Even as the MeToo movement hit the Indian courts this year and battles continue to be waged on social media, Lounge looks at the idea of empowerment through empathy that was at the heart of the movement’s beginnings
In 2006, American activist and advocate Tarana Burke founded the non-profit Just Be Inc. to work alongside survivors of sexual harm, particularly women of colour in low-income communities. At gatherings of sexual harm survivors, Burke would wear and distribute black T-shirts with the words “me too" printed across in pink lettering as a way of empowering through empathy.
sujatha baliga (she chooses not to uppercase her name), a former advocate and sexual harm survivor who was present at one such gathering, remembers the early impact of those words. “It was so moving. Standing alone, before the words ‘me too’ came to have the meaning that they have today, they were simply an expression of deep empathy and solidarity," she says.
Then, in 2017, came the hashtag. “The hashtag made it broader in some senses, and narrower in others," says baliga. It helped galvanize women across countries, but also focused heavily on workplace harassment and celebrity cases. “That shifted the tenor of the thing, and I think Tarana has done an amazing job of trying to pull it back and again to broaden it to sexual violence."
baliga’s work in the field of restorative justice (RJ), for which she received the 2019 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant", embodies Burke’s original vision of empowerment through empathy. As director of The Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice, a California-based organization that aims to build a more humane justice system, baliga works with sexual violence survivors as well as people who have caused harm.
Over the past year in India, we have seen the MeToo accusations of 2018 turn into tedious legal battles and social media wars. A former criminal defence attorney, baliga finds the legal system “too bureaucratic, re-victimizing victims and failing to produce positive outcomes". baliga, who was sexually abused by her father, feels she too would have benefited from a restorative approach. “One of the most important questions, if I could bring my father back from the dead, I would ask him: what happened to you that you did that to me?"
What is restorative justice?
The term was coined by American criminologist Howard Zehr, but is rooted in the conflict resolution models of indigenous communities such as the Tagish and Tlingit peoples of the Yukon territory in Canada and the Māori in New Zealand. “You can’t solve a problem if you keep thinking the same way you were thinking when you created it," Zehr writes in Changing Lenses: Restorative Justice For Our Times, where he argues for a paradigm shift in the way we look at crime, ranging from petty offences to sexual harm and homicide.
The punitive criminal justice model functions on three questions: Which law has been broken? Who broke the law? What do they deserve? RJ replaces these with: Who has been harmed? What are their needs? Who is obligated to repair the harm? Three distinct models currently shape the practice: family group conferencing (to address the trauma faced by families of victims and offenders), circle processes (harm circles, healing circles or even community-building circles) and victim-offender dialogues or VODs.
The preparation period before a VOD, which is always victim-initiated, can take anywhere from a few months to a year. During this time, a facilitator works with the victim and the responsible party (RJ practitioners tend to avoid labels like “rapist" and “criminal") to understand and manage their expectations, help them identify a support person, and build a tentative agenda. Minor details, like seating arrangements, are predetermined in a way that makes the victim feel safe.
Despite the preparation process, unexpected emotions can turn up in a room when the two parties finally meet. One sexual harm survivor, who participated in a VOD while her perpetrator was serving his prison sentence, went into the meeting with a 30-page binder filled with notes from his parole hearings. “The hardest part was not knowing if I would reach across and punch him…I wanted some level of closure and to let him know how (the harm) affected me," she said. At the end of the meeting, she was surprised to find herself softening from the honesty and vulnerability he offered her. “It was the first time I was able to see him as a human being and not a monster."
No two victim-offender dialogues look exactly the same. baliga reports an incident of campus harassment where the victim demanded a public acknowledgement on Snapchat. “In another case I had worked on, this young man had been violent towards the girl he was dating. She broke up with him, didn’t want to see him again and needed him to volunteer for six months at a shelter for abused women and children to show her that he was learning his lesson," says baliga. “Every case is different and it is driven entirely by the survivor." In some cases, when the perpetrator is not in a position to be held accountable, or there is a risk of re-traumatization or further harm, victims can also choose to engage in a dialogue with surrogate offenders. Based on her findings at Impact Justice, baliga reports, people who had participated in the restorative process showed a 91% satisfaction rate.
Healing through dialogue
Last month, a facilitator training workshop in Panchgani, organized by the Mumbai-based Ashiyana Foundation, brought together participants engaged in various aspects of the RJ network in India—social workers, mental-health professionals, child rights lawyers, representatives of organizations working on women and children’s issues. Over the course of three days, participants learned about the circle template of peace-making and conflict resolution, and witnessed its transformative power. As a talking piece (an object used to moderate the speaking) made its way around the room, the healing capacity of the circle strengthened through active listening, risking vulnerability, and collectively holding space for self-reflection and silences.
This inclusive, collaborative spirit runs across the RJ community. In India, the growing RJ network has helped bring together individuals and organizations that have been working towards gender equality, prison reform and offender rehabilitation.
