Whisper Network & Discomfort: Lessons From a FB List of Harassers
Not black and white, the FB list of sexual harassers in Indian universities shines the light on some grey areas.
A Facebook post by lawyer Raya Sarkar, listing professors who have been allegedly accused of sexual predatory behaviour, has generated a fiery debate among academics, students, feminists and activists.
A group of feminist scholars, activists, and lawyers like Kavita Krishnan, Vrinda Grover and Brinda Bose responded to the list, with a statement published on Kafila Online, where they expressed their ‘dismay’ and urged those behind the list to seek ‘due process of law’ for their complaints. On Thursday, Sarkar’s Facebook account was briefly suspended, as those behind the ‘Facebook List’ argued that their methods of naming and shaming sexual predators was published after due diligence.
As the repercussions of ‘the list’ continue to be felt, commentary on the issue has been largely divided into black or white — either you support the list, or you’re a ‘fake feminist’ — while most of the questions the incident raises are coloured by shades of grey.
The Problem with Anonymity — And Its Necessity
The biggest problem with the list is its anonymity. Ostensibly, it puts forth blame on the respected names in academia, without centering the victim's narrative or specifics. This makes it open to misuse and with uncertain accountability. (For instance, can or will these women file cases?).
A mob, even one which is online, is premised on anonymity, and is always something to speak out against. Unlike Christine Fair’s article on Huffington Post, which named the harassers in her life with her own experiences, the list offers no context or narrative of the incident of assault and harassment.
It’s true that assault survivors don’t owe anyone the details of their experience, but a lack of narrative makes the list open to misuse – and by extension, may reduce its credibility.
But Sarkar, the woman who published the list, says that she gets messages from survivors, with ‘evidence’ like screenshots, and she is acting as their proxy to avoid libel on the behalf of the survivors.
Most of the professors and academics on the list are well-known in their field, teach at some of the best universities in the country, and have a ‘reputation’ (and not just based on their academic achievements) – making it impossibly difficult for a survivor of assault to speak out without a veil of anonymity.
In academia, the power structure is biased towards the professor. Careers of PhD students are at stake with one recommendation letter, an anonymous space offered by a woman, who won’t reveal your identity, may just be the only way.
Especially, when the ‘due process of law’, like university committees against sexual harassment fail, as it was seen in a case of sexual harassment in St Stephens’ College.
When conventional forms of getting justice prove to be ineffective, or worse, detrimental to their careers, then why can’t a woman resort to a less than ideal way of naming and shaming?
#MeToo, #HimThough and An Extended Whisper Network
But justice may not be what the women in the list want.
Most women students and academics have argued that the list is an extension of a ‘whisper network’ – an informal way of communication among women in a certain social context, warning each other about certain sexual predators. Think of that nice woman on your first day of work who took you aside and told you to be careful about the overeager manager – that’s a whisper network in play.
So the list should serve as a warning for other women to be careful of the alleged perpetrators they might meet in the corner university office – but it also simultaneously opens up the possibility of slander.
After the viral #MeToo campaign, where women spoke up about their experience of sexual harassment, there was also a palpable sigh of frustration heard around the world – from women.
Because women know how routine sexual violence is, they know that almost any other woman they meet would have gone through a traumatic experience.
The onus should be on the man, it was argued, which gave rise to #HimThough – a hashtag which shamed the perpetrators, especially after the Weinstein story. Through this lens, the Facebook List is not a ‘witch hunt’, but just a radical way of how we frame the debate around sexual harassments and harassers.
Of ‘Comfortable’ Naming and Shaming
Naming and shaming of perpetrators of sexual assault, by instinct, produces discomfort in most people. “Where is the proof?” is the first question which comes to mind when looking at a collated list on Facebook of well-known professors.
But why doesn’t the question come up when perpetrators belonging to lower class, lower caste men are shamed with alarming frequency, and are accompanied by whoops of vindication? Is the ‘discomfort’ with the list because it shatters the perception of a certain ‘type’ of perpetrator?
Or does the discomfort stem from an intrinsic belief in ‘innocent until proven guilty’?
The Importance of Believing
“Facebook is not a trial court. Why can’t we just believe these women?”
The most difficult part for any survivor of sexual violence is to convince people that her experience is true and valid. Disbelief and cynicism give way to attributed motives, which quickly leads to a survivor’s testimony being discredited, twisted or labelled ‘fake.’ In this context, shouldn’t feminists take the leap of faith and just believe the women on the list?
But what is the line which differentiates unflinching belief from participating in a hounding mob?
Good Feminists, Bad Feminists
There are as many versions of feminism as there are feminists. It enriches the discourse, generates dissent, and thank God for that! So, debates aren’t new for feminists in India.
But when Sarkar published her list on Facebook, it brought up new definitions of what it means to be bad or a good feminist.
Support for the list inscribed you as a strong feminist, while slight disagreement with the rhetoric associated with the list, labelled you as a ‘liar’, or worse, and stripped you off your feminist status.
But as can be seen from various strands of discussions emerging from the list of sexual harassers in Indian universities, it’s far from a battlefield which can be termed ‘Us vs Them.’
It’s more like a collective moment of truth – filled with confusion, murky doubts and hopefully, a lesson to listen.
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