Read

Sexual offenders and academia: The great debate

Pallavi Guha | Updated on May 11, 2021

Grey zone: Sexual violence on women from marginalised communities is often not highlighted in mainstream or social media platforms   -  ISTOCK.COM

Hear #MeToo in India: News, Social Media, and Anti-Rape and Sexual Harassment Activism / Pallavi Guha / Rutgers University Press / Non-fiction / $28.95

Some believe that the heated debate on a recent campaign against sexual harassment in academics is a generational one, while some hold that the divide highlights caste positions

* One morning in October 2017, I woke up to find the link to this crowdsourced list in an email

* The older and well-known feminist activists have accused Raya Sarkar and younger feminist activists of trivializing the feminist movement

* The list itself, however, came about because of a dangerous atmosphere for the least powerful women in academia that has existed for decades

* Female students were aware of which professors’ offices should never be visited alone, lest he got too close to you

****

[In 2017, law student] Raya Sarkar started and shared a crowdsourced Google Docs file on Facebook listing the names and institutions of professors accused of sexual harassment at universities in India. The list went viral, and it quickly expanded to include complaints against male professors from leading Indian universities.

Posted on Facebook, the comments on the post grew. The academics on the list reacted in three different ways through the mainstream media and social media platforms: a handful denied the charges (although some later deleted their posts denying the charges on social media websites), some tried to engage in poetic justice, and others have remained silent. Then the backlash came in the form of an open letter — not from the Right or the accused professors, but from Indian feminists (Anasuya, 2017) who objected that due process had not been followed and pointed to the pitfalls of public naming and shaming.

The debate has been a generational one: the older and well-known feminist activists have accused Raya Sarkar and younger feminist activists of trivializing the feminist movement by indulging in name-calling and sharing names of academics without verifying the allegations. In the letter, the feminist activists say, “This manner of naming can delegitimize the long struggle against sexual harassment and make our task as feminists more difficult” (N. Menon, 2017).

There were rebuttals to these arguments of the feminist activists, including one by Srila Roy, “Whose Feminism Is It Anyway?” (2017), in which she argues that the current disagreement between Indian feminists is not generational but is actually all about caste position — with high-caste women coming down on low-caste women for the way they engage in activism, while fundamentally misunderstanding or overestimating the “legitimate” options they have for fighting sexual harassment.

***

One morning in October 2017, I woke up to find the link to this crowdsourced list in an email from my friend Supriya. I scanned it carefully; there were then about sixty names, and the majority of the academics listed belonged to the leading institutions of my birthplace in Kolkata. I couldn’t help but see the paradox that the city known for its leftist politics, liberalism, and feminism had the largest number of sex offenders on the list. But why was I surprised? I went to one of the schools listed in the document, and it was a well-established part of campus culture that female students were aware of which professors’ offices should never be visited alone, lest he got too close to you. We did not have access to any document, cell phones, or social platforms, but the previous cohorts diligently passed on information by word of mouth. So, what is so different about writing this up in a list? Who exactly is threatened by this act?

***

It all comes down to whose voice is heard in the various media platforms, and whose voice is relegated to the background. In the wake of #MeToo, #LoSHA, and other transnational movements, it has become easier for many to understand that sexual harassment is all about power; wealthy celebrities who control whether a young actress makes it onto the screen, or major news editors who control information to the world have the ability to pressure the women around them.

These are exactly the objectively powerful people we think of when we think of high-powered people. However, these patterns play out all over the global economy, across the spectrum of public spaces, academic spaces, and workplaces.

A professor or researcher who has written a few books that circulated only within small academic circles may not seem like a powerful force, but to graduate students and undergraduates who have to gain the attention and interest of these figures in order to have any hope of a lasting career in an uncertain field, these are powerful, gatekeeping celebrities too. Yes, it all comes back to power.

For women who have a position of power at work and in society in general, it is easy enough to say that the public naming and shaming in both #LoSHA and #MeTooIndia is the wrong solution. No doubt there are risks of naming and shaming; after all, it is a classic example of putting words against words with no tangible proof to rely on. This is dangerous territory, and nobody can predict the consequence. Would the list be acceptable if it had another column for the nature of the harassment? Would it help those named recollect how and when they harassed and discriminated against the student? The list itself, however, came about because of a dangerous atmosphere for the least powerful women in academia that has existed for decades. Why aren’t these feminists more concerned about the dangers that exist without #thelist or #MeToo?

Due to the gatekeeping in anti-rape and sexual assault activism in India by established activists, sexual violence and assault on women from marginalized communities are often not highlighted in the mainstream media or social media platforms, leading to selective outrage (Dhanaraj, 2018). The truth is that some “establishment” feminist activists in India, many of them academics themselves, are isolated from the realities of daily life for women beneath them. It is true that #thelist and #MeToo are exposing injustices among the relatively elite, restricted to urban higher-education institutions, but this is a start; hopefully, there are more inclusive lists by women who have been harassed by professors in rural and semi-rural areas. Sutapa, who works in rural communities, said, “Many girls who are sexually harassed in rural areas don’t speak up because the immediate repercussion would be preventing them from public spaces and academic institutions. What families don’t understand is that sexual harassment and assault can happen anywhere, public spaces and private spaces, so the conversation needs to happen around empowering the girls and women. The larger communities in these areas have limited access to social media platforms, other than WhatsApp.”

Extracted from Hear #MeToo in India News, Social Media, and Anti-Rape and Sexual Harassment Activism by Pallavi Guha, with permission from Rutgers University Press

Pallavi Guha an assistant professor of journalism and new media at Towson University in Maryland

Published on May 11, 2021

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor