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The “Me Too” Movement in Indian Academia

August 28, 2018

Popular American actress Alyssa Milano, put out a message on her Twitter account encouraging all women who faced sexual violence to write “#MeToo” as their status, in a bid to make sexual violence visible. Her tweet went viral, with many women and celebrities sharing their stories. Thus began the MeToo movement.

Milano later acknowledged the work of Tarana Burke, who started the movement in 2006. Burke, having faced sexual violence herself, wished to help women and girls, particularly those of colour, who also faced a similar fate, find ways of healing. She revealed in interviews that “Me too” grew out of her work with young girls. When a 13year old survivor narrated her ordeal in private, Burke recalled how ‘she (herself) was not ready’ and sent the girl to someone else. The survivor never returned to Burke’s camp and she was left with an uneasy refrain, “Why couldn’t you just say ‘me too’?” which led her to create this movement after much introspection, realizing that the words “me too” when spoken to a survivor, ‘empower through empathy’.

The #MeToo movement came at a moment when women started breaking their silence regarding sexual harassment at workplaces. Just two weeks before Milano’s tweet, actress Rose McGowan and others publically accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment. More than 80 women who shared similar experiences later joined them. As a result of the #MeToo, stories of everyday harassment and the pervasive nature of sexual violence became globally visible. Many more actors/celebrities such as Kevin Spacey, Ben Affleck, Ed Westwick and Morgan Freeman came to be accused of sexual assault or harassment.

A collective of powerful Hollywood celebrities (such as Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and others) started the “Time’s Up” movement, a legal defense fund for survivors in response to #MeToo and the Harvey Weinsten exposé to make Hollywood an equitable workplace for women.

In the wake of these movements, India saw a “Naming and Shaming” Campaign spread through social media. Raya Sarkar, then an LL.M. Candidate at University of California, Davis School of Law, posted a crowd-sourced list of Indian academicians who were alleged to have committed acts of sexual harassment or assault on her Facebook account in October 2017, which soon became viral. She is said to have compiled it out of anger over institutional mechanisms routinely failing survivors, having herself faced sexual harassment. The list was eventually turned into a public Google document with specific details about the incidents of sexual assault or harassment, though it is no longer available in the public domain.

The list came as a rude, but much needed shock to a predominantly male academia causing a great deal of commotion and backlash. Opinions on the list and the campaign were extremely polarized and polemical, to the extent that critics of the campaign were vigorously (and vociferously) attacked on social media, news media, and even real life. A collective of feminists issued a statement almost on the same day, asking for further details about the allegations or the actual complainants, lest it be defamatory to the individuals named.

India is largely a patriarchal country. Workplaces are often male-dominated and conducive to sexual harassment. Non-reporting, owing to fear of retaliation, stigma, etc., further compounds the problem, which in turn empowers perpetrators, coupled with a growing anti-women sentiment. Domestic law (both civil and criminal) on sexual harassment was formally enacted only in 2013, with minimal judicial interpretation so far. Though Guidelines made by the Supreme Court of India in 1997 were in operation in the interim, they were hardly implemented, especially in academic institutions. It is in this context that the list ought to be appreciated.

Though it made sexual harassment in academic spaces visible; it also opened up a debate about social media activism, due process, and feminism itself. It was argued that the list takes away a great deal from institutional responsibility and doesn’t ensure justice for survivors, apart from being defamatory.

One must remember, though, that justice doesn’t mean the same for everyone. The list gave a voice to many women who could never speak up on the issue. Various women came forward to speak about sexual harassment in other fields such as the arts and corporations as well, though most of these posts have now been taken down due to threat of civil action for damages. A notable academician on the list was held guilty of sexual harassment earlier this year.

Obvious legal troubles aside, the list continues to provide hope to survivors of sexual violence and helps overcome a fundamental hurdle in sexual harassment redressal, believing a woman. To quote Catharine A. MacKinnon, “If the sexes were equal, women would not be sexually subjected. Sexual force would be exceptional, consent to sex could be commonly real, and sexually violated women would be believed.” The list helped expose sexism in Indian academia by placing power in the hands of women and understand sexual harassment as sexual discrimination. The long-term consequences of the list, however, remain to be seen.

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Radhika Saxena is a women’s rights lawyer from New Delhi, India. She is currently an LLM Candidate and Human Rights Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania (2018-2019).