Global estimates from the United Nations indicate that 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Violence is a violation of human rights in and of itself, but it is also connected to a host of other problems including losing control over one’s body, and long terms physical and mental health problems, reproductive health issues including increased risk of unwanted pregnancies and HIV contraction, as well as difficulty in forming and maintaining healthy relationships, substance abuse as a coping mechanism, higher odds of engaging in risky sexual behaviors, and self-harm.
Violence is not merely an individual-level concern; it has implications for the community and for future generations. Violence is not always a direct, tangible form of coercion, control, or disparagement; it is also symbolic, present in language, value and belief systems, and attitudes.
Violence is also experienced by men and transgender people. Women are also capable of being violent. However, global estimates suggest that men are primarily the perpetrators of violence against men, women, transgender people, children. Estimates also indicate that men’s violence is more likely to lead to injury and even death.
When we speak of violence, especially violence experienced by women, we often think of intimate partner violence, or violence that occurs within relationships. The truth is, violence takes place in all kinds of settings and institutions: on transportation systems, streets, places of worship, in educational settings.
Recent reports show that institutions of higher education in particular are not the safe spaces that they are thought to be, particularly for women. A report from UN Women suggests that 76% of women experience sexual violence in their institutions of higher education in Bangladesh (www.partners4prevention.org/resource/bangladesh-factsheet) compared to about 21% of women in undergraduate programs reporting sexual violence on college campuses in the United States most of whom find it extremely difficult to access help from either their educational or legal institutions (www.jacobinmag.com/2017/10/title-ix-betsy-devos-doe-colleges-assault-dear-colleague).
Recently, certain celebrity academics along with non-celebrity ones were accused of being sexual predators in India in a list of predators compiled by a queer Dalit law student, Raya Sarkar, who wanted to throw light on structural violence in academia after what appears to be many instances of inadequate response from the legal system in cases of sexual harassment and violence. The list entitled “Hall of Shame” went viral, while a group of left feminists including Nivedita Menon and Kavita Krishnan, in a statement published on Kafila, asked that the list be taken down as it “names and shames without context.” Questions were raised about whose names made it to the list and whose didn’t and why.
The Kafila statement by this group of left feminists, all of whom we hold in high esteem, might I add, is problematic on several accounts.
- Accusing a Dalit woman of naming and shaming does little to support them and their plight. Naming and shaming is a tool of the oppressed—“weapons of the weak” as left feminist Priyamvada Gopal puts it—when they have nothing else available. An analogy would be suicide bombers in Palestine who resort to suicide bombing because they have no other weapon to fight oppression. Or, sharing video footage on social media of American police officers shooting their African-American citizens since they do not get redress through any “due process” of a racialised legal and policing system.
- The list is neither exhaustive nor complete but it is necessary to catalyse broader structural change. It is not an impediment to progress but a tool to bring attention to the widespread nature of sexual violence. It is a way to pressurise the world to listen.
- It is extremely non-feminist of Nivedita Menon and others to accuse another group of feminists of anything, really. Rather, I would have liked them to be in solidarity with Raya Sarkar and others. If they thought that they were going about the list the wrong way, they could have reached out to talk to them, understand where they’re coming from, guide them from their positions as senior feminists, and become their mentors and support the new generation of feminists. This new brand of feminists are clearly trying to stand up for oppressed groups of people that have historically been oppressed based on class, caste, and gender. This is something that all feminists are well-positioned to get behind.
- I say this because I truly believe that all feminists are on the same side because they all want justice for marginalised people, for those who are oppressed by men, by the system—by patriarchy and capitalism.
- The reason this list exists is because due process is not available to everyone who wants it. We know only too well that in India, like other parts of the world, it is unlikely that a low-income minority student will be able to go to either the university authorities or law enforcement authorities with allegations about sexual harassment without being further harassed, and blamed. We know that too often we do not believe individuals who say they have been sexually harassed. We particularly don’t believe individuals when they point fingers at people in positions of power.
- It is imperative that we understand that in a culture where women are regularly “named and shamed” for being in locations where they are sexually assaulted, for wearing particular articles of clothing that justify sexual assault, they may want to be able to confidentially report their experience of violence, at least as a first step.
- When the Kafila statement said “due process” has to be sought, it sounded much like “go to the police” and that is baffling, because these are the feminist women who have taught us how racist, casteist, and sexist law enforcement agencies and their personnel are like.
