Kumar Sundaram row: Being progressive is no excuse for activist groups to ignore gender issues
Masculinity and sexism within progressive collectives have been allowed to persist because the questions on gender issues are always under-prioritised to make way for discussions about “issues which actually matter” or are ”larger concerns”.
It is a commonsensical notion to assume that misogyny arises out of “regressive” mentalities, especially if it supports patriarchal structures embedded within repressive families, castes, religions and the all-encompassing nation state. Within university spaces like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), or inside anti-right activist circles, these regressive mentalities are seemingly curtailed; after all, these spaces are imagined as progressive bastions against fascism. These spaces are also imagined to be liberated zones for women. The notion of free love and sexual permissiveness is often taken to be one of the measures of freedom and liberation from repression. Of course, a love-jihad and anti-Romeo-squad toting Sangh Parivar will label such permissive freedom as anti-national (anti-Hindu?) degeneracy. For example, during the media-generated antipathy for JNU last year, JNU was caricatured as an orgiastic place with dustbins overflowing with used condoms. Those who cherish the progressiveness of JNU mocked these caricatures and wrote witty paeans defending the campus against Sanghi trolls. It came as a rude shock, therefore, when in August last year, there was a rape on campus. The defendant in that case uttered every cliched victim-blaming phrase: “the charge is false”, “political rivalry”, “elections are coming”, “ideological differences”, “but she went to his hostel”. These statements belied the progressive boasts of a campus.
On gender issues, the boundary line between different ideological formations gets hazy even though they claim to have very different perspectives on gender. For example, leftists claim to uphold free sex while rightists argue for nari shakti within Indic culture in which sex must be seen as a duty-based action. For the left, the absence of restraint is cherishable; for the right, subsuming oneself to the family (and by extension, the nation) is the goal. But there is one crucial similarity: both the left and the right are silent on gender issues within their organisations, and both imagine that sexism and misogyny are problems faced only by "other" ideological groups, not themselves. For example, the Durga Vahini affirms the “natural weakness of women” and insists that the need for feminism is a very Westernised idea. On the other hand, even if leftists do not censure sexual relationships among its members, the claims of free sex are made redundant in the case of intimate partner abuse. The abuse perpetrated by Kumar Sundaram is a case in point.
Although activist circles such as those of leftists (but not restricted to them) claim to be trailblazers of feminism who have amply addressed gender issues, they leave the persistence of masculinity unquestioned. While questions of anti-right politics are discussed, issues of gender and sexuality are never talked about. Thus, it will be expected of progressive activists to condemn how Hindutva demeans women and robs her of her agency. But there will be near silence on how male members of a progressive political group interact with women members: do they make body-shaming comments? Do they make sexual innuendos about women? Do they respect the consent of a woman when entering into a sexual relationship with her? Do they respect her bodily and sexual autonomy? Do they know the difference between sexual intimacy and sexual abuse? Do they make sexually coloured remarks to women belonging to rival political groups (university student groups, for example)? Do organisations prioritise the creation of safe spaces within them? Are claims of harassment taken seriously? Are women permitted to express the feeling of being violated? Addressing these “uncomfortable” questions is a prerequisite to ensure that activist circles do not become havens of sexism.
The entitlement of masculinity is the prime reason which helps explain why gender issues are always externalised as “it’s not our problem”. Patriarchy naturally lends a privileged position to male members and “leaders” of any group; this leads to asymmetrical power relations between male and female members, especially if the former are in positions of authority within the group. Within progressive activist circles, most men wear feminist credentials on their sleeve; in fact, they are politically correct about feminism and women in general. But owing to the fact that activist groups encourage the aura of masculinity, political correctness does not actually translate into gender sensitivity. Hence, when an accusation of abuse or harassment is made, the woman’s experience is belittled. The offender can get away with denying the accusations even in the face of proof. If the offender chooses to issue a public apology (as Kumar Sundaram did), he is hailed as an exemplar of courage.
Masculinity and sexism within progressive collectives have been allowed to persist because the questions on gender issues are always under-prioritised to make way for discussions about “issues which actually matter” or are ”larger concerns”. Under the pale of male domination, a progressive group tom-toms its secular-liberal-leftist-anti-national labels and assumes that it is innately free from sexism. It presumes that it is a safe space for women by virtue of being a progressive group. The difficult task of actually establishing that safe space is not considered at all, while self-introspection on the part of the activist group is regarded paltry and unnecessary.
Often, incidents of sexual harassment are hushed up, for fear that rival political groups or even the right-wing will cite these cases to cast disrepute on the activist group. Indeed, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) members throw about the name of "Anmol ratan" with relish, since it adds grist to the Hindutva mill against JNU. But this cynical use of cases of sexual harassment in order to guilt-trip rival political groups is not restricted to the Hindu Right alone. Leftists insist that Ambedkarites are sexist and vice-versa. The cacophony of blame and counter-blame drowns out the voices of women struggling to make themselves heard and precludes possibilities of actually creating feminist accountability inside activist circles.
The first step towards addressing these concerns is to recognise that gender issues (even within organisations) are as important as other issues. Cases of sexual harassment and intimate partner abuse must be regarded as proof of the lack of safe spaces for women, and that we urgently need to create safe spaces for women. Cases of sexual harassment must not be seen as embarrassing things that need to be hushed up. Progressives must not stop at preventing harassment alone; even everyday, seemingly mundane acts of sexism must be called out and corrected. Progressive political activists must stop using the right-wing as an alibi to save themselves from being reprimanded and questioned on gender issues.
Heba Ahmed is a research scholar in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), currently in her first year of PhD at the Centre for Political Studies
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