Important to name perpetrators, says V Geetha on Raya Sarkar's crowd-sourced list of sexual harassers

She goes on to weigh in on the root of the issue - power imbalances and the nature of mentorship in closed university circles.

Published: 27th October 2017 09:06 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th October 2017 03:53 PM   |  A+A-

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By Online Desk

Raya Sarkar's Facebook post naming academics from premier institutions accused of sexual harassment by students has initiated numerous debates and conversations in virtual spheres.  

In a response to the US-settled Indian lawyer's list and the backlash it has been receiving, Chennai-based V Geetha, writer, translator, publisher and a well-known scholar working on feminism and caste, has penned a sensitive and well-articulated piece dwelling on the larger issues the list is trying to address and the questions we must be asking as a collective society about sexual violence and harassment.

READ HERE | Raya Sarkar interview: 'Professors accused of sexual harassment promising victims passage to Oxford'

In her piece, which has been widely shared on all social media, V Geetha shares that she was 'sad and dismayed' when the list was first brought to her attention (as she is not on Facebook) as the list featured 'the who's who of progressive academics', as well as those whom students, feminists and activists would have viewed as 'friends and allies in our common struggle against the many forms of oppression in our context, and as comrades as invested as us in a fair, just and good world'.

She then goes on to weigh in on the root of the issue - power imbalances and the nature of mentorship in closed university circles, and adds that the list and its names should hardly surprise us as "powerful men define the terms of scholarly engagement and demand either adulation or conformity."

ALSO READ | Jadavpur professor on Raya Sarkar's list: We educators failed to bring justice to the victims

Responding to the concerns of some left feminist activists who feel that victims should not encourage 'vigilantism' and throw away due process and legal recourse to get justice, V Geetha feels that "it is unfortunate that some of us have fallen back on the idea of 'due process' to caution troubled and traumatised young persons, who are looking to speak, understand, and demand justice. As one who has served on committees against sexual harassment in educational institutions in Chennai for over a decade, I know how difficult it is for women to summon up emotional resources to name those who sexually hurt them."

V Geetha also highlights that the victims, if they were from Dalit, Bahujan backgrounds, would be more vulnerable and fearful to open up and speak out. "In the university context, indeed in any learning context, especially in caste society, the communication of ideas, and the practice of teaching and learning are fraught and precarious – as students from dalit, bahujan backgrounds continue to point out. That sense of precarity is enhanced, shaped by sexual vulnerability as well."

She points out that we need to think of how we can help initiate dialogue about sexual harassment, and the power politics in social relationships: "Therefore, rather than fall back on the need to observe due process, which, indeed we do, when we engage with the justice system, we need to also think of how we enable speech about sexual harassment and violence that is not about law and justice alone, but about social relationships and the power invested in those who defined the terms of the latter, on account of their class, caste and authority as intellectuals."

ALSO READ | #HallOfShame: How sexual harassment must be handled by colleges

She writes that the questions we all need to be asking instead are about "the nature of intellectual life in universities, on mentorship, and what young people experience, when they confront dazzling scholarship combined with questionable ethics, brilliant minds that are insensitive to the lived realities of class, caste and gender, and intellectual acumen that is not always capable of self-reflection?"

V Geetha asks how one could expect students to stand up to people in authority abusing their power and hold them responsible for their deeds, when the said individuals have "a sense of limitless power and entitlement which then translates into control and possession..." and when they are tempted to "draw on their intellectual authority to prey on their students' minds or bodies"?

She further adds, "As far as young people are concerned, intellectual mentorship could be both stimulating and frightening, demanding of them impossible loyalties and silent trauma in exchange for an exhilarating life of the mind."

On the criticism over the 'naming and shaming', she says, "In those routine and horrible instances of sexual harassment and violence that unfold in innumerable villages and towns, of a day, perpetrators are known, but are seldom shamed. In fact they revel in their authority to sexually hurt those they deem subordinate."

V Geetha acknowledges that the list might not bring about legal redress for the victims, but "it is the barest acknowledgement that those who take their authority for granted, be shown up for what they are, privileged, entitled, unmindful persons, who draw on their intellectual power to control young minds and bodies."

She ends her post by saying that in the 21st century, "caste-gender based intellectual hegemony is not exercised in and through sacred or temple spaces alone, but rather in universities and other centres of learning. That being the case, is this not what ought to be discussed, along with the right of young people to be heard?"

