Towards Complex Feminist Solidarities after the List-Statement

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Gita Chadha ( teaches sociology at the University of Mumbai. The author would like to thank Mary John and K Sridhar for reading the first draft of this article and providing valuable suggestions.
14 December 2017

The list-statement controversy has generated heated debates amongst feminists in India. Described as a feminist civil war, the controversy has presented a moment of several reckonings. This article argues that in order to repair the damage done to the movement, feminists must build conversations around the axis of generation, intersectionality and netizen identities. It also suggests some contours for these conversations.

Over a month ago, allegations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment against the American film producer, Harvey Weinstein, were brought into the open. Till date, over 50 women professional associates of Weinstein have shared their experiences of being sexually harassed by him (Davies and Khomami 2017). The accusations, have led to criminal investigations against Weinstein in several cities leading to his ouster from his company and also expulsion from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This snowballed into a major Internet campaign where women shared experiences of sexual assault, rape, and harassment with the hashtag #MeToo. The campaign that started in the US led to the ouster of some men in positions of power, especially in the entertainment industry. The #MeToo campaign, started by activist Tarana Burke and popularised by the actor Alyssa Milano, became a major movement as women all over the world used the hashtag to share their experiences of sexual harassment. Several men in positions of power across a range of professions were named in the process. Some women felt that the #MeToo campaign needed to be combined with a #HimToo campaign to name and shame the sexual offender publicly, in order to shift the sense of shame from the victim–survivor to the sexual offender/perpetrator.


As the campaign spread, Christine Fair, a professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Georgetown, wrote a long essay describing her experiences of sexual harassment and misogyny in academia. Detailing her experiences as a student at the University of Chicago, Fair accused Dipesh Chakrabarty, a well-known subaltern studies scholar, of sexual misconduct. The removal of Fair’s article from Huffington Post may have triggered the making of a “list” in India. Put out by 24-year-old Raya Sarkar, a law graduate from India now studying in the US, the list crowd-sourced names and cases of sexual harassment of students by their professors. The names started flowing and till date, there are 72 entries on the list (on Facebook) naming professors mostly from the social sciences and the humanities, including many well-known left-liberal Indian professors. Sarkar stated that her purpose of sourcing the list was not only to name and shame the perpetrators, but also to warn students on campuses of sexual predators. She argued that such information always exists as whispers among student networks and needed to become a declaration. The list was not accompanied by demands for action against the named, either institutional or otherwise. The list, now known as LoSHA (List of Sexual Harassment Accused) generated immediate response (New Indian Express 2017a; Pal 2017) 


Unlike elsewhere, in India, the list did not attract any apparent attention of the state nor of the institutions named.[1] Instead, it sparked off a controversy that has polarised feminists across the country, particularly within the academia. Within hours of the list being shared on social media on 24 October, well known and respected feminist scholars of the country issued a statement on Kafila, an online journal, asking for the list to be withdrawn and urging the list makers to avail of due institutional process of filing complaints instead of naming and shaming the men (Menon 2017). What followed was a feminist battle, not against patriarchy and misogyny of the academia, but “amongst ourselves.”[2] This battle presented to us the challenges of building complex solidarities across generation, caste, and netizen identities. One commentator even went to the dramatic extent of describing this event as a feminist civil war in India (Ghosh 2017).


Through this set of articles on EPW Engage, we seek to reflect and find our own voices on what feels like, but must not be, the battleground. As committed feminists in academia, we find ourselves churning experiences and articulating discourses that both dwell on the controversy and go beyond it. Indeed, it is a moment of reckoning. As I think through the events of the last month, I find myself reflecting on three axes that have defined the debate and writing a history of the present, as it continues to unfold.


To Battle or to Play?

First, the list-statement polarised feminists on the axis of generation. The “older” and the “younger” feminists fought a ferocious battle of ideas on Facebook. While there is political value in negating the ontology of this divide in order to build solidarities across age, it is also important to pause and see it as just that, because some of us felt it like that. Especially those of us who interact with the young on a daily basis in classrooms need to hear this divide with urgency. Between resisting being the “mother” and comprehending being the “friend” lies a whole ground of feminist pedagogic relationships that must find languages of connect, care, and intimacy, over age and generation. It is from that ground that I followed the responses from both sides, so to speak, of the list-statement fight. It is clear that there is an emotional core to the friction. While the older feminists, the signatories of the Kafila statement, communicated rage and hurt at being discredited and dismissed as “mothers in-law,” some of the list makers felt that they were losing their feminist heroes and were being left to fend for themselves. This sense of loss was compounded by the fact that we were also losing our male allies. The sense of betrayal, hurt, and anger seems to be quite real and raw on both sides. 


