There has been much sound and fury on social media recently, about the posting of a list of alleged sexual harassers in the Indian academe, on Facebook. Much of this has centred around the question of “due process”, and the importance of observing this. Before discussing this, I want to draw attention to another related point of profound importance, that has so far has been noted by only a few observers – for instance, Ratna Raman’s article in Hardnews1, and Karen Gabriel’s post on Facebook2. This is the importance of involving men in the battle against sexual harassment, not by rushing to their rescue, citing the failure of due process, but by insisting that they too engage increasingly, openly, accountably, and responsibly with this problem. Men, while responding to sexual harassment (whether general instances or specific allegations against themselves), need to bear in mind that men are the perpetrators in the overwhelming majority of cases of sexual harassment, and women and children are overwhelmingly the victims. A female student of mine, in the course of a discussion on “terrorism”, observed tartly that the “war on terror” ought to begin at the level of gender relations, because the vast majority of women live in a reign of implicit, unacknowledged terrorism – a condition so persistent and perpetual that, most women expect to suffer intimidation, terror and violation, at any moment in their lives. How much they expect these, and to what extent they suffer them, may vary significantly; but both the expectation and the suffering are almost ubiquitous. If this is true, then men need to acknowledge this, and to acknowledge that they may not even know that they may be creating, perpetrating and perpetuating such “sexual terrorism” and “gender-based terrorism”, to whatever extent they may be doing so. They need to accept that they may not even be able to gauge for themselves the extent to which they may be doing so; and that the fundamental reason for not being able to do so is that they mostly DO NOT LISTEN to women – not really. They don’t listen to women because they generally don’t take them seriously; they don’t take them seriously because they mostly patronize, if not infantalize, them; and they infantalize them mostly because, well, they simply can – literally, physically, often violently – even if they don’t always actually exercise that capability – along with the fact that most patriarchal cultures insist that women must marry men older than themselves. This chain of logic reveals an unpleasant truth: that even men who may not be harassers and violators themselves, are deeply complicit in the harassment and violence committed by other men – by not listening to women; by ignoring, or even affirming, other men’s violence; by practising forms of routine discrimination which may not be explicitly violent; by ignoring such sexism – any sexism, all sexism – by other men; by trivializing, mocking or even dismissing, women’s protests about being discriminated against, exploited, abused, violated, brutalized, etc. Men need to acknowledge this unpleasant fact, of this near-universal homosocial bond of complicity (that Karen Gabriel has theorized so extensively and finely in
her book on cinema3); as well as the fact that this complicity is the foundation, the condition of possibility, of the actual violence committed by (some of) them. Men need to accept that they participate in, even cherish, this homosociality of complicity, often as a means to avoid intimacy with women; and that they avoid intimacy with women because that road leads straight to empathy with them – to the realization that women are not just objects but subjects, with subjectivities and (the right to and capacity for) agency, and hence to the realization of their being treated unjustly, humiliatingly, etc. Men need to understand that, without such a realization, the very genuine emotions of affection, care, love, desire that they feel towards the women in their lives, often get structured as subject-object relations, rather than subject-subject ones – i.e., they are structured and articulated in terms of possession, ownership, protection, control and dominance, with all the attendant violence that those entail, rather than in terms of a mutuality in which women too have the possibility, the space, the right, to articulate their own emotions, feelings, opinions, to have those respected and to be respected for that. Men (and perhaps women too) therefore need to accept that they have to restructure the dynamics of desire, from desire as dominance, etc, to desire as mutual, etc.. They need to come to terms with the fact that this may well prove difficult, frightening, anguishing – after all, it requires letting go of the idea, the feeling, that desire is power, it requires the relinquishing of control, and perhaps most importantly, it requires breaking away from the homosociality of complicity. They need to overcome the powerful representation of this letting go, this relinquishing, as impotence, in those homosocial discourses, and the consequent and completely irrational experiencing of these as disempowerment; they should not, cannot, (continue to) allow this faux sense of impotence to be a reason, excuse or justification to avoid undertaking this monumentally important task of restructuring gender relations and the dynamics of desire. And women too