gender-sensitive justice are many. Moving to an investigative system would shift the court’s process from attempting to discredit a complaint and the credibility of the complainant as it exists in the adversarial system, and shift the burden to a process of specialised analysis led by judges. The court’s process would, therefore, be rooted in an impartial and balanced investigation based on fact-finding. Moving to such a system would, however, involve the overhaul of the judicial system.

Debunking rape myths and socially ingrained gender-stereotypes of assumed ‘appropriate’ behaviour is desperately needed. Such training should prevent judge’s expectations of how women should behave in cases involving sexual assault and harassment from influencing how they determine responsibility and guilt. For it to be effective, such training would also need monitoring of its implementation and redressal mechanisms to respond to instances where stereotypes and myths continue to be relied on in reaching their judgments. Such a process will take years of comprehensive training and institutional commitment to be effective.

Fast-tracking cases involving gender-based violence will enable complainants to file cases without the fear of having to then endure court cases that often take years to complete, especially if cases are appealed. As it stands, adjourning court cases, especially when the complainant is already in the court for the trial, is an often utilised defence strategy.

Adjourning cases forces complainants to psychologically prepare themselves to re-live their experiences and report them to a court full of people unknown to them. To then be told the case will not be heard on that day but has been adjourned for a future, often as yet unspecified, date is psychologically exhausting. It prevents complainants from being able to gain closure and often results in complainants dropping their cases or turning hostile. Such acts are detrimental to the state’s interest to pursue justice.

Whilst fast-tracking cases would help the limit the damaging psychological impact of court delays given the currently overburdened court system and the limitations to effectively fast-track cases, such as the absence of sufficient forensic labs to DNA test samples for cases of sexual violence significant change in the near future is unlikely.

With so many obstacles for women to access justice within the existing judicial system, as well as its limitations to respond to the full spectrum of violence, a broader solution is required. It should no longer be acceptable to expect individuals to file cases and seek redress, this only places additional burdens on already victimised individuals. We must move forward. As Indira Jaising has already argued employment and educational institutions must assume the responsibility of ensuring they manage safe establishments for all. Awareness of how small acts of intimidation and discrimination, if not addressed, create an environment that enables discrimination to flourish, must become our social aim.

Men who are attacking complainants in the hope they will be intimidated back into silence are clinging on to the last bastions of patriarchy. Their time is up. Men who are using their voice to stand with those who are harassed and victimised, saying #IWill, are the allies that exist and who need to be better supported. We all need to call out harassment, inequality and violence, this is our fight and we will win.

The Kashmir Women’s Collective was founded in 2017 by Kashmiri women, lawyers, bureaucrats, activists, authors, doctors, bankers and media-persons who came together to support fellow Kashmiri women suffering from lack of public representation, access to advice, advocacy, and financial aid at times of extreme distress. Domestic violence, sexual harassment and human trafficking have formed the bulk of the cases KWC handles.

Severyna Magill teaches Human Rights Law and Feminist Thought at Jindal Global Law School.