25/10/2017 4:45 PM IST | Updated 26/10/2017 4:08 PM IST

The Facebook Campaign To Name Alleged Sex Offenders Does A Disservice To Feminism

A trial by social media may not be an ideal route to justice, but it's hard not to see its temptation.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Social justice warriors of the future, however cynical they may be about the success of online campaigns, are unlikely to forget the month of October 2017 in a hurry.

What began as a familiar murmur of allegations of sexual harassment against a powerful Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein in this case, at the beginning of the month, soon turned into a deafening roar, a revolt, no less. Women from the entertainment industry began going public with stories of personal humiliation. Each new day brought forth fresh tales of misconduct.

Soon, the electric pulse of the moment had traversed beyond the entertainment industry, on the wings of the hashtag #MeToo, on social media. Women, as well as some men, from all over the world, irrespective of their gender, sexual identity and socio-economic background, began to speak up — not only against the sex offenders but also against the pervasive culture of silence fostered by patriarchy that stifles the voice of the victims.

The onus of shame, as each individual's testimony made clear, laid with the perpetrators of these grievous crimes, not those who have suffered them.

It may take several decades for a mindset to change. The more regressive the thinking, the more stubborn the stain it leaves behind, but once the tables are turned, as the collective outpouring of empathy did in the #MeToo movement, it's hard to rein in those feelings, especially bitter and angry emotions, that were kept forcibly pent up for years, even repressed.

It's not surprising, therefore, that #MeToo has led us to the moment when we confront #HimToo: the names of those accused of sexual misdemeanor. That's precisely what the women who outed Weinstein did. They pulled the plug off the willful blindness of the world, they forced their colleagues to wake up and smell the putrid reality. Since last evening, Raya Sarkar, who calls herself "an attorney interested in prisoner's rights, reproductive rights and anti-caste jurisprudence", has taken a plunge on Facebook to unmask sex offenders in some of the most reputed institutions of learning across the world.

In a public post, she has crowdsourced names of members from academia who have allegedly been involved in sexual misconduct with their colleagues or students.

The list begins with historian Dipesh Chakravarty and has, till the time of writing this piece, altogether 60 names, present or past faculty of institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jadavpur University, Film and Television Institute of India, and so on.

Only the most disingenuous will feign shock at the length of the list. Sexual exploitation must be the oldest tool in any trade that involves parties placed in a unequal power relationship. Academia is no different, as a blog post by C. Christine Fair on HuffPost on 19 October, which was later taken down, highlighted.

Among the men Fair accused in the piece of sexually abusing her, several are academics, including Nobel Laureates and Ivy League professors, whose actions allegedly scarred her and prevented her from pursuing a career in the sciences productively.

Fair not only recounted in detail the heinous attacks heaped on her person in different circumstances, she also went a step ahead and called out those who were responsible for causing her harm. Her actions would have resonated with many women in academia — from the past, present and future — who have suffered a fate no less wretched.

Some of these women may have raised their voices, knocked on the doors of justice, held their silence for fear of jeopardising their careers or, worse still, simply abandoned their ambitions for another path. In an eloquent and hard-hitting Facebook post, Priyamvada Gopal of Cambridge University, in the UK, revealed, the complexity of what we are staring at:

Whether the grievances of women in academies, or other professional spheres, get due redress or not, one thing is abundantly clear: those who dare speak up against sexual harassment are usually made to bear the brunt of their 'audacity'. In a typical illustration, India saw such a phenomenon play out a few days back, as allegations against Khodu Irani, the owner of a bar in Pune, poured out from women on social media.

Even as stories of Irani's obnoxious behaviour piled up, through anecdotes backed by screenshots, it was invariably the women who were subjected to a trial by fire: a litany of whataboutery, ifs and buts, whys and wherefores, dragged the discourse down to the appalling pits of victim-shaming. If that's the arsenal with which men want to hit out at women speaking about a deeply hurtful private experience, it's not so unusual for women to also want to out and shame their abusers in public.

While a trial by social media may, by no means, be an ideal or legitimate route to justice, it's hard not to see its temptation, especially in a society like India.

While a trial by social media may, by no means, be an ideal or legitimate route to justice, it's hard not to see its temptation, especially in a society like India. Recently, the judiciary of this nation set a shameful example by acquitting a rape convict on the ground that the victim's denial of consent wasn't loud enough — her "feeble no", the honourable Delhi High Court decided, was ambiguous.

With such a precedent set by "due process", it's not all that difficult to imagine victims taking the law into their own hands and seeking out a version of their wild justice. And social media, with its ever-amplifying reach, is the ideal platform to unleash it.

And yet, to bypass the due process, however imperfect its results may turn out to be, is to also allow room for manipulation and vendetta to muddy an already murky situation. As an appeal by a group of activists on Kafila pointed out, the men who are listed on Facebook are being called sexual harassers "with no context or explanation," and with those "who have been already found guilty of sexual harassment by due process" being "placed on par with unsubstantiated accusations". As the statement goes on to elaborate,

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 utilize. We too know the process is harsh and often tilted against the complainant. We remain committed to strengthening these processes. At the same time, abiding by the principles of natural justice, we remain committed to due process, which is fair and just.

The road to justice is a rocky one, especially within a system that often feels designed to derail it due to the forces of patriarchy that overwhelm it. But the good fight, which is embodied in the spirit of equality that feminism wants to usher in, aims to usher in change within the parameters of legitimacy, rather than by endangering it.

The focus, as the principles outlined by the feminists in Kafila put it, should be making the judiciary and other allied arms of the state machinery stronger, rather than weaken it by running kangaroo courts and dispensing an informal 'justice' that is unlikely to bring the real offenders to book. A more effective way ahead may perhaps involve approaching all possible formal channels of complaint, then persist in raising hell — till the bubble that protects male privilege finally shatters.

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