must be involved in this task – both, by giving men the space to explore forms of desire that are more mutual; as well as speaking out, if necessary outside of “due process”, to ensure that such explorations don’t just become another form of sexual predatoriness. Both men and women need to realize that this is new terrain, without historical precedence: a country whose language and customs and terms of citizenry are still taking shape, and gaining in vocabulary, grammar, rules, possibilities, as more and more people participate in it, with greater and greater mutuality, regard and respect. Both men and women need to also realize that this molecular level re-structuring of social relations is not disconnected from, independent of, the structures and dynamics of other kinds of social relations – caste, class, race, age, region, religion, etc – which are themselves often enormously unequal, exploitative, oppressive, etc. To give an old saying a new spin, injustice in any of these is effectively (a justification for) injustice in all of these. Which means that the problem of sexual harassment has to be tackled as much on a case to case basis, as on a much, much larger scale, where it draws its legitimacy and power from other forms of social violence and injustice. The need to follow “due process” is certainly necessary, even vital, in tackling individual cases; but the language and customs of the new country of mutuality and respect has to be shaped as much in the re-articulation of those other kinds of social relations as well – it can’t be set in the stultifying legacies of “due process”. Which means that, in the course of any
of these kinds of re-articulations of social relations, “due process” may well – indeed, is bound to – sometimes suffer. Men in particular need to understand that this is an inevitable, if not very salubrious, outcome of shaking up the conditions of inequality that they have, generally speaking, been the beneficiaries of for so many millennia. The repeatedly raised bogey in this context is that unless “due process” is followed, women can allege sexual harassment baselessly. This is not only another manifestation of the fear of disempowerment noted earlier, it is an almost unconscious, knee-jerk attempt to retain control over the speech, articulations and discourse of the victims. More, it fails to take into account the fact that “due process”, however fair it strives to be, is necessarily administered institutionally, and hence is itself always already compromised by the inequalities and disparities that suffuse our institutions. Often, the fight against sexual harassment, as well as gender-based violence, is as much to ensure that “due process” serves to actually protect the victims, as against the specific perpetrators. Thus, “due process” may be – and should be – insisted on by those who possess (any degree of) institutional clout, whether men or women, especially to the extent that it protects the victims; but those without that clout – and this includes the vast majority of victims of any kind of social violence, including (perhaps especially) gender-based violence – are unable to insist that this very “due process” be adhered to, when seeking justice, and consequently, may well refuse to adhere to its demands themselves. In case it is not clear from the above, let me explicitly clarify that I am not rubbishing “due process”, just pointing out its limitations. It is vital to remember that if the stipulations of institutional “due process” are followed strictly, the most disempowered victims of sexual harassment (children, for instance, or Dalits) may never be allowed to speak. Men need to recognize, accept and deal with this respectfully; they need to respond, as both Karen Gabriel and Ratna Raman note, not by claiming victimhood because “due process” was not followed in naming and shaming them, but with grace and generosity towards the accusers. This may well be reconstructed as an entirely new kind of “due process”, which actually cognizes inequalities and imbalances in power. Further, much of what I have noted above applies not just to heterosexual relations but to heteronormative relations in general, and hence to other kinds of sexual relationships too, that adopt the usual gendered power imbalances. It is in the hands of those in power, both men and women, to facilitate the dialogue that is so essential, so crucial to the emergence of the new language and customs within which such a new “due process” can emerge; the men who feel they have been wrongly named as sexual harassers have a particularly significant role to play in this facilitation. The student I had mentioned earlier (whose name unfortunately I do not recall) Ratna Raman, Karen Gabriel, V Geetha and the many other women who have highlighted this most important aspect of this controversy need a huge “Thank you!”
P K Vijayan is Asst Professor, Dept of English, Hindu College, Delhi
1 ‘Those Who Should Be Named and the Feminist October Revolution’, Hardnews, 27 October 2017. Available at http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2017/10/those-who-should-be-named-and-feminist-october-revolution 2 See 2. 2. https://www.facebook.com/karen.gabriel.14/posts/10155797677248427
3 Melodrama and the Nation: The Sexual Economies of Mainstream Bombay Cinema, 1970-2000 (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2010).