Sinduja Raja, University of Denver | 25 February 2019
Graphic designed by the author
In October 2018, Mahima Kukreja, a comic and writer, published a series of tweets to expose how stand-up comedian Utsav Chakrborty sexually harassed her and other women by sending them unsolicited pictures of his private parts, making lewd comments to underage girls and requesting nude pictures from them. This soon spiraled into countless other women from different professions outing sexual predators in their workplaces. A few journalists like Rituparna Chatterjee and Sandhya Menon took up the responsibility of posting and vetting these accounts of sexual harassment because they were often anonymous. This dissemination was coupled with the MeToo hashtag and the online movement was linked to past accounts of harassment in the movie and television industries. News outlets and TV channels were soon reporting that the #MeToo movement had finally reached India. However, it took a few days for people to recognize that the seeds of the #MeToo movement in India had actually been planted over a year ago, when Raya Sarkar, a Dalit-feminist, released her List of Sexual Harassment Accused (LoSHA) of men in academia.
When the #MeToo movement took form in the United States in 2017, Alyssa Milano, a white upper-class woman, had used the #MeToo expression without any cognizance of its long history. This was particularly significant because it was a history created by Tarana Burke, a black woman, for sexual assault victims in underrepresented groups. This erasure of existing histories, created and fought for by women from oppressed groups, is also indicated in claims that India is “finally” having its #MeToo movement.
Raya Sarkar, a law student from the University of California, Davis, released a list of sexual predators in South Asian academia and university spaces in October 2017. The list spelled out renowned names in academia like Partha Chatterjee and Lawrence Liang without any mention to the names of victims or details of their experiences. She had obtained these names through personal accounts of women who had trusted her with the information. While LoSHA received support from some sections, it was predominantly met with a wave of backlash from others. Feminist activists and academicians from the Kafila Collective released a statement expressing their concern about “naming and shaming” without any “context or explanation”. They were worried about the fact that a list curated entirely anonymously could derail all of the ongoing process they had made in their fight against sexual harassment in the workplace. Their opinions on the matter cannot be separated from their positions as Savarna (upper-caste) women from extremely similar and privileged socio-economic backgrounds. These were women who had been leading this fight for a long time and their challenging battle was often compounded by a failure of due process to provide justice to victims. They believed that this gave them authority to define the anxieties in the Indian feminist movement and that they could police and question the legitimacy of Sarkar’s List. They even began the statement with “As feminists we…” creating a sense of divide and distance between themselves; the accusers and Sarkar. All the noise was directed towards Sarkar, the alleged perpetrators were hardly questioned. (The only action taken was to remove Lawrence Liang from the Kafila Collective. None of the alleged perpetrators were asked to give any explanation the way Sarkar was.)
In contrast, the current version of #MeToo that flooded social media was primarily led by upper-caste, upper-class women against men in positions of power. Women involved in vetting the information are privileged women who created solidarity with other powerful women and men to handle the backlash. To its credit, the movement has seen big successes in drawing attention to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment. Their mobilization has pushed quite a few perpetrators to step down from their positions and face internal enquiries in their organizations. However, it still prompts one to question the intersectionality of the #MeToo movement, solidarity among feminists and the legitimacy accorded to oppressed women’s voices, especially in a country like India where socioeconomic hierarchies are deeply entrenched.
This is even more apparent when tracing the trajectory of the movement. As it progressed, the moderators on social media began to vociferously push for women to file official complaints with appropriate bodies because they saw it as the next logical step. But such demands were not cognizant of the majority of women for whom formal procedures have always been hostile and violent because of their marginalized status. The movement has in fact only bolstered and shed limelight on the same privileged voices to speak up more. From a movement that was mediated by these voices, it became one that was curated and defined by them. Women like Sandhya Menon were cast as leaders of a movement that was supposed to be a collective platform for all women. They are now the primary faces associated with #MeToo and their individual fights have gained the most prominence. The amorphous and organic momentum that the movement initially created is also now lost.
In light of this, it is significant to question how women from different and unequal positions of power, privilege and backgrounds could identify with the “me” in #MeToo if the fight is led and perpetuated by upper-class, upper-caste women. The complex intersection of caste and patriarchy provides Savarna women with a safer environment to speak about the injustices they face. To destabilize such an entrenched bias in the #MeToo movement there is a need to completely overhaul the Indian discourse on gender. The histories of women from marginalized communities needs to be pushed to the forefront and privileged women need to give up and create safe spaces for them to take lead. These efforts could lead to the rise of a more inclusive and encompassing movement that is far more considerate of power and privilege – something that #MeToo in India currently lacks.
Sinduja Raja is pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She is also one of ten awardees of the Sie Fellowship and scholarship from the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy. Prior to this, she obtained a Master’s Degree in Development Studies from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras where her Master’s thesis focused on the Indian Peacekeeping Forces deployed in the Sri Lankan Civil War. Her current research interests are in understanding gendered constructions of security and conflict, particularly in South and Southeast Asia.