How Young Women In Indian Academia Feel About The List
“Sexual harassment and sexual violence exist both outside and inside the purview of the state. Redressal systems are word of mouth, and news of complaints spreads like wildfire two minutes after they’ve been filed. Our lives are both public and private, much like the list itself. The list is honestly us as our social existence,” said Simran, a student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
For the uninitiated, “the list” refers to a crowdsourced list compiled on social media which aimed to name and shame sexual harassers in Indian academia. It emerged as a response to the taking down by Huffington Post of an article written by C. Christine Fair, a senior American academic currently affiliated to Georgetown University. The article, since republished by BuzzFeed, had narrated multiple episodes of sexual harassment Fair personally faced over the course of her academic career at the hands of various world-renowned scholars, including one Nobel Prize winner.
The removal of the article prompted Raya Sarkar, a law student at the University of California, to create her list of sexual harassers in academia. “I asked for their first-hand testimonies, in detail, gathered whatever evidence they had, read through the laws and case law and determined if it was sexual harassment,” says Sarkar, explaining her methods.
Some feminists argued against it because the list named people without any context or explanation about their alleged offences, and because it took away the distinction between those who have been found guilty of sexual harassment and those against whom no formal complaint has been lodged.
Those in favour of the list asserted that the list performed a cautionary function, helping female academics become aware and protect themselves. It was also a protest, they insisted, against those due processes that protected the harasser and not the survivor. “The list does not aspire to be a legal category. Rather it is a backlash against what has happened in the name of sexual liberation,” said Swati, a PhD student from JNU. “It is a desperate cry for help.”
The list unleashed waves of pent-up anger and trauma from those who have suffered sexual harassment as well as everyday incidents of sexism in academia. To understand its origin and its impact, we interviewed students representing a wide spectrum of social and regional diversity across India. The interviewees were mostly women, with the exception of one queer man, and they are all students or recent graduates in social sciences and humanities from universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi University (DU), Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute (SRFTI), Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), Jadavpur University (JU), Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSS), and University of Hyderabad (UoH). Their names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.
The list as social media event
Within a day of its publication, the number of names on the list climbed from 2 to 58, indicating the widespread nature of the problem. “The institutes listed there are the ones who should take responsibility. They have been protecting these abusers for long,” said Kriti, a student of SRFTI. At the expense of women. The list is a slap on the face of the system, people, and due processes, and everything else that failed victims of sexual harassment.”
The purpose of the list was to make visible what the anthropologist Michael Taussig called ‘a public secret’ – a powerful form of social knowledge that is generally known but cannot be spoken. This emergence of these secrets began with the New York Times expose of Harvey Weinstein, a powerful Hollywood producer who has been thanked more times that God at the Oscars. Weinstein emerged as a serial sexual predator who used his power to silence women against lodging complaints against him.
Weinstein’s fall from grace had a ripple effect and secrets started spilling out in other industries as well. American media women created the Shitty Media Men list, a crowdsourced Google spreadsheet that highlighted allegations of sexual harassment and violence against men in the media. In the Indian context, the public secret was the knowledge that young researchers and PhD students shared about men they should be beware of in academia.
Shitty Media Men and Raya Sarkar’s list are both symptomatic of a wider trend in online culture that caters to consumers shortened attention spans by using numbered lists.
Terming the list a ‘social media civil disobedience movement,’ Aayush, of Jamia Millia Islamia, said, “It has helped us heal to some extent, created a network of empathy, solidarity and given us a platform to go and put the names of perpetrators for the first time without any fear, shame or second thoughts.”
While there is still no consensus on the effectiveness of social media protest, everyone we spoke to echoed Aayush’s feeling that the list created a culture of solidarity and empathy.
“You realise so many other women have gone through the same suffering. That solidarity is a key healing process,” said Aarti, a former student of Jadavpur University. “We need a legal mechanism that works. Till it works, we must talk about it. The list was a landmark in the conversation that is now taking place in the public about sexual harassment. And more women have lost the fear of being shamed as solidarity has grown.”
The sexualization of academic life
The list is firmly rooted in the deeply masculine and sexualized environment of the Indian university, which creates a gendered power structure that young women researchers have to constantly negotiate in order to survive in academia and protect their careers.
Soumya, a PhD student from DU described situations where a male teacher thought nothing of making elaborate small talk and unnecessarily prolonging meetings.
Several students spoke of how a faculty member at JNU used to send extremely inappropriate texts to female students. The same professor told Swati not to be girly and wear sarees.
Another male faculty member wondered aloud how to tell the difference between girls and boys when he chanced upon a female student who got herself a new haircut.
Isha, a PhD student from UoH, states that the male faculty in her university have been known to ask unmarried women at the time of committing to mentorship if they are serious about their research or if they wished to get married and have children midway.
These gendered expectations are not the doing of male supervisors alone, they are reinforced all around. When Soumya enrolled for a PhD at Delhi University and started to scout around for a possible supervisor, she was advised by a male batchmate to be sensible and work with a male faculty, for after all, she was stunningly beautiful.
But all this offers only a glimpse into the subtle sexual labors of academic life where women students must, in the words of Swati, ‘perform their femininity better and better’. It is these sort of presumably ‘innocent’ comments that facilitate starker varieties of sexual harassment and violence.
The list as social container of trauma
Originally, the term ‘trauma’ meant wound, referring to an injury inflicted on the body. But in recent times it is understood as a wound inflicted not upon the body but upon the mind. Such trauma resurfaces not just through the violent event that occurred but in all the subsequent efforts to make sense of the event. The list created a space for the sharing of these stories of trauma.
