By Focusing On ‘Propriety’ Of Raya Sarkar’s Harasser List, We Are Failing Women

Posted: October 26, 2017

Law student Raya Sarkar has created a list of men in academia accused of harassment by women. When ‘due process’ in institutions hardly works, can we really blame women for going public?

Scenario 1:

You’ve faced sexual harassment at the hands of a professor. He’s pretty renowned for his articulate stand on different areas within his domain of expertise. But clearly, he’s been a creep to you. You want to file a complaint, and you look for the internal complaints committee. You find none. So, you keep quiet, because where do you go?

Scenario 2:

You’ve faced sexual harassment at the hands of a professor. He’s pretty renowned for his articulate stand on different areas within his domain of expertise. But clearly, he’s been a creep to you. You want to file a complaint, and you look for the internal complaints committee. You find one, and it’s constituted to check a box. You report it anyway. They send you packing saying they’ll follow up. Nothing happens. You graduate, and the professor walks in the halls of the university, unquestioned.

Scenario 3:

You’ve faced sexual harassment at the hands of a professor. He’s pretty renowned for his articulate stand on different areas within his domain of expertise. But clearly, he’s been a creep to you. You want to file a complaint, and you look for the internal complaints committee. You find one. You report it anyway. They send you packing saying they’ll follow up. An investigation follows. The professor says you lied. Because he’s the professor and you’re the student, the investigation stops there. You graduate, and the professor walks in the halls of the university, unquestioned.

Scenario 4:

You’ve faced sexual harassment at the hands of a professor. He’s pretty renowned for his articulate stand on different areas within his domain of expertise. But clearly, he’s been a creep to you. You want to file a complaint, and you look for the internal complaints committee. You find one. You report it anyway. They send you packing saying they’ll follow up. An investigation follows. The professor says you lied. But the investigation and inquiry follows through and they find that the professor was guilty. He’s suspended for a term, and returns after that. You graduate, and the professor walks in the halls of the university, unquestioned.

If I had a penny for every instance this happened, I might be able to afford an Ola Prime ride every time I travel out of the house. It’s no news now that Raya Sarkar’s list has been doing the rounds, and is shouting out a narrative that has slipped through the cracks and cemented under silence, authority and patriarchy. Raya talks about a range of supportive women who have come forth to declare solidarity and to share their own stories.

Meanwhile, plenty of reactions have flown at her. One man called her a “repugnant bitch,” on Facebook. A statement  was issued by a few prominent Indian academics identifying as feminists including the likes of Nivedita Menon, Kavita Krishnan and Ayesha Kidwai has criticised Raya’s approach, indicating that the list could go forth and “delegitimize the long struggle against sexual harassment, and make our task as feminists more difficult.”

Taking a step back, if you looked at Raya’s list here, it won’t take you long to understand that this is not a random collection of names on a whim. These names have specific complaints that are listed, and have been put up by women who have faced such harassment, themselves. In some of these incidents, you can actually see that due process has been followed, with nothing having been done to address the incident. Raya also explains in an interview that she shared with Buzzfeed, that most victims do not wish to file complaints because they fear being bullied, silenced and made a pariah by their academic communities. This proves, quite clearly, that if due process was adequate, sound and responsive, there wouldn’t be a need for a list of this sort.

On the other hand, there is a due process to Raya’s list, as her friend, Inji Pennu, explained on a Facebook post:

“…The list is put together as first-person accounts when women are coming forward to talk. If it is a victim who wants to be completely anonymous, then her friend stands alibi for the victim. ScreenShots of chats, WhatsApp messages, emails, call recordings are all collected in a folder for complete anonymity. As you can see, these were not random data with no context…

In Raya’s own words, the approach was not to name-and-shame, as much as social media enjoys its catchy hashtags. It was implemented with every intention to “be a cautionary list for students.”

To me, this list is not very different from a registry of sex offenders as it operates in the United States – with the lone difference that Raya’s list is curated by private citizens. To speak out, to call out an abuser and to stand up to a system that is busy trying to silence your complaints against abuse, is an act of pure courage. It’s not easy for a survivor to speak up: trust me on this. A whole spectrum of mind, body and social factors come into play when you so much as even think of opening up and talking about it. When you open up and talk about your story, you not only risk being vulnerable before the world, but you are exposed to everything from shaming to stigma, with accusations of every sort, in between.

This is what a patriarchal society does: create and nurture a culture of silence and victim-blaming around any allegations of sexual violence. #MeToo is more than a hashtag, and Raya proved it. Every #MeToo as a natural corollary included a silent “#HimToo,” alluding to the man behind the abuse that each woman had faced. #MeToo put the onus on the survivor – as each one outed her story, in whatever fashion she so chose. Many, many of them, were given shame in response: in those piercing responses in their inboxes and those sharp questions in person. Why the outrage when shame is sent where it must be sent, then?

Recently, I read Muslim Girl by Amani al-Khatatbeh, and she explains this narrative so succinctly in the context of perceptions of Islam – which appear to hold water with respect to perceptions of Feminism. She says:

“…I don’t blame our community for this. I feel that the horrible scapegoating we’ve had to endure has forced us into a corner of defensiveness, dissipating our energy in this endless game of pushing back against the misconceptions that ultimately victimize us. Imperialism behaves in this way not only out of sheer contempt for peoples different than its own, but also in a deliberate effort to prevent these groups from building themselves up. It makes me sad to think about all the resources that the (Muslim American) community has been forced to waste for the past decade on campaigns, events and media efforts to prove (that we too are American), that we too are human, begging and pleading the public to not believe the racist rhetoric being spewed about us. I can’t imagine the types of institutions, programs and civic society we could have cultivated for our community – the type of backbone we could have had the opportunity to grow – had we not been forced into this position. In this way, our behavior, aimed at constantly combating stereotypes and unjustified hatred – centres, serves and caters to those victimizing us, inevitably at our own expense. This has caused us to pretty much gag ourselves and tie our hands behind our backs so as to overcompensate for the judgments and try to convince the public that we are peaceful and harmless, much to our detriment.”

You know what scares me most? In defending the propriety of this list and discussing the morality of the approach it represents, we’re all forgetting the very issue it is addressing. This exacting and exhausting demand of defending our actions as feminists has invariably led to us work hard to shift perceptions towards us, to constantly fight misconceptions and to fight hate – instead of effectively being given the space, freedom and choice of investing in ourselves and chasing without abandon, the change we want to see.

Of course, no doubt, then, that seeking this change in perception towards us, is part of the endeavour to create an equal world – but how about the freedom to do it our way? Why do we need to be told how to perform feminism? Doesn’t intersectionality offer a clear idea of exactly how gendered oppressions are experienced, and how it is so uniquely different that no two instances can be homogenized into one form of experience?

Is it fair, then, that the group of women identifying as feminists who called out Raya for her list made a value judgment without regard for the due process that each woman who shared with Raya, followed, and, that Raya herself followed?

Top image is from Facebook profile

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  1. This is a little dicey spot, I know of women who have alleged sexual harassment just to trouble the other person, the worst one was when a gentleman was kicked out unceremoniously, on the basis of sexual harassment, complaint , and he happens to be gay.

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