Day Twelve | To Speak/To Complain: Reflections on Indian Feminist Politics in the Moment of #MeToo and LoSHA

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Written by Prof Rukmini Sen

On October 2017 – just after the first allegations of rape and sexual harassment were levied against Harvey Weinstein through the #MeToo social media campaign –  an Indian student based in a US law school ‘published’ a crowd-sourced list on Facebook (FB) that named and accused more than 70 Indian professors (based in Indian universities or outside) as sexual harassers. This FB post by Raya Sarkar was shared, liked and commented on widely. In social media circles this list has since been referred to as LoSHA (List of Sexual Harassment Accused) and it also has its own Wikipedia page. LoSHA is seen as the catalyst for the #MeToo movement in India.

LoSHA provoked both support and resistance within feminist circles. Immediately after the FB post, a statement was released and signed by fourteen Delhi based feminists who critiqued the ‘naming and shaming’ of men, cautioned against making accusations of sexual harassment without ‘context or explanation’,  and advocated ‘due process’.  After the statement, many other feminists across India commented and reflected on this, raising concerns around the over-emphasis on the law. It became evident again that there is no monolithic feminism in India – or any single unified position on feminists engaging with the law. The last year or so has been an interesting ‘new’ moment in feminist politics in India, and amongst the accusations, counter accusations and closing down of conversations,  we have also seen nuanced and thoughtful reflections trying to understand complexity and express solidarity. V Geetha, in an important essay, points out the need to initiate dialogue about sexual harassment, and the power politics in social relationships including in the Academy:

“Therefore, rather than fall back on the need to observe due process, which, indeed we do, when we engage with the justice system, we need to also think of how we enable speech about sexual harassment and violence that is not about law and justice alone, but about social relationships and the power invested in those who defined the terms of the latter, on account of their class, caste and authority as intellectuals.”

Whilst the media has characterised feminist conflict over LoSHA as that of ‘old’ and ‘new’ feminisms, of ‘ungrateful daughters’ and ‘tut-tutting mothers’, others, such as Srila Roy, have argued that a generational analysis is unhelpful and over-simplifying:  “there has been both support for and condemnation of the list across different generations of feminists.” Meanwhile there have been provocative discussions on erotics in the Indian university classroom through pedagogic practices (Brinda Bose and Rahul Sen https://cafedissensusblog.com/2018/08/17/liberal-vertigo-eros-and-the-university/), projecting the interconnections of caste and patriarchy in University spaces in contexts of sexual harassment (Drishadwati Bargi https://www.epw.in/engage/article/misreading-dalit-critique-university-space) and hoping for a conversation on the modes and methods of speaking, complaining on sexual harassment by netizens (Gita Chadha and Rukmini Sen https://www.epw.in/engage/special-features/power-relationships-academia)

Since LoSha and then #MeToo in India, languages of both law and feminism have been questioned, subjected to reflection upon their own hegemony and boundaries respectively. The legal history around sexual harassment in India goes back to the 1997 Supreme Court Vishakha judgment recognizing unwelcome sexual behaviour in the workplace as harassment, which mandated workplaces to create gender sensitization and complaints committees. Twenty years post the judgment and four years since the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, it is important to understand that the LoSha and #MeToo campaigns have happened as a result of years of feminist politics and not despite them. Yet, this contemporary moment opened up new conversations about the meaning(s) of speech, silence, evidence, criminality, intimacy.

This is a crucial point at which it becomes necessary  to acknowledge that the law would  define and construct boundaries within which a violation has to be expressed. The limitation of what is intrinsic to law is the need to speak in the language of law—within definitions, through written/oral testimonies, evidence, or witness, especially in situations injury leading to punishment. The definition of sexual harassment includes and yet also leaves out many kinds of behaviour from the definition; it is hinged at a complicated understanding of ‘unwelcome behaviour’, where the definition of ‘unwelcome’ is be redefined in each new case. Interpretation of what is not exactly in the definition is always possible, yet it is important to recognise that quasi legal committees operate within the framework of the law and all (sexually unwanted) behaviour cannot find a name in the law. Speech therefore is an essential component of any legal process, when law is in action either in a courtroom or within an anti-sexual harassment complaints committee. It is relevant to remember here that feminist politics has encouraged and emphasised the need to use speech to bring experiences into the public realm. Breaking the silence or chuppi todo has been part of posters and campaign slogans since the 1980s when issues of rape and domestic violence were discussed publicly in unprecedented ways. Thus voicing and not silence has been a tool for any politics emanating from the margins and feminism has been no exception. Silence, hesitation, pausing, self-imposed caution are all part of the process of making sense of a sexual violation, and the definition of the law is not the only way through which this happens.

What is of critical importance in the post LoSha moment is to reaffirm that universities are sites of both possibilities and contradictions. They foster ideas and imaginations of new citizenship by removing boundaries about who can have access to higher education. On the other hand, universities also cultivate power in relationships while encouraging and sustaining relations – all of which are a complex web of multiple social locations and identities that individuals inhabit based on gender-sexuality, caste, class, religion, language, disability or place of origin. It is necessary to take cognisance of the co-existence of power and intimacy in teacher–student relationships in contemporary institutions of higher learning. As V Geetha  notes: “ In the university context, indeed in any learning context, especially in caste society, the communication of ideas, and the practice of teaching and learning are fraught and precarious”

In these transformative times, with the demands for empathetic, more democratic teachers, are flows of power disrupted? How do gender and caste relations play out within these flows? Is being (and expected to be) obedient as a student judged as being submissive by the faculty, and is the inability to resist interpreted as consent? It is important to note this transforming landscape in which young, aspiring, freedom-seeking women/multiple genders in institutions of higher learning across Indian cities talk about, discuss and debate sexual politics. Institutions need to create an enabling eco-system much beyond only a complaint registering committee, where, within pedagogic and political practices of the institution’s everyday functioning, certain non-negotiable ethical principles of interpersonal interaction are deliberatively arrived at.

I am proposing the need to craft opportunities for dialogue (between students, between faculty, between faculty and students, between administrative staff) moving beyond merely a culture of formal complaints. Through this the claim, besides being aware as gendered citizens about the legal provisions on sexual harassment but to not overemphasize the need  for more training or improved legal skills , but for a democratic space in which the complexity of life experiences of students as well as early career women/multiple gendered faculty in institutions of higher learning can be acknowledged and explored. This will enable conversations (speech of a certain feminist kind, not necessarily the juridical) on the plural meanings of unwelcome experiences, transgressions, consent and control.

Rukmini Sen is Professor at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi. She teaches and publishes around sociology of law, feminist movements and personal narratives

rukmini@aud.ac.in

https://www.facebook.com/rukmini.sen.31

https://twitter.com/RStweet18

The ideas expressed in this blog are taken from, continuing and connected with two previously published essays https://www.epw.in/engage/article/sexual-harassment-limits-speech and https://thewire.in/education/sexual-harassment-committee-universities-jnu-gscash

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