Fashions are changing in the sphere.
Oceans are asking wave by wave
What new shapes will be worn next year;
And the mountains, stooped and grave,
Are wondering silently range by range
What if they prove too old for change
The little tailors busily sitting
Flashing their shears in rival haste
Won’t spare time for a prior fitting—
In with the stitches, too late to baste.
They say the season for doubt has passed:
The changes coming are due to last.
—Adrienne Rich, A Change of World, 1951
The cascading #MeToo movement calls for a sustained reflection on many tracks. Its origins in the US and rapid spread to other locales lead us to ask whether this is part of a larger global feminist justice movement in the making. If that is the case, its singular focus on sexual harassment over other forms of gendered violence calls for closer attention. Its reliance on digital media presents a shift in strategies from physical bodies to virtual spaces of solidarity between absent presences. Its displacement of law and due process signals an important shift (transient or enduring?) in the relationship between law and society. And the insurgent/subaltern local turns in the articulation of issues skews the global connection towards a specificity of place. These are questions that beg us to ruminate as the movement cascades, meanders and changes course.
I offer here feminist reflections (on the move) on #MeToo in India even as it is unfolding. To borrow an analogy, this is like trying to photograph a breaking wave, “its molecules already shifting even as they are captured”. I will attempt to open out some possible filters through which we may understand the movement and its contexts, with a view to historicising the feminist present, reflecting on the politics of emotion that drives this moment, anticipating possible “feminist futures” and speaking to the intersecting frames of law and social movements. I specifically look at the Indian context, even while I acknowledge the transversal political possibilities this cascade opens out.
In India, #MeToo unfolded as a long moment extending from Raya Sarkar’s List of Sexual Harassers in Academia, LoSHA for short, to the resignation of M.J. Akbar and beyond. We can see it as not being only about “sexual terrorism”—from unwelcome sexually coded comments to violent assault—“but about what thwarts and indicts it”, as V. Geetha writes.
The defining trait of this moment was the turn in mobilisation—the emergence of cyber feminism, or fourth wave feminism, a phase not completely disconnected from but not totally connected to the offline mainstream movement. Raman and Komarraju framed a basic question about it thus: “What directions of feminist action or resolution are encouraged or constrained when the conversation is taken primarily to online spaces?” Despite its limited reach—more or less confined to urban metropoles and the English media—its novelties offer us some insights into the (im)possibilities of feminist politics. The use of social media platforms to craft a cogent resistance—indeed to build up the power of physical mobilisation—achieves hitherto impossible aggregations and solidarities of far-flung actors. In this alone, this moment presents to us a major shift, where recourse to formal law is incidental to collective engagement and does not seem to lie at its core—pointing to distinctive modalities in the means and ends of the struggle, even while the broad goals may be shared.
Across online and offline spaces, the #MeToo movement has carried the voices of women and queer persons from widely varying social locations, claiming a place in the “Me”, interrogating the “Me” and/or setting up a “counter-Me”. The Facebook group Dalit Women Fight underscores intersectionality as the hallmark of Dalit feminist mobilisation:
“As Dalit women we have for long resisted our perpetrators, which include dominant caste men, mixed caste men, men from our own castes and dominant caste women.... Our language has always been one that seeks collective transformation. As anti-caste feminists, we aim to dismantle caste and envision a world that strives for gender equity alongside…. The intersectional impact of caste and gender is manifold and the appropriate response multi-pronged. Always.”
Gender, caste, sexuality, tribe, community, social location, labour, citizenship and violence are all mutually interconnected and co-constitutive, producing gender orders that may only be decoded through an understanding of intersectionality. Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Birge foreground Savitribai Phule as someone who understood and used intersectionality without necessarily naming it as such when she “confronted several axes of social division” in the course of her life and work.
The Decolonial Statement on #MeToo by Kashmiri women places the resistance to violence against women within the context of the movement for self-determination, underscoring the fact that curtailment of fundamental freedoms have specific implications for women: “We would like to address the current perception...that the women bringing these allegations are merely lending a shot in the arm to the Indian state’s occupation. It is true that the Indian state...will seize upon anything to discredit the Kashmiri Muslim community, and by implication denigrate the movement for self-determination.... [But] those who support the movement for azadi must be wary of dismissing women’s complaints and brushing them under the carpet in the name of protecting the resistance. For a due process to take place, it is important that victims be believed.”
This acquires new relevance in the light of the testimony by a Delhi student of being raped by the man who led the protests on behalf of the Kathua rape victim’s family: “I am aware of the dangers of speaking up about this celebrity ‘activist’ raping me. My testimony may be used by those forces which are bent on distorting the facts of the Kathua rape case.... This is the apprehension which forced me to remain silent for more than five months. Had it not been for the ‘Decolonial Statement’…I may even have swallowed my humiliation and kept my silence for ever.”
Queer activists, especially transpersons—and within that broad collective, Dalits and Muslims—speak of the persistent and virulent exclusion they face on a daily basis in a society that treats cis gender as the norm even while it opens out legitimacy to LGBTQ persons. There are silences that scream: women with disabilities have not entered the account. The frames of reckoning are still locked within able-normative discourses. Yet we know the extreme vulnerability of women with disabilities—in institutional care or otherwise, especially but not only from the case of Suchita Srivastava—to routine sexual violence. Women from the working classes (mostly migrant, Adivasi, Dalit), in precarious employment in the proliferating workplaces and gated communities spawned by unfettered neo-liberal markets, too are as yet unrepresented in the #MeToo movement.
Entitlement to Impunity
Challenging the male prerogative over women’s bodies is tough: within the family, where marital rape continues to be lawful, and at work where sexual access to any woman is presumed and normal. In the long line from Rupan Deol Bajaj through Bhanwari Devi to Akbar’s cases, there is an eerie steadfastness to the claim of impunity for and on behalf of men. For after all, women must develop “finely tuned, discreet social mechanisms for coping with importunate intrusions on the individual [read female] body,” as Swapan Dasgupta once wrote.
Without multiplying examples, the gold standard alone: KPS Gill. “The sentence of three months’ rigorous imprisonment”, although well within the judge’s discretion under the IPC, “looks somewhat harsh considering that Gill had an outstanding record as a supercop,” said an editorial in The Hindu in 1996. A Deccan Chronicle editorial chimed in thus: “It somehow makes the law of the land look grotesquely odd and incongruous that a man who has done signal service to the country by ridding a state of the dread and oppression of terrorism should have to spend five months in jail for a minute’s exuberance provoked by the charms of an attractive working woman.” The Indian Express felt “a moral dilemma” in one of India’s “most authentic living heroes” being held to account. “Should Gill’s enormous national contribution be allowed...to be subsumed by a flood of righteous indignation?.... It is not his humiliation alone; the country too feels a little small today,” it said.
Or take an excerpt from the trial court judgement in Bhanwari Devi’s case—similar, yet very different in the intersections of caste entitlement with sexual assault. “Indian culture has not fallen to such low depths that someone who is brought up in it, an innocent, rustic man, will turn into a man of evil conduct who disregards caste and age differences—and becomes animal enough to assault a woman. How can persons of 40 and 60 years of age commit rape while someone who is seventy watches; particularly in the light of Bhanwari Devi’s acceptance that one of the rapists is a respected man in the village?”
Who is the “Me” in “MeToo”?
We may reflect on this from two vantage points. The first is through a historical grounding of assertions by Adivasi women, Dalit women, queer persons, children and women in precarious employment, especially in the unorganised sector, of their right to dignity, bodily integrity, due process, rule of law and feminist recuperation in the aftermath of violence. The second is by situating the question within larger/older debates on feminist and anti-caste solidarities.
It was an IAS officer, Rupan Deol Bajaj, who brought the first such case to court. But it was Bhanwari Devi’s struggle to have her assaulters prosecuted and punished that resulted in significant advances in the law—and even brought the term ‘sexual harassment at the workplace’ into the constitutional imaginary. Bhanwari’s experience of pursuing justice, one that was always ever out of reach for Dalit women, simultaneously shaped our understanding of the skewed trajectories of due process and the precarity of the rule of law in Dalit women’s lives.
Yet, even while Bhanwari led and catalysed a national movement for the protection of women’s right to bodily integrity and dignity, the criminal trial itself was a gross travesty. Dominant caste prerogative powered the trial in Rajasthan, while caste was erased from the deliberations on the Constitution and international law in the Supreme Court’s ruling. The problematics of “due process” leaps out at us if we juxtapose these two responses, this morphing of the discourse, on questions that spring from the same source.
‘Due process’ has been at the centre of acrimonious debate among feminists since Raya Sarkar published LoSHA and a small group of feminists published a sharp rejoinder in 2017. The concerns remain: Is it adequate to call out harassers and sexual predators? Does naming and public shaming adequately meet the ends of justice on all counts? Is calling harassers out a first step towards initiating some form of formal action—and what might that be? While mindful of its pitfalls and treacherous history of subverting the ends of justice, the insistence on due process also produced gains, perhaps few but significant.
