The world’s response to the almost simultaneous exposés on Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in The New York Times and The New Yorker was the #MeToo hashtag, which took social media by storm.
I personally did not participate. Growing up in India as I did, I did suffer my share of street sexual harassment – while walking home from school, uncomfortable with my changing body as a teenager; while waiting to buy tickets at the cinema; while walking to the bus stop from work – but I found the gender specificities associated with the hashtag problematic.
I have been fortunate not to have experienced sexual harassment from heterosexual male colleagues, bosses, friends, and acquaintances. However, I have experienced sexual harassment from women who were attracted to me, and from gay men whose heterosexual male friends were attracted to me; I know of friends who are transwomen, male, assigned-male-at-birth, assigned-female-at-birth, non-binary and gender fluid, who have been victims of sexual harassment; working in animal rescue, I have come across dogs and cattle who were victims of rape. Someone once told me his ex had trained her dog to perform oral sex on her.
How could we exclude all of this and restrict sexual harassment to that inflicted exclusively by heterosexual men and exclusively on women?
When men protested against the closed nature of the hashtag – usually men who had been sexually assaulted – they often deleted their posts after a series of vituperative comments.
Harassment is not about sexual orientation or gender. It is about power and entitlement, and these notions transcend labels. They even transcend species.
But the hashtag had an effect which did resonate with me – a post by academic and writer C. Christine Fair on her blog, titled #HimToo: A Reckoning, in which she names sexual predators who thwarted her career and prompted her to switch jobs and courses. The post was published on the Huffington Post
website and subsequently taken down, and has now been published
Following this, Indian lawyer Raya Sarkar, who currently studies in the US, put up a growing list
of names of academics of Indian origin, as a “cautionary note”. She told newspapers she had personal accounts from the victims or friends of the victims in her inbox, with proof. She has also clarified that this was not an alternative form of justice – since the list has been compared by detractors to “kangaroo courts” and “khap panchayats” – but simply meant to flag predators for future victims.
Surprisingly, a collective of prominent women including Ayesha Kidwai, Kavita Krishnan, Shohini Ghosh, and Vrinda Grover, signed a note published
and titled “Statement by feminists on Facebook campaign to ‘Name and Shame’”, in which they said they were “dismayed” by the list, which they claimed named men “as sexual harassers with no context or explanation.”
They were not the only ones who felt that way.
Somak Ghoshal’s post
on Huffington Post
made similar points, as did Ashley Tellis’ piece
However, while they all made references to provisions in law or the Vishakha guidelines, they had to throw in some version of the disclaimer that “due process” did not usually work; the reality on ground is not the same as the rules on paper. They typically go on to ask disingenuous questions which only undermine their own arguments.
Troublingly, the collective of “feminists” wanted the list withdrawn; they ended their note on a copout: “We appeal to those who are behind this initiative to withdraw it, and if they wish to pursue complaints, to follow due process, and to be assured that they will be supported by the larger feminist community in their fight for justice.”
Ashley Tellis, an academic whose name is on the list too, termed it “vigilante feminism by trolls”; he also added that “As an out gay activist who has faced sexual harassment in educational institutions across the country for almost two decades now, the irony and dark humour of being on the list is not lost on him”.
He is not the only one who has offered homosexuality as defence against the charge of harassment.
Actor Kevin Spacey, who was recently accused by actor Anthony Rapp of assault when the latter was 14, and Spacey was 26, said
he did not remember such an incident and if it happened, it did because he was drunk; he went on to state that he was gay, ending decades of speculation on his orientation.
The amnesia of the offender is the second violation victims have to carry with them.
But Spacey’s postscript about his sexual orientation is nonsensical; being gay neither justifies his assault on a child, nor suggests he cannot be an offender in the way Weinstein is.
The other point most of the list’s detractors – and all its members who have spoken to or written in the media – raise is that there is no “concrete evidence”, not even an explanation.
Also read: 'Culture of silence enables men to continue predatory behaviour with women'
The explanations and stories are coming out now, and that is why the list is so important.
What happens when an offender is named is what happened when Weinstein was named. Several of the actresses who chose to remain anonymous in the New York Times piece were willing to be named for Ronan Farrow’s piece. After that was published, others who had hesitated to speak to him came out too.
Right after Tellis’ scoffed at the list, Raya Sarkar wrote
about her experience with him, and provided screenshots in which he – her teacher at the time – was coaxing her to contact a “hot” man who wanted to sleep with her or her friends. The comments section, which comprises several other contributions from people who say Tellis harassed or hounded them, indicates that it was a former male student who had named him, not Sarkar.
Among the names were Nilanjan Dutta and Sandeep Chatterjee, current faculty, and Arghya Basu, former faculty, at FTII. Responding to The Pune Mirror
, Amit Tyagi, dean of the film department, acknowledged that a student had accused Dutta of sexual harassment. Upon her complaint to the administration, Dutta was asked to resign the following year, only to be reinstated as the academic head and faculty in the editing department four years later, when the concerned student was still at FTTI.
