The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

All the Things I Wish I Said At The ‘Sexual Harassment In Academia’ Open House, But I Didn’t

Nidhi Kinhal, Class of 2019

Full disclosure: I should have spoken up at the open house. I think I would have if I was not absolutely overwhelmed, worked up and unable to decide at what point to begin. That is no excuse and I take full responsibility for accompanying my presence with awful silence. I’d like to thank the History Society for publicly acknowledging what had been an embarrassing hush-hush, and take their cue to continue the conversation through a medium I find comfortable and, I hope you do too.

When I first found out about the List, it was strewn over my laptop screen in the middle of a class. What followed were some intense, anxious, fluctuating and nerve-wracking days for so many of us. To feminists who initiated conversation and helped each other unconditionally in dealing with the disappointment or triggered moments — thank you. My solidarity with the list remains unwavering, and here’s my two cents on why:

Facebook is not antithetical to nuance; holding individual perpetrators of violence accountable and thinking about our complicity in the larger patriarchal conditioning are not mutually exclusive. There is something to be said about immediate, impulsive reactions. I was threatened by the list when I first saw it, and caught myself thinking: “Holy shit, this isn’t the way to do things at all!”. There could be a flaw in evaluating these cases as harassment, women could be unfairly accusing an innocent person, proof/evidence is missing, we know nothing about the incidents and are wrongfully merging different degrees of harassment, the list is anonymous, and most importantly — shaming is unkind and achieves nothing. Surely there are more civil courses of action!

There is no undermining that these are valid apprehensions. But I believe revisiting our concerns is crucial.On further introspection, I realized that my initial reactions were eerily similar to textbook dudebro arguments against the calling out of sexual harassment. False accusations. Severity as credibility. A somewhat anal insistence on accessing evidence. Tone-policing. What is it about Facebook — despite not transforming into a legal institution, or into evidence on the basis of which verdicts could be meted out — that is so radical, so dangerous and so seemingly antithetical to our politics-procedure?

It’s important to recognize the source of these bewildering concerns. I could place mine partly on my internalized misogyny, and caste-class hegemonies. I possessed a sense of disproportionate entitlement to survivors’ stories, the evidence behind it, the women who came forward, the truth and verifiability of their statements against an objective (which also means, in many cases, masculine or non-feminist) code of law. I wanted to know everything before I decided to show solidarity. Although it isn’t as if access to full knowledge (or the lack thereof) hasn’t been a point of contention before for resulting in political action on campus.

These are men in positions of power and privilege, particularly on caste and class lines. Their body of academic work has given them an almost intractable credibility and admiration. It is hard to see our ally-ships being let down. It is hard to resist a feeling of betrayal. Really, who do we trust now? When men — particularly liberal or Leftist or feminist allies — prove that they can conveniently separate their politics from their personal behaviour, when they seem to let go of the one tenet of being good allies i.e. to be self-reflexive and willing to learn, we find it hard to believe there are no safe spaces. You know, the “Ashoka University is a private institution whose values are progressive. Men are educated here, they come from great backgrounds and intellectual accomplishments. There’s no way this could happen here. This is a problem outside — where the Haryana men are, where the construction workers are from, where the uneducated or ‘monstrous’ men are”? This is where analogies help.

We know of instances where auto-drivers, Uber drivers and conductors have been called out on social media for being inappropriate. Instances of naming and calling out stalking, predatory behaviour, and cyber sexual harassment at the hands of right-wing trolls are common. That too, in a similar vein as of the List’s, to warn and protect fellow-women and not act as legal verdicts. If these instances were converted into lists, would we be as vehemently against them as we are about academics? It wouldn’t be far-fetched to expect asymmetry. People would hardly bat an eye over the risk of falsely accusing (despite the slim chances of that) a lower-class/lower-caste man for the benefit of convicting dozens of men who are rightly accused. Accusations are also pushed more easily to fruition: one can imagine a driver easily being out of a job, whereas academics will predictably go scott-free (apart from temporary reputation drops) even in cases of serial, predatory behaviour. Moreover, these accusations have always existed in the realm of Chinese-whispers. The moment rumoured warnings have names and faces, it becomes too real and shattering.

There is so much privilege acting behind how we respond to the lists, who we put the onus on, and whom we reserve our most basic albeit hesitant solidarity towards. One finds reliability where one tries: Raya invited only responses from first-hand survivors or direct observers. They engaged in conversation that more often than not entailed proof with screenshots, context and given that Raya is a law student themselves, ascertaining legal boundaries. If one meets them with suspicion due to internalized caste prejudices or methodological concerns, there have been more important sources. In response to lack of details, some survivors have been substantiating charges, and acknowledging long-standing stories, despite threats and gaslighting. One survivor, for instance, wrote about being groped in the middle of her sleep by Germany-based historian Benjamin Zachariah, one of the accused men on the list.

In some sense, the most productive thing about the Kafila response to me are the jokes on due-process! One need not elaborate on the inefficiency of the legal system, broader gender sensitization or whatever takes away the focus from actually holding these men accountable while also examining our positions as allies. That is, the two are not mutually exclusive or separate. They must be done together. I am highly skeptical of patronizing arguments that give social media any less credit than it deserves. Sure, everything is too rapid to take in. But one look at the online media and Facebook discourse will tell you that it is rich and intersectional. People are examining the list in relation to caste, class, postcolonialism, due process, disagreement on the grounds of infeasibility of short-cuts and perpetual punishment. Moreover, there is no guarantee that situations would be any less reactionary if conducted in-person or through “due process”. People are angry, and they are talking in somewhat unprecedented ways. Deal with it.

Like someone pointed out, the genius of this list really is that there is no way to reserve solidarity from it without one’s privilege glaring back at you from your silence, elongated confusion, want of self-awareness, apathy, or disgust. Of course, there is no perfect response that the accused can give out without sounding obnoxious or being met with upset. Journalists who have covered this know that perhaps the Zachariah way is the best option available, if they are unwilling to introspect. And yes, the harassers are flawed human beings shaped by a larger misogynistic system. Yes, sexual harassment entails grey areas, dilemmas around drunkenness, and the nature of power intersecting with desire. How in the patriarchal hellhole does any of this absolve perpetrators of their responsibility? How does nuancing these discussions take away from the simple fact that someone feels violated? Why is the empathy always reserved for perpetrators, and all onus thrust on survivors? We must beware of conflating or equalising our responsibility in the larger system that sustains these men, and the culpability of the perpetrators over those particular acts of harassment. In other words, it is possible to be born in a misogynistic world and not be a misogynist.

Paromita Vohra explained in her incisive piece why the list causes a disruption; it names “implicit imbalance” in both consensual heteronormative relationships, and explicit harassment. Finally, the women are able to voice to men in power that what they perhaps think is ‘cool’ or ‘passionate’ might look completely different to them. For once, we are not taking a man’s word for it. Considering that most cases entail female victims, she gets to name the relationship, not he.

Lastly, Raya Sarkar is not the “source” of the list. We would be better off abandoning that bizarre notion. They aren’t pretending to be an arbitrator of justice, or a sole harbinger of a feminist utopia. I’d like to acknowledge the immense emotional labour they have undertaken in order to keep at this. Raya has received abuse, rape threats, sharp condescension/patronizing op-eds, prejudiced attitudes — none of which they signed up for. I am grateful for them for sticking through and for demanding self-care when they needed it.

I do feel unfulfilled in many ways by the list and conversations derived from it. The list isn’t an end in itself. It isn’t a perfect, scratch-free model for action. We do need to have conversations that answer the question: given the list, now what? How do we want to create systems of support to avoid bullying of survivors who have opened up? What are the alternative, non-legal forms of healing/support we can assist with? How do we ensure that these men aren’t still being predatory, and resolve to work on themselves? And since many of them are directly involved in our lives — how are we going to interact with them? Some of them are “woke” and “bright” and “Left”; how are we going to rethink what it means to be those things?

Being radical isn’t necessarily being unproductive. The power of this list is precisely that it ruptures everything we consider to be true of ourselves and our environments. It renders us incapable of making excuses, or derailing/sugarcoating the issue. In no way is the multiplicity in feminist responses a fatal divide to the movement. God, if anything, it helps us plunge forward.

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