Shining a spotlight on sexual harassment
The global groundswell unleashed by the Harvey Weinstein case brought to light the whisper networks that women rely on to warn each other about sexual predators. Of the many lists that surfaced online, Raya Sarkar’s has dominated the conversation in India. Sarkar, a US-based law student, released a list of over 60 academics in Indian universities whom women have accused of sexual harassment: The names of victims have not been released, and the exact charges against the men are not detailed. Despite the many doubts I harboured, I believed Sarkar’s list. When I was groped many years ago, I had no way of seeking legal redress; there were no witnesses or records that I could have furnished in a court of law. The list speaks to women like me.
For a younger generation of women like me, the list also marked a certain level of disillusionment with an older, established generation of progressives/feminists, only a few of whom reacted sympathetically to the idea that their male colleagues/friends could be guilty of sexual harassment. The idea that “people like us” can’t commit such crimes is the reason why otherwise feminist and progressive leaders have defended those accused of such crimes, be it David Davidar or Mahmood Farooqui. Their reaction also brought to light a break with savarna feminism, made more stark by the awareness of Sarkar’s Dalit identity.
Yet, the appearance of a second list, naming not only influential professors but also students (and even a journalist) shows us why such lists are problematic. The account, from which the second list was released, no longer appears to exist on social media. Only screenshots of the second list survive. My queries to this account went unanswered. Sarkar confirmed on email that she does not know who started the second list.
Lists have limitations. The lack of context can be easily misused to slander someone. All crimes, from sexual assault to coloured remarks, are put on the same page. And whose list should we trust? Sarkar’s, the second list, or any others? What do we make of the fact that Sarkar seems to have now removed the list from public domain? Advocate Karuna Nandy has pointed out that lists run the risk of defamation cases against the complainants. Should we then completely dismiss Sarkar’s list? Speaking to this journalist, advocate Persis Sidhva from the Majlis Legal Centre, an organization that helps women and children access the law, has argued that one way to view the list is to understand it as a form of protest, like the Manipuri mothers who staged a nude protest against the Indian Army, or the Pink Chaddi campaign.
The list is not the final word on sexual harassment in campuses, and it’s up to readers to decide what they make of it. Some of those named in the list have issued responses. It’s their right to defend themselves. But what it has done is to shine a light on power imbalances. The World Economic Forum has detailed how the gender pay gap worsened this year: It will now take 100 years for women to earn as much as men. Sexual harassment is an extreme manifestation of this power imbalance.
The discussions that have ensued in the aftermath of the list should serve as an opportunity to correct these imbalances. It raises the question: If highly educated women do not feel empowered to approach formal mechanisms to seek justice, then what hope is there for weaker sections of society? An interview last week with the complainant in the R.K. Pachauri harassment case shows us the psychological and career costs of entering the legal route to seek justice.
The list should alert us to the need for consent education, for strengthening and making existing mechanisms like the Internal Complaints Committees more accessible and impartial, and for legal education so that women are aware of their rights. Sidhva, who works with child survivors of sexual assault, points out that many schools today hold classes on “good touch/bad touch”. However, in the absence of legal awareness, they are often at a loss when children approach them to report instances of bad touch.
In the discussions that ensued in the aftermath of the list, I became aware of an ordeal that an acquaintance had to go through when she tried to file an FIR (first information report) after she was groped in a public place. The incident happened at 9pm, and the victim had to run from one police station to another until she found one under whose jurisdiction the case could be registered. She had to explain her case to two male policemen before she was assigned a policewoman. Afterwards, at 1am, she had go to a hospital for medical and psychological examination. All this happened because she was unaware that under the law, she could have registered a zero FIR and had the right to refuse a medical examination.
What can we do in addition to the measures listed above? Sarkar suggests that schools should be willing to fire professors who sexually harass students, sexual harassment committees should be independent and their meetings should be filmed for future reference, and the system of recommendations, which makes students dependent on professors to further their careers, should be done away with. So far, no government body has participated in this debate. But in the aftermath of this debate, it is time for the forces in power to examine the merits of these suggestions.
Ragini Bhuyan is a data journalist with Mint.
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