While battles across generations are natural and not strange to our feminisms, the value of care and trust as we address each other across locations and standpoints cannot be underestimated. In retrospect, just for a moment, let us visualise the unfolding of a different scenario. Had the statement in Kafila not been issued at all, had the tone been less authoritarian and proprietorial, had it begun with trust rather than doubt, with openness rather than judgment, dialoguing rather than silencing; it would have been a lesser exertion of power. While I fully understand the subsequent rage of the list makers, in the process of repair, one would urge the younger generation to factor in the history of the movement against sexual harassment and violence. The appeal to use due process was coming not from the state nor from anti-feminist women; it was coming from those who had struggled to write the Saksham report, had worked tirelessly with the Justice Verma Committee, had sat into the making of the sexual harassment act of 2013, and those who had fought battles with feminists of a generation earlier to them on issues of sexuality and caste. Sadly, the lack of care, trust, and most importantly, restraint on both sides has led us to damage which might take a long time to be repaired. One hopes that bodies like the Indian Association of Women’s Studies can play an important role in this process of repair and rebuilding.


Having said that, one can empathise with the dynamics of the situation as it unfolded because there were genuine emotions involved on both sides. As we move towards the task of repairing, one might draw strength from the very character of feminisms. Theoretically, methodologically, and substantively, we have always known how to grapple with difference and disagreement in an enabling manner, particularly in the classroom. Yet, we need to ask at this moment: what made us so insecure that on the one hand we did not “allow” the young to speak freely? On the other hand, what made us so angry that we did not accord the old a “dignity” they should have earned? 


Mary Anne Case (2003) argues that feminist “battles” in the academic context often reflect our inability to see difference in opinion as a “play” of ideas that must be encouraged between generations. Generally, she says, it is our fears that we will either feed into stereotypes of “women as women’s enemies,” or that we will feed into the hands of men standing outside the ring to destroy us, which make us insecure players of ideas—and in this context, of practices. While the list-statement controversy did not demonstrate this insecurity (on the contrary, it fought quite openly), it would be fruitful to shift the adversarial tone set by the controversy. Continuing to make her argument for feminist disagreements, it is interesting to see how Case changes the metaphor of battle to a metaphor of play. She says, 


… our unwillingness as feminists to exhibit disagreement goes far beyond an unwillingness to be publicly critical of the scholarly quality of other feminists' work and extends to a reluctance to engage one another on those issues where reasonable disagreement is only to be expected. Among the things we may be reluctant to do, which scholars in other fields often do quite productively, is to play with ideas, to toss out possibilities that, in the end, we may not wish to have taken seriously. This may in part be because many of the issues we deal with are deadly earnest matters in which women's lives are at stake; play is easier and safer for scholars whose subject matter is less directly a matter of life and death. But we also could use a playground, a safe space in which to play rather than do battle to the death.


In finding a way ahead where some of the wounds and hurt of the list-statement controversy have to be healed, we could carry forward or return to the metaphor of play to bring in multiple standpoints and many ways of being and doing our politics. I believe that metaphors of the playground are relatively less governed by power than metaphors of the battleground. From personal experience, I think lessons from our feminist and other democratic classrooms should help us in this task. As we take the conversations back to our classrooms, cultures of the playground rather than cultures of the battleground need to be cultivated as we traverse over shared–unshared grounds of walking the slut walk with pride and making lists with abandon. Though rather late, the statement put out by Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) is a welcome move in that direction (WSS 2017).


