Try as one may, there is just no escape from the discussions around sexual harassment and abuse that have surrounded our news feeds since late September, following the expose on the Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein. The sordid tale of his abuse of power, privilege and position and objectification of women in the film and media industry triggered a worldwide campaign on sexual harassment and abuse. Most women on social media participated in the #MeToo campaign which showed us the enormity of sexual harassment and abuse that women are subject to. Almost every woman on Facebook or Twitter has had a brush with some form of harassment or abuse. This campaign very aptly led the discussion of abuse into the various industries and professions that one has hitherto not confronted. And of course, the discussion veered into the biggest elephant into the room – academia.
The discourse and discussion of sexual abuse and harassment into academia started with a deeply personal and explosive essay revealing some of the biggest secrets of academia. Prof. C. Christine Fair, an Associate Professor at Geaorgetown University, published her essay, ‘#HimToo: A Reckoning’ at Huffington Post in which she named her aggressors and perpetrators. These names included not only fellow students but also high-profile academics such as the famed South Asianist, Dipesh Chakravarty. As the essay started getting traction, not just for being an essay on sexual harassment, but taking on toxic masculinity and the unspoken malaise of rampant harassment in academic spaces, Huffington Post took the article down without offering any substantial reason. This of course triggered widespread condemnation and Prof. Fair republished the essay on her personal blog. This censorship by a liberal news media outlet became the cornerstone for the conversation to turn inwards. As a response, a legal activist, Raya Sarkar, crowdsourced a list inviting students and women researchers to send her names of their alleged harassers and abusers along with evidence over Facebook. This is now known as ‘The List’ which has shaken up the hallowed portals of the academy and rattled students and scholars alike. This list on Raya Sarkar’s profile page was replicated simultaneously into a Google Spreadsheet which contains more details about the harasser and the alleged harassments and abuse. (At the time of writing this piece, the list had name of 60 prominent academics on Sarkar’s profile and 75 names on the Spreadsheet).
For me, as a young woman researcher in the academic space, I cannot outright adjudicate about the method – what is right and what is wrong. The last three days has seen the whole of academia being completely divided over this issue and opinion pieces being published on many news fora. There was also the highly contentious statement taken out by some well-known feminists in Kafila which among other concerns also asked this list to be taken down and ‘due processes’ to be followed. I find this statement hugely problematic for many reasons, the most important being –
- One of the accused on the list is a long-standing member of the Kafila board. There is a definite conflict-of-interest when a statement against this list by prominent feminists and activists are published on such a platform without even one word of caution against the person named.
- Secondly, the mantle of ‘feminists’. This statement titled as ‘Feminists respond’ is contentious because feminism cannot be appropriated as a homogeneous label by a few people in positions of power and posit to speak on the behalf of all other feminists.
It has not been easy for most to come to terms with the politics and the implications of this list and I am no different in this regard. There has been much exchange of views, heated discussions shared over public and private platforms and conversations, anxieties exchanged, tales of abuse being shared and what not. There have been much knee-jerk reactions to the list when it was initially published. Most of my peers, colleagues etc were shocked at the circulation of such a list. Thereby, we resorted to using terms such as ‘mob justice’, ‘lynch mobs’, ‘vigilante justice’ rather loosely. However, two days of engagement over the ‘idea’ of the list and what its symbolic meaning is with many in the academic space who identify as cis-het women, as queer individuals, it does appear to be not so easy to dismiss the list as a form of vigilante justice. If anything, this list has been the outcome of accumulation of harassment, anger, frustration which have not been redressed through institutional procedures. Processing the idea and circulation of the list has not been easy for anyone who is a young student or a research scholar. This is where I think, the intervention should be in unpacking the loaded terms of ‘shame’ and ‘justice’.
It appears that the whole dilemma about a list as such lies in the mediation of the abuse and how to seek justice. What has been happening in academia is not new. Almost all of us have heard Chinese whispers regarding top male academics in our time in the academy. This often operates much as the informal bazaar, where rumours abound, with or without legitimacy. Only and only because, often, there has never been any tangible action taken against the harassers which can be spoken about or referred to. From personal experience, most often, my encounter with these rumours have been through ‘progressive Leftists’ who would often laugh away predatory behaviour with a laughter – ‘oh he is like that only. He is a tharki only’, whereby the usage of terms such as ‘tharki’ only means the normalisation of predatory behaviour. This is what we have been conditioned to. And this very shrugging off predatory behaviour is nothing but ‘gaslighting’.