To echo Upendra Baxi, how and to what extent might we sidestep an over-reliance on normative law? Again, Bhanwari shows us the way. As I wrote in 2012, “Bhanwari made the difficult choice of returning to Bhateri and renegotiating her position there by calling a jati panchayat in 1993.... There was hostility, of course...there was suspicion and isolation.... Yet, she called a panchayat, not to demand justice because she had been sexually assaulted, but to restore herself in some way to her own context with dignity.” She did not want any members of the support group that had backed her to be present.
With Bhanwari, we see the different simultaneous locations of the “me”, defined by the specific “we”. It’s inclusive at times: community, village, the feminist collective. Or exclusionary, with the “me” standing alone at the margins, speaking truth to power. Almost always losing ground to multiple, intersecting channels of impunity bolstered by state/majoritarian power, and yet staking her rightful claim on due process at every level in a simultaneous, integrated articulation of justice. In her self-conscious choices, she as the survivor with feminist agency transforms the “me” into a plural “we” constituted outside the frames of individual reparation/redress.
Private Emotion, Public Law
“What happens when feminists speak out against forms of violence, power and injustice? What role do emotions play in acts of speaking out and in the ‘spectacle’ of demonstrating against such forms of power?”(Sara Ahmed, 2004)
The deeply disturbing testimonies that have called out perpetrators in the past year bear witness to the harms of sexual violence in all its variety—ranging from unwelcome gestures, verbal abuse, visual and physical molestation and stalking to child sexual abuse, rape and gang rape. Some of those moments and acts of violation would fall within the jurisdiction of internal complaints mechanisms of workplaces. Others were trickier and more indeterminate, falling through the cracks of different jurisdictions and therefore confronted with the impossibility of redress. And yet others were firmly in the domain of formal criminal law, calling for immediate prosecution. But all of those—whether or not the lines of due process are clear—are within the free and capacious domain of public calling-out of perpetrators. That is, the method the #MeToo movement deploys to challenge the impunity of perpetrators.
As #MeToo testimonies mounted, it was clear that this method does not merely exist and operate in some autonomous, ‘lawless’ digital realm—hermetically sealed off from the real world. It bleeds into and impinges on the latter. As private transgressions become public, it pushes for public accountability—it makes unavoidable the adoption of due diligence by public actors, non-state actors and importantly the media (print, electronic and social/digital).
The problems of accountability and justiciability in the material world are challenging without doubt. There is a materiality to reparations in each case: the responsibility of current employers for past wrongs by employees, methods of investigation, the question of what (besides testimony) amounts to proof/evidence, the processes to be adopted in the case of independent professionals, punitive measures and appropriate authorities, material costs involved, for instance.
Author Kalpana Kannabiran with Bhanwari Devi.
Distinct from the choices the survivor might make is the deployment of the “rule by law” as distinct from the rule of law by perpetrators—before us in the continuing present, the illustrative case of criminal defamation by M.J. Akbar (and earlier by R.K. Pachauri who was similarly accused) mandates feminist engagement with formal law, even while issuing a public call-out of harassers. Due process is not always, neither should it be, part of an “either/or” choice.
How much do we really understand, meanwhile, about the realities of sexual violence in the futures survivors carry themselves into? We are witnessing, in real time, the afterlives of sexual violence stretching over two to three decades in some cases. This today is the future of that violence in the past, which in fact is the continuing present. Human rights and feminist fact-finding must grapple with this complexity of the “long night” (to borrow from Essar et al) that extinguishes the fine distinctions between past, present and futures for survivors, especially in terms of their interiorities and their dwelling within themselves, and their communities of belonging—home, community or workplace. It also challenges the amnesia that is constitutive of impunity.
The Caste Intersection
The challenge to amnesia, indeed to misnaming, occurs also at a second level: in confronting dominant feminist strands within the larger struggle against sexual violence, as with Mimi Mondal’s interrogation of savarna bias in acknowledging the frontrunners of feminist resistance: “Why are savarna Indians so reluctant to be represented by a Dalit woman, even someone who is a stranger, someone whose work is not specifically for or about Dalits?... Raya Sarkar’s list wasn’t only for Dalit women, yet savarna India needed a new, unrelated #MeToo movement to feel comfortable talking about large-scale sexual harassment. What message does that send to us Dalit women?”
Recalling Audre Lorde’s response to the white feminist refusal to hear her anger against racism, Sara Ahmed’s comment is instructive: “Learning to hear the anger of others, without blocking the anger through a defence of one’s own position, is crucial. Such a project requires that one accepts that one’s own position might anger others and hence allows one’s position to be opened to critique by others.”