Nuancing Intersectionality

Second, the list-statement controversy polarised the discourse on the basis of caste, and to some extent, on sexuality. It sharply brought forth the endemic nature of our politics today where speaking on behalf of anyone or for anyone is increasingly—and perhaps even rightly so—getting foreclosed. If talking on behalf of another precludes (which it often does) giving the “other” a space, a voice, a leadership; it should most fairly be stopped. And yet, we need to find ways of speaking together. Recently, we have seen discussions within feminism on the value of intersectionality both as concept and practice in the Indian context. Intersectional analysis is the recognition of multiple marginalities. It provides us the possibility of seeing how oppression is felt more acutely and sustained more systemically at some nodes of the intersections. For instance, when caste intersects gender, patriarchies are felt more acutely by women of the lower caste groups than women of the upper caste groups. While some have argued that the concept comes to us as part of imperialist hegemonies of theory and is increasingly becoming a buzzword of international governmentalism (Menon 2015), others have argued that its radical origins and politics continue to offer us a promise for complex analysis of patriarchies (John 2015). These debates need to become deeper, and much more robust and honest in feminist conversations in India. 


In the academic world in general and as a person in a sociology department, I encounter discussions on caste where caste and community are still conflated—where the typical urban, middle-class student still thinks that caste has disappeared, or if it exists, it does so only in rural areas. Coupled with this, of course, is a strong opposition to reservations or affirmative action of any kind. I also encounter the more sophisticated response: a scepticism towards identity politics. In our academic institutions, the atmosphere is a casteist one. In such a situation, to think that a female Dalit student has equal and fair recourse to “due process” is misplaced optimism. A Dalit female student is often trapped by and within her sense of loyalty to her caste group as she is excluded from the groups not of her own caste.[3] Due process is fraught with difficulties for all women who choose to access it, but it is more so for those nearer to the bottom of caste hierarchies. I say this despite being in an institution where a “caste from below” politics has significantly changed the situation, but not always for the female Dalit student. 


Further, I would like to draw attention to a complexity that I think the list might be suggesting (though the list makers themselves would not want to participate in this suggestion). I push the suggestion in order to find strategic ways of conversing on the sexual politics on campuses. Apart from leftist, upper-caste, heterosexual men who find their names on the list, a few men from marginalised categories are also named. A “responsible” intersectional feminism might have problems with putting all the men on the same list, as if they are not distinguished by the severity of the crime and the power hierarchies within them. But if we pause to look carefully, we might find that the list’s “irresponsible” feminism, which is accused of “flattening” the issue, is taking us towards another wisdom. As campuses begin to use caste and gender against each other at all levels (even in the classrooms), can we start to converse around the complexity of caste and gender politics on the ground, as it effects women students?


In this process, perhaps we need to rebuild a credence for the idea that it is not that only men from some locations who are prone to becoming misogynist because they are in power, but it is also that men of all locations, when they come to power, become prone to misogyny, unless educated otherwise of course. Men, irrespective of their marginal location or their politics, can be predators and it is in the interest of our intersectional politics that we must call them out. Needless to say, I am not being anti-men or essentialising the nature of men as inherently predatory, but instead I am arguing that perhaps it is the nature of patriarchy, and more importantly the nature of power, that makes men become predators. I am wholly for the purpose of taking men—all men—along in our feminisms. Yet, we must recognise and speak openly of the possibility that men from marginal locations, men with progressive ideologies, men who are our friends and allies, may also be sexual predators and they need to educate themselves about their masculinities.  


Care for “our” men (irrespective of which feminist side we are on) is our predicament, but this care needs to be practised not out of a sense of loyalty, but with a sense of mutual comradeship and a respect for complex feminist principles and practices, where the standpoint of the woman is not lost. This is a personal step we all need to take. Not taking this step, I think, violates not only the principle of reflexivity but also our own politics. If we begin this conversation more honestly in the context of campuses, I believe we stand a better chance of delivering justice, giving voice, and lending an institutional ear to Dalit–Bahujan women students in particular, but also to women students across caste. I would think that this will take us to a deeper and more nuanced practice of intersectionality and of building complex solidarities across caste within our movements.


Netizens and Cyborgs—Questions of Precarity and Reflexivity

Third, as a person working in feminist science studies, one of the first things I was curious about was the following: is this fight also a consequence of the gap between different sets of users of digital technologies or, more specifically, social network sites? Does it reflect a deeper bewilderment of our post-digital worlds and our netizen selves? Do we need to reflect on the changing modes of activism as we become Donna Haraway’s cyborgs?[4] Given the precarity of the digital world, how do we go about developing reflexivity in it? Can we apply Marc Prensky’s (now classic) distinction between the digital native and the digital immigrant to better understand the present controversy? 


In early 2000, a decade after the digital revolution began, Prensky (2001) argued that the gap between students and teachers in institutes of education in the US could be because of the fact that teachers were still immigrants to the digital world and the students were natives to it. This difference, according to him, was not merely a matter of access, but also a matter of ways of being in the virtual world. Though one needs to be sceptical of unmediated enthusiasm for the digital, Prensky’s classification of the users is a fruitful start in our understanding of the digital/virtual world.


Digital technologies are being used by states and governments, along with corporations controlling social network sites, to increase surveillance and control, leading critics to a scepticism of the digital world. We also see how these technologies are being used for strident digital activism, particularly by feminists. Both digital immigrants and natives use social network sites like Facebook for communicating their progressive and critical politics. Interestingly, it appears that the digital natives use the Internet as a way of personal expression of resistance at the individual level. While feminist approaches to technology have critiqued all technologies as emerging from, and reproducing, patriarchal structures of inequality, we have also articulated their potential for our expressions and empowerment. In her work on digital sociology, Sherry Turkle says that while we need to keep the focus on conversations which are face to face, we also need to see the Internet as a space where women can create new subjectivities and identities while finding creative expression for their politics (Huffington 2015). One may even ask whether, in the face of the crumbling civic society mechanisms, this is the new face of the public sphere. Of course, it cannot and does not replace real-world activism as campaigns like the Pink Chaddi have demonstrated. 


I would submit simply, as Mark Carrigan (nd) does, that as sociologists of the digital world, we need to see the virtual and the real as a continuum, and not as fundamentally distinct. Just as we aim to develop a reflexivity in the real world, so must we in the virtual one. This step would allow us to become critical inhabitants—immigrant and native—of the virtual. Interestingly, in the list-statement controversy, both sides used social network sites. Yet, there was a clear hierarchy of acceptance that was set up between the statements that appeared in Kafila and the list. Like Nishant Shah (2017) does, I too would suggest that it is important to not fetishise the list, but to see it as the development of a new culture of protest. If the list can be made to flow from the domain of the digital into the real world (where due processes against the named can begin), we can set examples and precedents for the future where the new and the old will feed into each other in a productive manner. If this flow is resisted on either side, we can be sure that the list will fade away without bringing about any “transformation” in due process or in a widespread culture of academic misogyny. Our conversations for the future need critical and reflexive explorations of netizen and cyborg identities—as they shape our selves, our worlds and our politics.


Looking Forward

By way of building complex solidarities amongst feminists to tackle the issue of sexual harassment on campuses, it becomes important to address the list-statement controversy and take a multipronged approach. First, at an immediate level, it is important to be pro-active on the named persons in the LoSHA. It is obvious that due process of filing complaints is not feasible in all cases “named” because of various reasons including the obvious time lapse that may have occurred in several of the cases. Where possible to do so, employers/institutions need to take cognisance of the situation and perhaps even initiate an enquiry. Two, in a sustained manner, the mechanisms of due process need to be strengthened and developed on a war footing and it is only the women’s groups who can effect this with the employer and the state. The immense lacunae between the UGC guidelines and the implementation is indeed crippling in the process of delivering justice. Three, at a systemic level, continuous cultures of conversations in a safe space need to be developed at all institutional levels. Should for instance the Women Development Cells in institutions take up the challenge of setting these up, since the individual departments are unlikely to do so? Wherever they are present, Centers for Women’s Studies have already begun the process. Student groups should also take this up more actively? Finally, while social or academic boycotts are not alternatives that we would consider, it is important for us to publicly and in private circles call out men who are known—or named—harassers. Indeed, the task of building complex solidarities across generation and location to address sexual harassment on campuses seems mammoth, but we cannot lose conviction in its possibility. The ideal and just way to address sexual harassment would be to have all institutional mechanisms in place and guarantee all women equal access to these mechanisms. In the absence of this, emergence of whispers and lists is inevitable, natural, and even welcome. They must be acted upon, with wisdom that appeals to a moral conscience.[5] 


This article is a part of the Special Feature Power and Relationships in Academia. To read other articles in this feature, click here.

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Gita Chadha ( teaches sociology at the University of Mumbai. The author would like to thank Mary John and K Sridhar for reading the first draft of this article and providing valuable suggestions.
14 December 2017