It is important to note that RJ facilitators are not mediators and are not chasing an end goal of forgiveness. Both parties are free to opt out of the process at any point. “It’s really about walking with that person before they have potentially the most difficult conversation of their lives—and doing this in whatever way or pace that they want," says Sonya Shah, founder of California-based The Ahimsa Collective. Both baliga and Shah have been in dialogue with organizations interested in RJ in India, but assert that in the Indian context, it needs to develop in its own culturally specific way.
“One thing that’s quite clear from the RJ work in India is that it’s really invested in juvenile justice," says Shah. The organizations leading the work in India—the Ashiyana Foundation, Leher, Enfold and Counsel to Secure Justice (CSJ)—work primarily with juvenile offenders and child sexual abuse survivors. Others, like Anuja Gupta, founder of the RAHI Foundation (Relief and Healing from Incest), have been working with a model of victim healing for adult survivors that mirrors the philosophy of RJ. “Conceptually it is very similar to what we have found in almost 25 years of work with sexual harm survivors," says Gupta. “Along with therapy, it is very helpful for it to be acknowledged that they have been harmed; not all of them are looking to take their abusers to court."
Organizations are also keen to explore the potential for restorative practices in domestic violence cases, healing circles for families of offenders, and facilitator training for POSH (prevention of sexual harassment) committee members to counter workplace harassment through dialogue. “The POSH Act provides a frame for RJ processes to be initiated," says Swagata Raha, the restorative justice and legal affairs consultant at Bengaluru-based Enfold. “I think it can be an effective remedy for those who are dissatisfied with the grievance redress mechanisms at their workplaces and also provide the men with an opportunity to take responsibility in a manner in which they are not stigmatized."
Balancing emotional scales
Trauma, in all its manifestations, is often held in place by sticky emotions like shame and guilt. RJ considers the psychological effects of these close cousins—guilt, which implies “I did something bad", and shame, which implies “I am something bad"—and how they result in either avoidance or denial. Neither creates the right conditions for accountability and meaningful dialogue.
While baliga finds anger to be a healthy and useful response to sexual violence, shame, for either party, perpetuates the very behaviour the movement seeks to eradicate. “Shame drives secrecy, and secrecy is the thing that lets this monster of sexual violence continue," she says. “Shaming, to me, is not a useful part of the process. I don’t talk about the sexual violence I experienced and the people who harmed me to shame them. I talk about it to destigmatize myself and to get rid of the taboo."
The process also gives victims the agency to set their own definitions of harm and healing. A 2018 study by CSJ, titled ‘Perspectives of Justice: Restorative Justice and Child Sexual Abuse in India’, explored whether RJ practices might better serve victim needs. Urvashi Tilak, who joined the CSJ in 2016, says that though the organization assists victims to navigate legal proceedings, in the last two years, they have had a dedicated team working on restorative approaches. “We saw that despite the fact that the case was going on in court, there was so much brokenness in the family that the children started questioning that maybe they shouldn’t have reported their abuse," says Tilak.
Ending the cycle of sexual harm
Restorative justice is grounded in the belief that “hurt people hurt people", and that unhealed trauma perpetuates the cycle of sexual harm. “(If) the narrative is that the bad guy has to get killed, we are going to live in a society in which that happens," says baliga. “But rather if we see that there’s no ‘bad guy’ and trauma begets trauma begets trauma, we get to the root causes of that trauma."
To eradicate these root causes requires providing all victims of the patriarchy, regardless of gender, spaces to heal. Research indicates that in India, a greater number of young boys are sexually abused but are much less likely to report it. As feminist writer bell hooks (pseudonym of Gloria Jean Watkins) writes in her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope: “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem."
Sachi Maniar, director of the Ashiyana Foundation, feels that gender equality cannot simply be achieved by empowering women, and that it is essential to work alongside men. Maniar’s organization works primarily with male inmates in Dongri, Thane, at an observation home for juvenile offenders. She has found circles to be effective in helping the boys emotionally connect with themselves and build a vocabulary around sexual harm and consent. “In sexual abuse cases, we have seen that they have either been influenced by pornography, or a lot of times they have no idea about boundaries and consent," says Maniar. “Talking about the harm they caused openly can really open their minds and change their perspective and we see the transformation happen.
This reimagining of the archetypal victim-perpetrator narrative challenges the ideology of carceral feminism, which seeks state intervention and protection as a response to crimes against women. Restorative practices, on the other hand, are heartening, and perplexing, in the way they integrate light and dark polarities of human nature—our capacity to cause great pain, and our ability to alchemize that pain into compassion. According to baliga, scepticism about its efficacy is a result of lack of exposure to alternative methods of justice. “I am extremely hopeful because I have seen, again and again, young people and adults take responsibility for their negative sexual behaviours," she says.
Since 2017, the words “me too" have shape-shifted into a revelation, a reassurance, a consolation, an accusation, a battle cry. While the movement unleashed a necessary wrecking ball to dismantle oppressive power structures, it might be prudent to pause and consider Burke’s original vision for the movement before laying new foundations.