It also takes us back to Dr Ambedkar’s anger and his “continued anguish over acts of humiliation and violence” in a caste order in which “the so-called untouchables, however much they suffered, are disallowed human concourse that would enable them to cognise and address suffering” (Geetha, 2016). The persistent question from Dalit feminists over the erasure of the suffering and pain of Dalit women, as also their leadership, from dominant feminist discourse recalls this critical anger.
Feminist politics, histories and futures
#MeToo is momentous in feminist politics: it has simultaneously triggered a renewed debate on sexual violence (rejecting gradations in harm, suffering and tortuous memory), and also called out feminist politics itself in a graded society. Its sharp interrogation of feminist politics—with cross-cutting questions of caste hegemonies, the power embedded in academic pecking orders, gender hegemonies that misrecognise or silence the non-cis gender queer, and bringing to light the hierarchies of age, signalling the multiplexity of feminist reasoning—marks this moment.
A new concept in the realm of law—or thinking about law, its formation and evolution, and its effects—may be relevant in the context of #MeToo. Guinier and Torres propose demosprudence (in an obvious extension/modification of jurisprudence) as a means to connect lawmaking with social movements, to bring the urgencies of the latter to inform the former. They write of “the dynamic equilibrium of power between lawmaking and social movements [which] focuses on the legitimating effects of democratic action to produce [durable] social, legal, and cultural change”. One argument is that #MeToo merely represents a break from what has gone before, a disruption. But it is productive praxiologically—that is, while reflecting on its material effects and uses—to historicise this disruption. One must examine closely the multiple trajectories of this feminist cascade that, in its layered engagement with the politics of emotion, law, ethics and mobilisation—physical and virtual—is perhaps an expression offeminist demosprudence.
How might we think through the complex questions of feminist solidarities? Nira Yuval-Davis writes of the indispensability of “transversal” politics to feminist praxis today, as a way of keeping sight of questions of diversity, and sidestepping the dangers of homogenising and objectifying collective experience. The only way of practising a complete politics, by this argument, is through dialogue between people from widely varying positions and locations. Differences are important, but difference encompasses the idea of equality, is non-hierarchical and is built on respect for others’ positionings, with the entire multiplicity of views given voice and weight. While every conflict of ideas may not be reconcilable, there are always infinite possibilities for ‘congenial’ and ‘tolerable’ political engagements that transversal politics could enable.
This is of course far more difficult in a society deeply fractured by caste, community and heteronormativity, as the contentions within the #MeToo movement has foregrounded. A search for the fine thread of reason that could help forge a concerted feminist resistance, encompassing the idea of equality and sororal fraternity , leads us to Dr Ambedkar: “Social divisions of India do matter in politics… What [people] must have in common in order to form a community are aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge, a common understanding; or to use the language of the Sociologists, they must be like-minded. But how do they come to have these things in common or how do they become like-minded? .... Participation in a group is the only way of being like-minded with the group.... So long as the groups remain isolated, the conflict is bound to continue and prevent the harmony of action. It is the isolation of the groups that is the chief evil. Where the groups allow of endosmosis, they cease to be evil. For, endosmosis among the groups makes possible a re-socialisation of once-socialised attitudes. In place of the old, it creates a new like-mindedness, which is representative of the interests, aims and aspirations of all the various groups concerned. Like-mindedness is essential for a harmonious life, social or political and, as has just been shown, it depends upon the extent of communication, participation or endosmosis....” (Ambedkar, 1919).
Although set out by Dr Ambedkar as the terms in which Indian society, fractured by caste, should reorder itself, we may appropriate it for a better understanding of social movements—feminist movements in India in this case—that constitute within themselves and are constituted by the tensions and contradictions in the wider society. We can scarcely ignore Dr Ambedkar’s acute awareness of the various levels (including within political movements) at which these contradictions are deeply embedded. It is this “re-socialisation” that ought to be constitutive of transversal feminist politics, through the catalysing of a “politics of becoming”.
The forging of the “We” by Bhanwari Devi, which in fact lies at the heart of Dr Ambedkar’s concerns about the indispensability of “endosmosis”, a “new like-mindedness” that defines the collective experience, acknowledges pain, suffering, prior experience and critical anger, and builds on the memories of turning these around to thwart impunity. A broad-based transversal feminist politics might shine the torch on a better, more ethical and collectively responsive society.
A shorter, edited version of this appeared in print
(The author is professor and director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad)