Home >opinion >Here’s to a 2018 of ‘bad feminists’

This year, hopefully, will be the year when women finally get to nail sexual abuse and harassment. They deserve to, for everything’s been leading up to it.

Steadily, over the past several years, the lid on men’s sexual harassment is being blown off, whistle by whistle, like in a pressure cooker. The exposes of child sex abuse by BBC celebrity television presenter (Top of the Pops, Jim’ll Fix It) Jimmy Savile was the first to be hauled out of this very dark closet, police investigations jogging memories in women and leading to a flood of complaints. It wasn’t just Savile of course—other men abused their power similarly over an astounding 589 victims.

These are mostly children we are talking about—teenagers and adolescents, clear cases of paedophilia. But these men didn’t stop with girls. Savile wormed his way as a high-profile volunteer into hospitals—Leeds General Infirmary and the high-security Broadmoor mental health hospital—where he raped (the correct term, surely) patients aged five to 75.

At the time the stories around Savile and his mates were breaking in the UK, and then worldwide, society was too shocked to respond with any degree of coherence. This was an exception surely? Not so: Savile’s abuse had been rumoured for years, but he had routinely denied the allegations on the few occasions (perhaps no more than two) journalists asked him.

Now, with the #MeToo campaign and growing allegations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, the uncomfortable truth about the extent of sexual harassment and abuse of women is finally out in the open. Women have always known it, and men, too, do now—that it is far more common than previously believed.

One of the factors behind galvanizing this growing campaign has been social media. Courtesy of the Internet and social media websites, the ease of communicating your experience and sharing it with a wider world—literally, there’s no limit to the number of people—injustices such as sexual harassment, abuse and rape have become subjects that can no longer be brushed under the carpet.

In India, too, 2017 saw startling allegations made about a specific constituency—male academics—after a law student put up a list on Facebook. On it were names of Indian male academics, many internationally reputed, and the institutions with whom they were linked. The student urged other women to follow her example, saying, “If any one knows of academics who have sexually harassed/were sexually predatory to them or have seen it first hand PM (personal message) me and I’ll add them to the list."

As a result, the crowdsourced list ballooned. The law student’s reasons for putting it up for sharing on social media was that ‘due process’ had failed women and that it was time to name and shame. She said she had evidence for every name on the list but refused to share it, even when directly challenged by one academic on the list.

There’s no doubt that the world of academics needs scrutiny for incidence of sexual harassment and abuse. Relationships between male teaching staff and usually female students are commonplace.

Campuses are often isolated and students are particularly vulnerable when they are in prolonged and isolated supposedly intellectual contact with their teachers or mentors. This is a ‘work culture’ scenario that is rare in other industries, where crowding rather than isolation is the norm. As a result, sexual relationships on the campus can and do develop. Many contacts that begin with intellectual exchange end in marriage (overwhelmingly, between older male teacher and female student). Equally, many do not.

This state of affairs on university campuses is not restricted to highly patriarchal societies such as India or even men from such societies. Campuses in the West are increasingly aware of this problem, even as its extent remains only a matter of conjecture and ‘everybody knows’ kind of anecdote.

This is the reason the law student’s list was justified by many women—that ‘everybody knows’ was no longer good enough. The facts must be known, and known outside the campus. The problem was—inevitably so, given the methodology and ease of dissemination—the absence of evidence. Plainly, evidence is needed because the men on the list are accused of breaking the law.

I put this question to a former professor at one of India’s premier universities. He was concerned and bothered: “What can we do? Perhaps open a registry in every department, where the professor and the student enter the start and end timing of each individual interaction?" Maybe install cameras in professors’ living quarters and offices? Where does it end?

The need for evidence was highlighted by several Indian feminists soon after the list was published online. Now they have a powerful international voice backing them. Canadian feminist writer Margaret Atwood, in a piece in the Globe and Mail titled ‘Am I a Bad Feminist?’ hit out at women who have criticized her over her concerns on the #MeToo movement and for her calls to follow due process in a case concerning an academic in Canada.

Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, had signed an open letter in November 2016 on the University of British Columbia’s sacking of Steven Galloway, former chair of its creative writing programme, over “serious allegations" of sexual misconduct. The university had failed to make its investigations public, prompting Atwood and others to call for accountability and transparency from the authorities.

“The public—including me—was left with the impression that this man was a violent serial rapist, and everyone was free to attack him publicly, since under the (confidentiality) agreement he had signed, he couldn’t say anything to defend himself," she wrote. “A fair-minded person would now withhold judgement as to guilt until the report and the evidence are available for us to see."

“The #MeToo moment is a symptom of a broken legal system. All too frequently, women and other sexual-abuse complainants couldn’t get a fair hearing through institutions—including corporate structures—so they used a new tool: the internet. Stars fell from the skies. This has been very effective, and has been seen as a massive wake-up call. But what next? The legal system can be fixed, or our society could dispose of it," she added.

Her opinion piece, she told The Guardian later, was meant to highlight the choice we now face; fix the system, bypass it or “burn the system down and replace it with, presumably, another system".

This is also the choice faced by women in India, where expert say rape cases continue to be under-reported because of the social stigma women and their families face. It’s important for ‘outers’ to read what Atwood has to say: “A war among women, as opposed to a war on women, is always pleasing to those who do not wish women well. This is a very important moment. I hope it will not be squandered."

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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