Nisha, a former student of FTII spoke about the harassment she faced from a senior faculty at the institute. “He called me over to his flat one day to discuss my work. The conversation meandered from my mental state to my intellectual proclivities, to my difference from that place. It progressed towards gentle touching, caressing, and overtures that included oblique sexual soliciting. All of this was also emotionally coated, trying to win me over, help me out from a depressed mental state.”
Nisha speaks of the month of of ragging, called Satsang, that is part of campus culture at FTII. “Satsang for women becomes a harrowing time… inebriated seniors would continually speak at fresher women at hair’s distance, shouting and howling and touching”. There was no way of escaping these satsang sessions as doing so would lead to ostracization.
Kriti echoed Nisha’s experiences, stating that ragging allowed spaces of endless sexual harassment on campus. She cites an instance where her classmate was asked to mouth dialogues from the film Gangs of Wasseypur that contained expletives . Her classmate refused. On her refusal, she was asked how she would be able to edit sex scenes if she was reluctant to swear.
A vulnerable minority that the list largely ignored was queer people in academia. Marked out in a society that is yet to accept their sexuality, they face unspeakable pressure to hush up their sexual harassment. Aayush narrates how he faced molestation and other violent forms of threat from an MPhil scholar of a reputed university in Delhi and who subsequently went on to teach. “It involved forced sodomy, telephonic threats, emails, text messages, sending goons to my doors, physical threats, repeated threats to out me, as well as sending emails to my mother and sister threatening them with violence and police harassment.”
The list as a reminder of caste
While discussing trauma, it is easy to characterize it in universal terms and to ignore the layers of pain that caste adds on to academic life. The list is a forceful reminder of how academia is a preserve of upper caste elites, particularly in its upper echelons. The names on the list reflected this powerful reality, enabling it to highlight the complex intersections of caste and gender.
Our conversations with recently graduated students from CSSS in Kolkata, a center which is even today regarded as a bastion of civility and intellect, are revealing in this aspect. While the students felt the institution liberated them from the more in-your-face patriarchy of other universities, they also felt that ‘male bhadralok mentors’ at CSSS could be overbearing towards women researchers displaying what one researcher, Sunayana, termed ‘an aggression of knowledge’.
“They don’t listen, they anticipate, they assume things. It is not right to give brilliant ideas without hearing people out,” said Ritika, a former female researcher. The women talked of how they felt their proposals and drafts were transformed beyond recognition and overlaid with theoretical gloss. This, they said, was accomplished through the guiding hand of ‘the fatherly persona’ of the supervisor.
They also conveyed a nonchalance on the part of these men towards women from different caste and regional backgrounds. After all, these Bengali men do not emerge from a political void. They are the inheritors of a prized history of Left politics which has marginalized women and Dalit Bahujans.
In debates on due process, the intricacies of caste are often overlooked. Raya Sarkar’s own experiences underline how arguments like ‘you are untouchable, who will rape you?’ are not alien to due process.
As one respondent told us, women from the minorities – Adivasi and Dalit women who fought oppressive systems like Soni Sori and Bhanwari Devi – probably did not ‘desire’ to throw themselves into due process, they must have felt like they had no choice about it. Given the many layers of caste-based discrimination, it is unreasonable to expect and demand that they willingly embrace due process.
The list and due process
How does one seek redressal and find respite in the face of such harassment?
The Vishakha Judgement guidelines set by the Supreme Court in 1997 required the creation of Gender Sensitisation Committees Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH). That mechanism has now been replaced by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, which mandated the creation of Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) at universities.
While many of the students we spoke to expressed dismay at the dismantling of GSCASH in favour of the weaker ICC, they acknowledged that even the older bodies were deeply flawed. “In the way that questions were asked, the committee was saddled with the same prejudices, narratives and stereotypes we are trying to break away from,” notes Maya, who was once involved with the GSCASH in the JNU campus.
More often than not, the outcome of making a complaint can be very disappointing. Students have been known to drop out of university because they were traumatized by the inquiry processes. Even if an allegation is proven, at times, the professor is simply asked to take a sabbatical. Sunayana, a former student of CSSS who was once involved with a similar body on campus, puts it bleakly, “How do we bring everyday sexism and patriarchy under the scanner of procedure and due process?”
Academic life necessitates the navigation of the cavernous university bureaucracy in order to get permission to access libraries, museums, archives, to get appointments for fieldwork and to secure grants and fellowships. It is here that the figure of the supervisor looms large. The supervisor’s mentorship must be materially borne out on paper in the form of signatures, recommendation letters, letters of introduction and chapter feedback.
Every student we interviewed criticized the individualized supervisor-student relationship, which enables a culture of patronage. They spoke of how it is not uncommon for faculty members to enlist the student’s help in external projects that the teacher has invested in. The completion of the research thesis and recommendation letters are linked almost imperceptibly to the student’s assistance in these external projects.
In referring to recommendation letters which students need to apply for fellowships and jobs, Swati termed it ‘the glue that binds the toxic social contract’.
The list seeks to un-bind this toxic social contract and, through the power of social media, is helping to create new structures of solidarity, healing, and community. It disrupts the normality of masculine values and sexual aggression. While it challenges notions of due process, it is also trying to imagine new modes of redressal that allow us to see sexism and sexual violence as related. It is an insurrectionary moment for students, teachers, activists and lawyers who should not dismiss it without rigorously engaging with it. As Swati puts it, “The list is exciting and feminists should embrace it as a true merging of the personal and the political”.