A debate not a division

November 5, 2017

What followed after some feminists in India put together a list that named and shamed harassers in academia

A debate not a division

Christine Fair’s powerful list exposing all the men who ever harassed and abused her is not the first time that a woman is making her trauma public. But it has generated an unprecedented domino effect, particularly in academic spaces.

Open any mainstream publication. Stories are piling up; harassment accusations, investigations on sexual misconducts, influential men stepping down from their influential positions. Fingers being pointed and denials issued. Some would say this is a historical moment, a Pandora’s Box (one that was always open, mind you) -- has finally been placed outside the curtains of secrecy and whispers that were hiding it. And with one box flying open, others have followed suit.

It has been messy. Closer to home, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy fell under social media fire for publicly accusing a doctor who allegedly harassed her sister. People’s fury and outrage aside, the doctor was fired for misconduct. In India, dalit feminist Raya Sarkar put together a List that named and shamed men in academia, and encouraged others to add to the list.

Stories are piling up; harassment accusations, investigations on sexual misconducts, influential men stepping down from their influential positions. Some would say this is a historical moment.

Not all signed on with blind support. Associate Professor of Sociology at Lahore University of Management Sciences, Nida Kirmani, initially felt uncomfortable when she saw it, "I worried that this was a ‘sloppy’ way of doing feminist politics." For Sarkar’s list did not detail the nature of accusations, nor the source of information.

Kirmani was concerned both for the survivor’s safety and for the rights of the accused. Unlike the Christine Fair case, Sarkar’s list had no way of ascertaining where the blame was coming from. There was incredible room for misuse and error.

This was among the main critiques on social media, aside from the question of what a list like Sarkar’s -- anonymous and without any set methodology -- hoped to achieve. A group of Indian feminists descended with this critique -- in a sternly-worded joint statement on Kafila, they urged Sarkar and supporters to withdraw the list, to rethink their strategies, and to take their accusers to task from within the existing systems.

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Zoya Rehman, legal researcher and feminist, was disappointed by the Kafila statement and was especially surprised to find Nivedita Menon’s name among its signatories. Rehman has been a fan of Menon’s work and given that Menon often criticises over-reliance on legal frameworks, she was baffled to see her defending "institutions and procedures" for "genuine complaints," instead of acknowledging that Sarkar’s list was a consequence of the very inefficacy of institutional mechanisms.

For Rehman, the List was a way of affirming survivors, of saying that we believe their stories and so should you.

For Zahra Malkani, an artist based in Karachi, it was inspiring, brave, beautiful, creative, and vindicating. "It is feminist archiving," she says. "We name and shame our harassers with each other in private all the time. I love gossip and rumour as feminist praxis. It has probably saved more lives than due process ever did."

And this was the point Sarkar’s supporters were repeatedly making: we have known procedures to fail us. Those of us who have had the courage to take our abusers to task -- through set processes -- have come out of the experience with greater trauma, hurt, and backlash.

"Think about how taxing it is to articulate and come forward with one’s personal experience," says Rehman. "How many times have we heard cries of "false cases" of harassment, while knowing full well how widespread the problem of sexual harassment actually is?"

For the statement to then chastise young feminists who are (rightly) disillusioned with the system, says Rehman, shows the older feminists’ intolerance towards any kind of feminist activism that deviates from their own.

But for others, the Kafila statement came as a relief. "Resorting to anonymous lists will get us nowhere," says Kirmani. "Rather this kind of naming and shaming could easily backfire (as it did in Sharmeen Obaid’s case) and feed into the notion that feminists are over-sensitive and lax in their accusations of harassment."

Kirmani says it is extremely unfair for younger feminists to dismiss her [Menon] and others as ‘savarna feminists’. Her worry: the list will undo hard-fought gains feminists have won over the last 40 years or more of struggle against sexual harassment in India, or that the women’s movement as a whole would lose credibility because of this rather haphazard and sloppy method of doing politics.

Along those lines, Kirmani also wonders how this List would help victims beyond a sense of catharsis, knowing their abusers’ names were being circulated. "They would get no more ‘justice’ than this."

I think the question goes deeper than justice. The surface disagreement between feminists is on the nature of the process -- who should control it, how public should it be. There is camp naming and shaming, versus camp use the system. Of course, there is a middle way but first we have to pause and reflect on a deeper undercurrent -- one that has been simmering for a while.

The divide between those who distrust the system and those who wish to strengthen it signifies a deeper rift: a fundamental difference between what we see as political action. For some of us, naming our trauma to redressing our hurt is a sufficient political action that does not need to help transform the system or improve it.

For some of us, the vindication of sharing our stories and believing each other’s stories is enough cause to risk dents on procedures we have been working hard to sustain. Because we know the system is broken and we know it will not be fixed anytime soon.

In light of this, instead of asking how should abusers be taken to account? perhaps we should be asking why are female bodies choosing to go public with their trauma at the risk of greater backlash and hurt? While we were strengthening due processes all these decades, did we overlook the building anger of our sisters; did we forget to tend to their pain? Can we now shift focus and acknowledge the hurt within our communities, acknowledge each other’s right to tell our stories -- without thinking we have to give up our fight on the institutional level? Are we willing to accept that errors will be made, but that healing must come first?

Zoya Rehman says we can take these events as a lesson. "This is a good example of what not to do when somebody comes forward with a complaint of assault or sexual harassment," she says. "Refrain from negating what they say publicly, even if you disagree with their method, and acknowledge that there is no level playing field before publicly throwing alleged survivors under the bus."

Of course, it will be messy. Already there are complications -- Sarkar’s account has been shut down several times; after Partha Chatterjee released a statement expressing his innocence, Sarkar responded by distancing herself from one version of the List; then, there is the never-ending stream of statements and responses and new statement; and in all of this, where are the men who have been accused? Neither due process nor social media outrage have taken them to task; therein lies the tragedy.

It would be a greater tragedy for this wave of a moment to collapse. Unresolved, it will only leave distrust in its wake. Yes, there are those of us who wish to solidify due processes, have the systems in place so we can tend to each other’s hurt. But there is also, among all of this, a history of unexpressed rage and hurt surfacing now. As it becomes visible, we should find ways to make room for it instead of responding with greater claims of hurt.

As Zahra Malkani points out, "It is disingenuous to claim that those who explore different routes and seek new methods and possibilities are hurting the movement. In fact, they are the future of the movement. They are stretching the limits of what is possible, of what can be said and seen."

And for her the messiness is also brilliant and brave. We should be as experimental, she claims, unnerving, dangerous, reckless as the feminist tradition has always been.

A debate not a division