By Poulomi Das Oct. 27, 2017
There's plenty right with Raya Sarkar's sexual harassers' list, and plenty wrong. But what if we think of it as an instrument to strengthen our processes?
In 2015, much before the mega exposé of Harvey Weinstein sent Hollywood tumbling like a bunch of dominoes, much before the universal solidarity of #MeToo, and way before the divisiveness of The List, I remember being horrified with an anonymous account of a woman student from Christ University.
The woman had detailed the various degrees of sexual harassment that she and her classmates suffered at the hands of the college’s professors. The harassers occupied many rungs along the college’s food chain, and went as far up as the counsellor and the dean, both of whom had a reputation of routinely pulling up female students for their appearance. The author also laid bare the inefficiency and powerlessness of the college’s student council and the faculty, tasked with protecting the students. Their complaints against an Additional English Professor, a known harasser who asked his female students out to the movies, were dismissed as him being “friendly”. He continued teaching despite a negative faculty evaluation by the students.
The only thing of surprise in all of this, is that it surprised anyone. There are variations of the Christ story in academia everywhere from Tamil Nadu to Timbuktoo. Your whisper networks keep you informed of which sketchy professors to look out for, your default expectation — even from a liberal college — is that it will fail to act on your complaint of sexual harassment. If you’re lucky, that is. In all likelihood, the power dynamic is so skewed that you, the complainant, will end up paying for this misdemeanour: Maybe you will be suspended, maybe expelled, maybe you will keep paying for it throughout your career.
Around the same time then, a close friend confided in me about being sexually assaulted by a professor who had taught us both. He had forced himself on her without her consent, but for a long time, my friend blamed herself for it: For inviting the assault in some way, for not realising how it built up to that night. She continued struggling with the guilt for months after, even attempting to apologise to her assaulter.
My friend was convinced that there would be no redressal, even if she followed “due process”. She had her reasons for thinking that way: The incident happened much after she had passed, it didn’t take place on college premises, and most importantly, she was drunk when it happened. At a time when we are co-existing with the thriving grammar of the “feeble no”, you could hardly blame her for thinking justice wouldn’t tilt in her favour.
In the last one year, however, my friend has had her moment of catharsis. She has put her assaulter’s name out there, on The List. This little act is as much a plea, as a signal of defiance, of redressal, and — even though she may be very far from it — of closure.
My friend, who was sexually harassed by a professor was convinced that there would be no redressal for her, even if she followed “due process”.
The List began in October, when 24-year-old Raya Sarkar, a lawyer settled in the United States, put up a Facebook post encouraging women to name and shame the professors who had harassed them. It was a reaction to Huffington Post taking down academic C Christine Fair’s wrenching account of sexual harassment at the hands of many professors. Hundreds of women wrote to Sarkar with their personal experiences; several provided proof through screenshots of chats and emails.
Soon, as is the case with the internet, the post took the form of a crowdsourced, anonymous list. It is now known as the “Sexual Violence Hall Of Shame” and names 77 South Asian academics as harassers. As of today, the Facebook post has been saved 376 times. It did not, however, detail any dates of the alleged assault, the names of the survivors, nor their alleged misconduct.
What had started as a manifestation of the whisper network — intended as a cautionary list, not one with the agenda of “institutional action” — had quickly morphed into a laundry list of unsubstantiated accusations. Just like the Shitty Media Men list.
There’s plenty right with the list — and plenty wrong. The fact that women across the country decided to trust Sarkar as the gatekeeper of their experiences, without knowing her, is testimony to how exhausting and self-defeating following “due process” can be. When there are calls for the list to be taken down, it negates the desperation of the hundreds of women who contributed to it. It’s tantamount to silencing the victims, yet again.
But the anonymity of the list is also where it falters, because it is now being reduced to the sum of its flaws. As a public Google spreadsheet with zero context, which can be viewed, shared, and downloaded as pleased, it runs the risk of featuring unsubstantiated and unchecked accusations. Worse, without any details, it cannot be used to demand any form of redressal, which, I imagine, should be the ultimate aim of such an undertaking. Not only does it let off the alleged perps with a rap on the wrist, it can’t be used to hold the institutions where these men work accountable. Further, some men on the list who have already been found guilty by due process, have been equated with those against whom there were allegations.
When there are calls for Raya Sarkar’s list to be taken down, it negates the desperation of the hundreds of women who contributed to it. It’s tantamount to silencing the victims, yet again.
Perhaps the worst part of the whole affair, is thinking of the list as any form of redressal or solution to our terrible record of dealing with sexual harassment. We’d just be replacing a terrible mechanism with a worse one. In a sideshow, after a group of women issued a statement enlisting the dangers of the list, and how it could undermine years of fighting for better legislation, the whole affair spiralled into a pointless discourse that pits “Millennial Feminists vs Aunty Feminists”.
But what if we thought of the list as an instrument to strengthen our processes? What if we acknowledged the list’s imperfections, but instead of lynching it outright, viewed it as an occasion to introspect on how our legal and administrative frameworks fail women so spectacularly? On last night’s prime-time debate on NDTV, Karuna Nundy, advocate at the Supreme Court gave the list a near-perfect moniker: She termed it an act of “civil disobedience”.
India’s most prominent civil disobedience movement was launched in 1930, against a common enemy. By rejecting the authority of the British government, Indians reclaimed some of the power that was rightfully theirs. We’re now in the middle of another such moment. Now is the time to legitimise the informal whisper network in such a way that it allows women to reclaim power instead of just being vehicles that acknowledge how powerful men in workplaces can be.
Which one will it eventually be?
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.