Now, with the list of predators in academia becoming public knowledge and the list growing by numbers, I find myself unable to articulate a ‘correct’ position over this. And this conundrum is precisely over the idea of justice. What is the justice that those at the receiving end of abuse and predatory behaviour are seeking? Of course, an acceptance of the abuse and punitive measures against the perpetrator. But, this is the ideal scenario. It is beyond me as an individual to deny the victims their voices of redressal. If even one victim feels empowered by this list and feels that making the world aware of their perpetrator gives them a sense of justice, I will never question the method. The reason I say this is because no matter how much we may harp on institutional methods, it ultimately is the privilege of a few. We cannot remain purposely blind to the methods of institutional mechanisms dispensing gender justice. It is ultimately not fool-proof. It’s indeed true that some institutions have a better track record than others in dispensing gender justice. But this is where relativism is now in operation. Ultimately in a mechanism where colleagues will be hearing cases of harassment or abuse against the word of a student, how much of justice can a student aspire for? We have seen over the last few years the umpteenth struggles of students in places such as Jadavpur University and SRFTI where they have waged protracted battles seeking redressal for harassment. Those students went for ‘due procedures’, there was no social media trial. What has the outcome been? The fight is still on and at stake are the students research and degrees. Let us not forget the brutal lathi charge on protesting girl students at the Banaras Hindu University a few weeks back. What was the cause for this attack? We all know where the institutional mechanisms have worked and where it has not. Let us not keep the ‘success rate’ of one or two institutions as the average success rate of dispensing gender justice in other universities or colleges. There are some major names on the list being circulated. How are we so sure that no one of the victims approached the institutions for remedies? How can we dismiss the suggestion that perhaps this list was their last resort?
Even when institutional remedies like GSCASH or ICC are sought and perhaps they do find the accused guilty, what is the larger outcome of such a procedure? How many, even within the same university, and especially in cases of larger ones, become aware of the charges and subsequent convictions of any harasser up there on the hierarchy? Where is the ‘shame’ that has become the crux around this discussion centered around? Is that professor ever shamed into a ruined career? Are there any statistics to say so? It generally works the other way. One important point that Fair’s article raised was the economic cost of pursuing cases and harassment. Even when institutional remedies are sought, and if given, it comes at a great expense to the victim/survivor. Their studies and research are hugely compromised. Work time is often spent on fighting the case, the various modalities that come associated with it. This is addition to the huge toll that fighting cases take on the survivor in terms of their mental and physical health. The trauma is doubled, for not only they are fighting a tough battle with their perpetrator, but also trying to keep themselves simply alive. These are times when other interpersonal relationships too are affected. Not everyone, even today, understands trauma and the cost of trauma. Many a times, a victim/survivor may often drop out of their research or move institutions. Despite these factors, even if a ruling is in favour of the victim, how much is the abuser/harasser actually affected in their professional lives? So, my moot question is how much of justice is provided by institutional remedies? What are we speaking of when we speak of justice?
Isn’t this what the #MeToo campaign just a few days back was all about? About survivors tearing apart that concept of shame and talking about their assault and abuse on social media? Didn’t this give us all a sense of solidarity in our shared experience of abuse and harassment? Survivors do not owe anyone their tales. Such an exposure was long in the offering because of the anger and frustration built up over years. This expose is much more effective than even a journalistic piece for here there is not one or two male predators, but a gamut of them.
‘The List’ has divided academia and binaries are being created among feminists and academics. As a young woman in academia, I am overwhelmed by the list, by the number of names implicated. This however, is a great moment of transformation and as Mary E John writes on a Facebook post, “Certainly I felt some unease when faced with a list with no facts to go by. But then I asked myself, what if there had been more description of each and every case, what then? Indeed, would this not have been even more disturbing? Moreover, should we not assume that those facts are there, which indeed is how we have been approaching so many cases that have come our way? Or are we actually looking at the list in disbelief?” we too must be looking at this method with criticality rather than outright condemnation.
My only hope is that the list does not remain a list, but goes on further to secure some form of justice. It would be great to see older feminist activists, the ones we look up to, come forward and offer assistance to the victims and assure them of support. So that they can shed their anonymity and take on their perpetrators. It would be the logical conclusion to see those who keep talking of institutional redressal, actually offer some redressal to the victims by assuring that their institutions will seriously probe all complains. Unless, these are assured, this will remain another FB viral sensation to be forgotten within 3 months and I sincerely hope that this does not happen.
This is a radical moment for all of us. This is where affect is mixing with the praxis of politics, theory and activism. The moment must not be lost. This affect, this rage is what needs to be tapped into in transforming our spaces into safe spaces, into not sheltering any harasser anymore no matter what power position they may occupy. This is not the time to be dismissing the praxis of the list, rather examine the reasons why the list came about in the very first place. It’s the time to introspect and understand our own complicities in our silences and how it has assisted in perpetrating toxic masculinities.