Over the last two days, my facebook has gone on overdrive with feminists finding themselves in polarised positions against the list of perpetrators that Raya Sarkar, a Dalit lawyer in California circulated on facebook after compiling the names of some powerful men in the academic world and alleged sexual harassers. Some feminists as mouthpieces for the entire community wrote an apology of an article in kafila urging that the list be taken down for it violates ‘due process’ of law. Other feminists have come out in full support and some have taken the middle ground, allowing themselves to articulate their confusions, while many have remained mum for the more one thinks about it the more contradictory one seems to become. While sharing a tonne of pieces from all three angles, I have uncomfortably twitched in my chair undecided, having long heated conversations with women around me unable to really come to some kind of clear understanding.
Since Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan, the woman’s movement has struggled against patriarchal forces to bring to light a legislation for the protection of women from Sexual Harassment at workplaces. In the time between the guidelines set by the Supreme Court in the Vishakha judgment in 1997 and the law in 2013, the woman’s movement has lobbied in universities insisting that sexual harassment committees, commonly referred to as CASH (Committee Against Sexual Harassment) be set up with adequate representation of employees of the University (Contractual and permanent) as well as students and external members. The policies drafted have been vibrant processes bringing to front the inherent patriarchy within institutions, teachers and students alike while at the same time providing a space to have very difficult questions around gender, caste and sexuality. When I was in my final year of National Law University, Delhi some of us came together to draft a Policy to Combat Sexual Harassment, a policy we drafted in the most democratic manner possible in a university fraught with sexism and power dynamics, displaying alarming animosity towards any discussion around gender politics. When I passed out of my University in the year 2013, the draft of the code was ready and we were all excited to see it come into force. This however, was not the case and it is the year 2017, the code remains a distant dream. One can only be grateful that the efforts were not in vain, for out of the process emerged the most militant group of inspiring women who took on the heavy burden of challenging sexism and sexual harassment in a University growing increasingly hostile towards them.
For the past few years, I have engaged a little with sexual harassment policies in Universities, primarily in assisting complainants go through this extremely harrowing procedures and giving sexual harassment workshops to University students and staff. The primary thing I have learnt in this process is that the stories of both sides remain the same; it is only the affect of the story, the experience of the woman which governs the process eventually. The process is not always fair, not always free from biases and independent of manifestations of power, especially when the alleged perpetrator is powerful enough to manipulate these processes. CASH often are populated with savarna elite patriarchal people who refuse to understand agency and the way in which power framed by caste, class, gender and sexuality work especially in instances when the experience of the woman is all that CASH has to go with. Several survivors of sexual harassment find the process too invasive, especially when they find themselves standing against men who claim powerful positions and those who do complain carry anxieties of the fairness of the process itself. I ask them to rest their faith in the process, and to hold strong and tight. I remind them that there are checks and balances put in place and that provisions for transparency and protection from further victimisation are instituted at the core of any CASH mechanism. I advice them to maintain confidentiality until the complaint comes to its logical end.
The list is product of a collective failure of all of us to establish fair mechanisms which are trustworthy and accessible. The processes of drafting sexual harassment codes are exhausting and involve multiple negotiations with the university. Some CASH committees do not hence follow the tenets of the fair trial, some CASH committees sedate the larger university populace by promising a penalty for a false and malicious complaint and in some universities like mine, the process gets stuck when you refuse to negotiate and dilute the gender and power imbalances that play out in the most myriad ways giving rise to sexual harassment. Every year Universities and sexist men and complicit women, strive to install their stooges in CASH committees. Savarna cis-women and men with zero experience of intersections in which gender, caste and sexuality operate dominate CASH mostly.
But do we outrightly do away with this system? Is the up and coming alternative the list? Social media becomes the kangaroo court house and we put up judges who name and shame and it is done! What do we do with this list not that it is out there? Survivors of patriarchy’s violence (yes, me too!) everyday live with their beings marred with experience after experience, questions wrecking psyches of whether that particular incident did comprise sexual harassment, biting their tongues to shut up for there is really no point to even saying anything. For survivors to have come out and spoken despite carrying trauma, the fear of persecution, the normalisation of sexual harassment is hardcore and I admire them. Is this is for all the courage?
Sexual Harassment laws and policies are less than perfect but they allow for a process centred around the experience of the survivor and her demands, recognising that justice is not just a process of meting out coupons of acquittals and convictions, that there is no one plane over which power relations grounding caste and patriarchy function, that patriarchy cannot just be slapped away but requires consistent and painful engagement not just with the perpetrators but also with ourselves. Recognising that instances of sexual harassment have been normalised for long and warrant serious engagement, specific mechanisms are put in place, there is an effort to bring some method to the madness that is sexual harassment, which is mostly, incredibly difficult to wrap one’s head around. There is no exhaustive list of what would comprise sexual harassment. There cannot be one. Just as there cannot be an exhaustive list of perpetrators!
The list presently brings to light sixty names and counting, of men who are alleged sexual harassers. The last time I checked Raya Sarkar’s wall, she mentioned that professors are frantically messaging women who they have sexually harassed apologizing. The chilling effect is a product onto itself but how do we address this compounding of vulnerabilities? CASH committees have specific mechanisms put in place to address these vulnerabilities. CASH is flawed, the law is fucked up, the sites of law are sexist and victim blaming, who’s due process is it anyway! But is the list really the process? Do we only wish to brand and move on? Do we wish to out on social media and then get out taking sterile positions on the questions of sexual harassment, casteism, racism, sexism, we so above and beyond structures, we who understand everything in our small little alienated utopias?
Every process in itself is valuable and today. The Indian jurisprudence on sexual harassment has been a dynamic and difficult one and to outrighly throw it into the gutter does great disservice to the struggles of countless women. The processes that gave rise to the Vishakha guidelines, the Sexual harassment laws and policies, CASH, Internal Complaints Committees thereof, every complaint filed in CASH and ICCs, in police stations, narratives of women on social media about their experiences, the countless women and their friends who sent their stories to Raya Sarkar and the list are all extremely valuable and have led us to this moment when we must introspect, imagine and strategise on how we wish to move forward.