An initiative on Facebook helmed by Raya Sarkar, an LLM student at the University of California, Davis, is grabbing eye balls and sparking heated conversations amid various social circles. Inspired by the wildly well received #metoo campaign, the purpose of this initiative is to bring out before students a list of sexual predators/harassers in university spaces so that they can be "wary" of them.
The list consists of many popular names, and a number of people have expressed surprise, outrage, and dismay on social media. However, even though the goal is to counter sexual harassment, there are multiple issues with this campaign.
While the names of the alleged perpetrators will become public, there is no way of finding out who the victims are. While this does save the victims unnecessary and completely undeserved shaming and humiliation, it also leaves scope for false maligning and character assassination of those on the list.
The Issue With Anonymity
The names are sent to Sarkar and the list is shared from her account. Anonymity, though understandable, has a major drawback. It can lead to the spread of inauthentic information.
While efforts of those behind the campaign are noble and necessary, they can have damaging consequences on the lives of those who did not deserve to be on the list. And sadly, there is no way of ascertaining if they did or not.
Being a social media trial, there is no way of discerning the admissible from the inadmissible. While legal trials give the accused a fair chance of defending himself before pronouncing him guilty, Facebook and Twitter will not leave you that option. A generation that thrives on instant news and Facebook trends will believe most of the content available on the tap of a finger.
Feminists Against the Campaign
A group of prominent activists and feminists, including Nivedita Menon, Ayesha Kidwai, and Kavita Krishnan, put out a statement on online blog Kafila, labelling the Facebook initiative a "name and shame campaign" and expressing their disapproval. In the statement, they said:
One or two names of men who have been already found guilty of sexual harassment by due process, are placed on par with unsubstantiated accusations. It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability. Where there are genuine complaints, there are institutions and procedures, which we should utilise. We too know the process is harsh and often tilted against the complainant. We remain committed to strengthening these processes.
They also added that this manner of naming can delegitimise the long struggle against sexual harassment and make their job as feminists more difficult.
The statement, however, went on to receive a lot of flak by Raya Sarkar and the supporters of her campaign, being seen as “establishment feminists protecting their own.”
So, no, I will not sign up to the politics of anonymous lists. I do not put mocking labels on people curating and publicising or defending such lists, but I respectfully refuse to be part of this project. The project of creating anonymous lists is, to my mind, akin to blackening faces, publicly parading and socially boycotting people based on anonymous allegations. And we know who, generally, wield the power to do so in our society and over whom.
Tammana Basu, human resource manager at Shakti Shalini, an NGO that works against all forms of gender violence, especially among the less privileged, took to Facebook as well to condemn Sarkar’s initiative.
In her post, she said:
I have no condemnation for the choice that the victims have made of sending names to the list. There are circumstances which pushed them to it. I am in fact, very sorry for how we’ve failed them. However, I can condemn the medium, the form, the platform, the modus operandi of that list, what it represents, the potential for violence and victimisation it holds (and has already released) without condemning the victims.
Basu added that the list expects all its readers to, without a second though, believe that the 60+ professors mentioned are criminals and sexual predators, which is a power that “should rest with no one person, no one list.”
‘Not a Shame Campaign Because Men Involved are Shameless’
In a Facebook post stating that Tarana Burke, who started the #metoo campaign, was in solidarity with her and the victims, Sarkar said that the movement had empowered more women to actually go to the police and file FIRs. She said she had “assessed their cases and told them to go to the police because they have enough evidence to put the harassers behind bars.”
In the same post, she said she was not afraid of a defamation suit because some of her recent professors and many famed academic and lawyers in the US had told her that they will represent her pro bono and the accuser’s narrative did not stand a chance.
In an earlier Facebook post, she also shot back at the activists condemning her in the Kafila statement. Referring to the activists as "Savarna Brahmin women," she said it's not a shame campaign because "the men (and y'all) are shameless (sic)."
Sarkar said that the list was "for students to be wary of professors, through firsthand accounts of victims."
She stated it was no hearsay and had been done to prevent further harassment.
Lastly, I hope this makes it sufficiently clear why most victims never speak up, or do not want to named. Because they are bullied into silence. I haven’t seen their statement on kafila nor have any interest in sexual harassment apologia, but I’m sure all of them went #metoo during the campaign but run to protect their brahminical bros and husbands... it’s what they have been conditioned to do, for centuries. #FekuFeminism (sic).Raya Sarkar
Sarkar later edited the post to add that Kalifa was run by Lawrence Liang, who was “also on my list.”
An Abuse of the Abused?
Expanding the umbrella of caste disparities to incorporate the concern of fellow feminists, although, does seem like a remarkable extension and is grossly unfair. Protecting one’s “brahmanical bro” is quite different from lamenting a lack of answerability and standing up for a fellow individual’s right to defend himself from undeserved smear.
There is nothing elitist, nor upper caste, about trying to prevent a possibility of defamation. It is on the other hand a struggle for each human being’s fundamental dignity.
Besides the fact that the purpose of the list is to ensure that the students are cautious around the named professors is a point Sarkar has made repeatedly in her Facebook posts as well. She even reiterated the same in an interview with BuzzFeed.
The list was not prepared with institutional action in mind, but as a cautionary list for students.Raya Sarkar to BuzzFeed
But the list also includes MSS Pandian. The eminent social scientist passed away in 2014. Why there is a reason for students to be ‘wary’ of him when he is not even alive anymore is beyond reasonable explanation.
True essence of feminism lies in treating people belonging to all sexual identities in an unbiased, equal way. Slandering even a single individual for the greater good is extremely unjust. This campaign will remain reckless and dangerously flawed until we can find a way to prove the culpability of each name on the list without compromising on the privacy of any victim who does not want to disclose his or her identity.
It is true, indeed, that victims have not had it easy since time immemorial. But leaving a scope for false claims to be added alongside authentic ones in itself an insult to each woman, man, and child who has faced sexual harassment. It is an abuse of the abused, because it leaves room for others to take leverage off their ordeal in order to meet a different interest.
This campaign can cause serious damage to the blameless and can lead to further exploitation of the exploited. Hence, it needs serious rethinking.
It is important to open the floor for discussion, debate and dialogue on sexual abuse, so that more people can come forward and share their experiences. Sharing helps both the victim as well as the society. In that sense, this campaign is a step in the right direction.
However, opacity creates room for damage. Thus, we must work towards rectifying the legal framework so that sexual abuse is curtailed in a manner that does not make pursuit of justice another ordeal for the victim. We must also function in a transparent manner and create an environment that encourages transparency.
The focus must be on continuing the conversation in order to improve the due legal process, instead of utilising proxy accounts and intensifying layered operation that may have more collateral damage than we are aware of.
(This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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