Raya Sarkar's list of academic 'predators' is the disruptor we needed in sexual harassment discourse

Raya Sarkar's list has highlighted that infighting and talking about which feminism is the better feminism serves little to no purpose.

Vishnupriya Bhandaram October 27, 2017 16:02:56 IST
Raya Sarkar's list of academic 'predators' is the disruptor we needed in sexual harassment discourse

A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from an old colleague. "He's dead," she said, adding details of his demise. There was an uncomfortable pause, and then I let out a tiny giggle that took shape of a roaring laughter and then there was silence again. My sexual harasser had died a few days before the Harvey Weinstein story broke or the social media storm of #MeToo went viral or the 'Shitty Media Men' list was talked about.

In trying to understand what the death of my harasser meant to me, especially in this renewed interest in discussing and debating sexual harassment, I ended up understanding, more clearly, my own reasons for not wanting to make an official complaint. Many of those reasons had to do with my own position as an almost nobody in the management chain; not to mention, that the company I interned with was enabling his predatory behaviour.

Raya Sarkars list of academic predators is the disruptor we needed in sexual harassment discourse

File image of Raya Sarkar. Image source: Facebook

When I shared my ordeal with a colleague, she asked me to shift beats and join features with her, where I would be safe. It wasn't really the answer I was looking for as an 18-year-old would-be journalist. So, not ruffling any feathers to be able to do what you love takes on the shape of a silence you're not entirely comfortable with.

I wonder if a secret list, such as the ‘Shitty Media Men’ list in the United States, would have helped me? As a warning, it would have helped, but would the secret nature of the list have actually deterred my harasser from harassing me or anyone else? Doesn't the secrecy implicitly say: "The media world is ugly, filled with possible rapists and sexual harassers, but here's a list so you can be responsible for your own safety because no one else wants to be responsible for it." I found out a year later that my sexual harasser apparently had a reputation of being handsy, creepy and gross.

Cut to the list by Raya Sarkar, a master's student of law at University of California, Davis which mentions at least 60 names (and counting), including several prominent academics, and alleges sexual harassment (the details of the incidents, however, at this point are unclear). This post has gathered great momentum on social media, having been shared at least 700 times with over 1,000 reactions (and growing).

And as soon as it was published, Kafila put up an open letter penned by a few prominent feminists (including Nivedita Menon, Vrinda Grover and Kavita Krishnan) who urged that the names be taken down. This post, too, has been criticised by many. And this infighting isn't particularly new in social movements, perhaps it is necessary that ideas within ideologies should clash, in order to revive the ideology into relevance.

There is little doubt that Sarkar's post has resonated with many women and men. But there has been a common theme of paranoia associated with the list in the "debates" I have had with my friends and some old colleagues from academia. The words "lynching", "witch-hunt" and "frenzied attack" have been thrown around quickly. Even Krishnan in a commentary wrote how the list is comparable to that of "blackening of faces" (as she elaborates is "publicly parading and socially boycotting people based on anonymous allegations").

It is strange to see a group of feminists give in to the argument that women are likely to misuse laws and systems. This is a stance which is usually taken by those opposed to women's rights. To use this very argument to question the list runs the risk of undoing the advances made by feminism till now. Emphasising aspects like misuse or genuine complaints, there is an assumption that only some voices are genuine and the voices which speak a certain way or use a certain language are the genuine voices.

Critics have questioned Sarkar's stake and position in this debate. Is she a curator? Is she an editor? How can she verify or not verify something? By involving herself in the middle of this issue, does she owe everyone a quality of information that investigative newspapers promise? Is she merely a messenger?

To understand the list in terms of a Raya Sarkar playing judge and jury is misplaced. One must consider the voices of all of those survivors who haven't been made safe enough or comfortable enough to access the so-called due process. Even Sarkar has said that the list's purpose was not to elicit an institutional action but that it is a "cautionary list for students".

Before we ask anything else, it is imperative to understand the function of the list and then to ask: The list is here, now what?

All too loosely, terms like "decree" and "final judgement" have been thrown around, perhaps for effect. The list only serves one purpose: of being a compilation of figures in academia who have allegedly sexually harassed. The list hasn't replaced the law or taken law into its own hands per se.

The men mentioned in the list aren't under arrest, they are not being lynched and their salaries have not been withheld. In fact, the list is not even asking for a confession or an admission of guilt from anyone and no one is stopping the men from making a statement, either denying or accepting or staying silent (if they want to).

A faculty member of Jadavpur University, whose name has been mentioned in Sarkar's list, posted a response on Thursday, saying that he is "unable to own or rebut any charge since none has been made so far," but that he has invited his students and department to raise any question(s) they might have. Speaking about "collateral damage" (also refer to the paranoia surrounding the list that has been discussed above), the faculty member said:

"I consider such 'collateral damage' as bearable, at least for the time being. I will, of course, be happy not to belong to such a list at all, but I am also willing to bear my share of the burden of responsibility…"

What do you do as a sexual assault/harassment survivor? When you're staring at the numerous disadvantages that come with being a survivor of sexual harassment, how do you shape your own politics around it? Do you take on the powers that be – 'strongly', 'bravely', and 'loudly'? Do you trust the processes in place to bring you justice? Or do you let your thoughts out on a public platform behind the veil of anonymity? There are never any right answers. And there will always be an argument about the right way to practice feminism and indulge in the right kind of feminist politics.

Above everything, this list is the disruptor that should be sending us all down the path of introspection. Infighting and talking about which feminism is the better feminism serves little to no purpose. Now is the time to think about the institutional processes that brilliant and pathbreaking feminists have fought hard to bring into place and reinvent them, question them, reformulate existing frameworks perhaps.

And before any of us can pen down a thesis on the most morally ethical and institutionally accepted norms of dealing with sexual harassment, perhaps it is time to first ask the right questions. Why do some men and women not wish to be a part of these processes? How do we design processes that don't fail as often as the ones in place so far have? It can also be assumed that social media "naming and shaming" cannot be censored and if not tomorrow, there will be another list from another field on some other day. How do we then deal with the list? What comes out of it? How do we set about repairing relationships with those feeling alienated by the due process or those who have lost faith in the system?

If publishing this list is wrong, how do we ensure getting across that point without invalidating the experiences of those who did not reap the so-called benefits of the existing due process? How will the due processes acknowledge the existence of these lists in the future? What happens after the media frenzy dies?  How can we reimagine the concepts of justice in sexual harassment? Is there a new framework that needs to emerge? Our due-process is lacking, how do we fix it?

The meaningful discussion and engagement with the sordid topic of sexual harassment does not lie in opining about whether supporting the list is right or wrong, it lies in answering or addressing the obvious gaps, cracks and fissures that the existence of the list highlights.

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