- The accusatory tone of the Kafila statement by the feminists is reminiscent of the kind of treatment that individuals are met with by law enforcement personnel when they report their experience of violence: a disregard of their experience of sexual violence and an emphasis on the manner in which it has been reported.
- Similarly, this rift between the two groups of feminists about the list is reminiscent of the kind of backlash and counter-backlash that follows when women “speak up” about their experience of violence in their lives, all of which is traumatising and re-traumatising for individuals speaking up about their own experiences as well as individuals with histories of sexual violence.
- The Kafila statement has led to friction between different groups of feminists, and this benefits patriarchy, no one else, and definitely not the cause: ending sexual violence.
Sexual violence is ubiquitous. A list of sexual predators may or may not represent the entire society. There may be many reasons for that, one being that right-wing politics and their power in India currently make it extremely difficult to criticise the right; I imagine it’s even more difficult for marginalised women to do so. In the era of email and server hacks, confidentiality is even more difficult to maintain.
This brings us to the question of anonymity. Hacking notwithstanding, the list is confidential, not anonymous. This means the people who are reporting the sexual predators have names and stories but they are being kept confidential. The list was put together by Raya Sarkar who says she knows all the individuals who have reported sexual violence on that list, which means it’s not the “mob” that critics claim it to be. In the past few days, some of the women who had posted the names of their abusers have revealed their identities and provided “context,” one of them being Nishitha Jain, director of the documentary “Gulabi Gang.”
As more women start sharing their experiences of sexual violence at the hands of the men on the now infamous list, it becomes clear that sexual violence will not end until patriarchal capitalist systems are dismantled, but it also becomes clear that the list has sent a strong message to the world about how prevalent women’s experience of sexual violence is, not just in academia, but everywhere.
Indeed, this moment is not a “catfight” as some are referring to this as but, in the words of Priyamvada Gopal, “… an important moment for feminism, pretty much globally, as—rightly—an older generation’s concerns and analyses are reconfigured and replaced by those of a new generation.” This reconfiguration then allows us to be non-prescriptive about how marginalised groups should find their voice, allows us to truly understand the importance of, as Gopal again points out, “rumours” as “oral history and subversion.”
It has been more than a month since the list of sexual predators in Indian academia was made public. As Varuni Bhatia, author of Unforgetting Chaitanya, commented on her social media page, “the list…did not result in any kangaroo courts or witch hunting of esteemed academics in India.” Instead, the list was a public display of long held secrets in Indian academia. Lists such as these predate social media, after all. In most graduate schools seniors pass down information to juniors about who is a little touchy-feely, who is a lech, who to avoid. In India. In the United States. In Bangladesh.
In other words, the list did not undermine due process as many feared. It highlighted that due process is difficult to attain. It made clear that women who experience violence in settings like universities are at heightened risk of backlash, efforts to silence them given the power that certain sexual predators have. Moreover, the response to the list shows that women who speak up are likely to be further oppressed in the name of protection, thus playing into the agenda of the right wing to limit women’s mobility outside the home. Most importantly, however, the list points to how rape culture is maintained across the world by sexualizing young women’s bodies, by making sexual violence a matter of scandal, by manufacturing threat and fear of rape, which in turn reinforces rape culture by putting the blame of rape on individual women in a culture where sexual violence is inevitable.
Since the appearance of the aforementioned list of sexual predators, another list has come into being: a list of sexual harassment in all of academia crowd-sourced by Karen Kelsky (a former tenured professor who runs a consulting firm, a blog, and has published a book, all titled The Professor is in). With over 1200 entries that describe the act of sexual harassment, the role each had within academia (e.g. PhD student, tenured professor) and the action that was taken if reported, this list lends support to the idea that sexual violence is ubiquitous across university campuses. What is unsurprising, but still worth mentioning, is that most of the individuals on that list did not get the help they needed from university administrators or the legal system. Due process, if you will, was largely denied.
What becomes clear is that men in positions of power, any power, have been getting away with committing sexual violence for years.
If we are to end sexual violence we need to look beyond individuals, even individuals on lists. As Angela Davis says in her book Freedom is a Constant Struggle: “neoliberal ideology drives us to focus on individuals, ourselves, individual victims, individual perpetrators.” Instead, we have to rupture patriarchy, capitalism, and racism — Hill Collins’ interlocking systems of oppression — that produce sexual violence, profit from it, and maintain it. We have to stop saying that men violate “because they can” because it’s far more complicated than that.
But, in the meantime, let us hold sexual predators accountable, even if it is just by talking about our own experiences.
Nadine Shaanta Murshid is Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York