The same piece quotes Arghya Basu as being “taken aback” when they called him for his response, and saying, “This is rubbish. I am not active on social media. How can someone write anything about me on social media? Tomorrow, I can randomly write something about the lady which can be equally baseless. I don't think the onus is on me to explain. She needs to back up her claims with proofs.”
This prompted a response
from award-winning filmmaker Nishtha Jain, who revealed that it was she who had named him, and she who had been assaulted by him. Jain said: “I think while she needs to back up her claims with proofs’, the onus is also on you, Arghya Basu. Are you so sure you have not sexually harassed anyone? If not in FTII, then maybe outside FTII? Please try to jog your memory a bit. You still cannot remember? Was it such an everyday, banal act that you don't remember when you pounced and grabbed a woman, your friend and fellow filmmaker like a sexually frustrated maniac at a mutual friend’s party where your wife Rajula Shah and 20 other friends, artists and filmmakers were also present?”
She went on to name those present, detailed the assault, and described how she left in a hurry, unable to bring herself to create a scene which would humiliate Basu’s wife and ruin the friend’s party. Subsequent interactions seemed to indicate he had forgotten the incident entirely.
Nishtha Jain also explained why she put his name on the list: “Because he could be invited to take a workshop in a film school and he’s a potential danger to female students. If a Facebook post, a name in the list can do the job, then why should I go through further harassment and humiliation of filing formal complaints and dealing with a misogynist and morally bankrupt system?”
It cannot be easy to react when an acquaintance, let alone a friend, assaults one. Most of us are not equipped to deal with such an unexpected situation. Those of us who believe we are strong worry about what indications we may have given to prompt such a reaction. And when we don’t react immediately, we berate ourselves for it.
While I have not been sexually harassed by anyone I know, I have been made to feel violated in other ways. I’d once written in The Ladies Finger
about the abuse
of women in theatre. I chose not to name the director and actor who abused me – though I did discreetly record the conversations I quote in the piece, and so do have proof – because I wanted to make it clear that it is an institutional problem, not a one-off. I believe one of the main reasons for my refraining from naming them was that I did not want to provide any sort of publicity, even negative, to a struggling actor who plays bit roles in mythological serials and a geriatric voiceover artist who fancies himself as an actor-director. But was I also worried about other ramifications? I cannot be sure.
But I am sure that I would have found it even harder to name the perpetrators if the violation had been sexual. I would certainly have hesitated even to name myself a victim of such an assault; it took me more than a year to speak about being physically and emotionally violated.
In another post, Nishtha Jain stresses
the relevance of anonymous listing – it “freed [her] from the fear and shame of saying out the name of the harasser in public.” His denial outraged and emboldened her to come out with the details in a public post. That is the hope of those of us who support the list – we hope that the validation of the victims’ voices will prompt them to show their faces and tell their stories.
When those of us who are in positions of some authority within our fields, when those of us who are among friends, hesitate to speak up, think of the predicament of those who are in positions of vulnerability even beyond the situation itself – of students who are harassed by their teachers, of interns harassed by bosses.
Also read: A list of sexual 'predators' raises debate in India
Due process simply does not work; it humiliated and cripples women.
In my time working for media organisations, I have come across two cases of women complaining of sexual harassment. In one case, a male colleague told the woman in question that she should wear a saree more often; on another day, he told her that her husband was a very lucky man. Did his words qualify as harassment? Did the fact that he had been staring at her bare midriff when he made the first remark, and at her chest when he made the second, qualify as harassment? How could she provide proof of his tone, of where he was looking? The panel constituted in office decided he was not at fault. The woman changed jobs.
In another case, a woman reporter who was covering the elections in a particular state was called to a senior male colleague’s hotel room after she had finished her work. He suggested there were ways she could climb the ladder quickly in her career, and touched her thigh. Shocked, she ran out of the room and related the incident to another colleague who was travelling with them. On his advice, she made a complaint. This time, the panel asked her two questions: Why had she gone to a man’s hotel room by herself? What was the relationship between her and the colleague in whom she had first confided? The complainant quit.
In both cases, the women in the panel led the cross-questioning. “Due process”, then, only gives one the illusion of recourse.
Evidence is rarely “concrete” in cases of sexual harassment.
Author and academician Priyamvada Gopal wrote a post
about something which is “so ineluctable, so diffuse and yet so powerful” – what she calls “the high degree of sexual entitlement that forms the subsoil for what turns into sexual harassment in some cases.”
This is of particular importance when those accused are men of power and influence, men who are in a position of authority because they are not only well-connected, but also because they are genuinely talented. Often, that is reflected in the reaction that greets their victims – “Oh, but he is a brilliant filmmaker”; “He is such a good actor, though”; “He is such an intelligent man”; “He is so good-looking!” – as if any of these factors would turn an unwelcome assault into a desirable one.
Geniuses can be predators. And it’s fine to watch their films, but shame them; to like their work, but sue them; to complain against them, and publicly name them.
It is because justice is so elusive, and proof so intangible, that the list and the stories it prompts are so important.
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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.