READ V GEETHA'S FULL POST HERE:

Dear friends

I am not on facebook, and was not aware of the 'naming' of sexual harrassers by young women (and I assume some men) on social media, until one of you brought this to my attention. Subsequently, I read the statement on Kafilaonline signed by a group of feminists who caution those wanting to name those who had harrassed them, urging that we abide by due process.

I write this note to all of you, because we have been fellow travelers for a long time, and I wanted to share some of my concerns with you.

When I had the chance to go through the list of names – of harassers - that have been made public, my immediate response was a sense of sadness, mixed with dismay. For one, the list appeared a who's who of progressive academics, and for another, it featured names of persons that many of us would have counted as friends and allies in our common struggle against the many forms of oppression in our context, and as comrades as invested as us in a fair, just and good world.

On the other hand, I realised that one ought not to be surprised or thrown off-track by this list - given the nature of intellectual mentorship in our context, or indeed in many parts of the world, where powerful men define the terms of scholarly engagement and demand either adulation or conformity. While this may seem unfair to those who are mindful of student concerns and questions and who do not draw on their intellectual authority to prey on their students' minds or bodies, as the case may be, the fact remains that the temptation to do either is often great, and one may indulge in it with impunity.

Given the issues at stake in this context, it is unfortunate that some of us have fallen back on the idea of 'due process' to caution troubled and traumatised young persons, who are looking to speak, understand, and demand justice. As one who has served on committees against sexual harassment in educational institutions in Chennai for over a decade, I know how difficult it is for women to summon up emotional resources to name those who sexually hurt them. And like me, I am sure many of you have noted that sexual harassment is often linked to expressions of caste and class resentment and power, and the sexual realm that, literally, is close to the skin, is where we experience our class, caste and gendered selves. In the university context, indeed in any learning context, especially in caste society, the communication of ideas, and the practice of teaching and learning are fraught and precarious – as students from dalit, bahujan backgrounds continue to point out. That sense of precarity is enhanced, shaped by sexual vulnerability as well.

Therefore, rather than fall back on the need to observe due process, which, indeed we do, when we engage with the justice system, we need to also think of how we enable speech about sexual harassment and violence that is not about law and justice alone, but about social relationships and the power invested in those who defined the terms of the latter, on account of their class, caste and authority as intellectuals.

Would it not be more useful, therefore, to ask questions of the nature of intellectual life in universities, on mentorship, and what young people experience, when they confront dazzling scholarship combined with questionable ethics, brilliant minds that are insensitive to the lived realities of class, caste and gender, and intellectual acumen that is not always capable of self-reflection? Also, given that intellectual guidance can instill in those who guide, a sense of limitless power and entitlement which then translates into control and possession, how might students hold such authority to account?

As far as young people are concerned, intellectual mentorship could be both stimulating and frightening, demanding of them impossible loyalties and silent trauma in exchange for an exhilarating life of the mind. This is an utterly cruel choice, and I am reminded of what the historian Gerda Lerner noted with regard to how society ‘punishes’ women who dare have an intellectual life of their own – by withholding love and affection to them. I would add, respect and regard to that and include other gendered persons whose ‘transgressive’ minds are likewise punished.

In his reflections on knowledge, action, and ethics in The Buddha and His Dhamma, Dr Ambedkar argues for leavening the claims of 'pradanya' or wisdom with 'maithri', or social fellowship. Elsewhere, he speaks of the need to exercise 'shakthi' with 'sheel'. These are sobering and thoughtful exhortations, and in this land where those who dare to learn, what is not allowed to them to learn, have been punished in telling ways, or threatened with death and decapitation, claims to intellectual authority need, therefore, to ‘prove’ their credibility in and through mindful practice.

Finally: we need to also be less anxious about ‘naming and shaming’. In those routine and horrible instances of sexual harassment and violence that unfold in innumerable villages and towns, of a day, perpetrators are known, but are seldom shamed. In fact they revel in their authority to sexually hurt those they deem subordinate. Yet, for those who fight their impunity, it has been important to speak, name and hold accountable those who have caused such suffering – to point to the utter wrongness of what is often taken for granted, So the question is not what naming in the university can achieve – it might or might not achieve legal redress, but it is the barest acknowledgement that those who take their authority for granted, be shown up for what they are, privileged, entitled, unmindful persons, who draw on their intellectual power to control young minds and bodies.

As one of you pointed out, caste-gender based intellectual hegemony today is not exercised in and through sacred or temple spaces alone, but rather in universities and other centres of learning. That being the case, is this not what ought to be discussed, along with the right of young people to be heard?

V. Geetha

 

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