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  Opinion   Oped  06 Nov 2017  Feminism’s discontents: The ways to justice

Feminism’s discontents: The ways to justice

The writer is a women’s rights lawyer
Published : Nov 6, 2017, 12:37 am IST
Updated : Nov 6, 2017, 12:37 am IST

Feminism has not progressed in a linear mould and there are multiple ways of protest which victims may choose.

As women from various other fields joined the global trend of #Metoo outpourings centred around their victimhood and the debate spread beyond the narrow confines of the academic world.
 As women from various other fields joined the global trend of #Metoo outpourings centred around their victimhood and the debate spread beyond the narrow confines of the academic world.

It has been a season of feminist churnings. The whisperings and anecdotal stories which used to travel through the grapevines of academic institutions, corporate offices, court corridors and NGO networks suddenly acquired a name — “Hall of Shame”. It had a ready reference — “the list” — with the who’s who of the academic world held up in full public view as sexual predators in the social media.

Reports in newspapers and debates within e-groups ensured that it reached even those who are not active on the social media, as in my case. But then, one misses all the excitement as issues unfold and go viral at lightning speed. So even before I became aware of “the list”, the anxious statement endorsed by a dozen-odd Delhi-based feminists urging that it be taken down as “due process” had not been followed went viral.

Their concern was that unsubstantiated allegations may delegitimise the struggle against sexual harassment and weaken the feminist movement. The statement seemed to suggest that “due process” is the only path of securing justice.

With this, the floodgates were thrown open. What ought to have been an issue framed within the binaries of powerful upper caste male professors and young vulnerable students was turned on its head as new binaries emerged — young versus old, dalit versus savarna and established feminists versus upstarts.

As the pent-up anger and frustration of the younger lot led to a “no holds barred” barrage of accusations, the signatories to the statement were unable to fathom what hit them. As one subsequently commented: “I never perceived myself as a powerful person holding a privileged position”. The notion of “feminist collectives” has helped many to camouflage the power each of us hold due to our individual class, caste, social status, institutional affiliations or the titles we hold.

As women from various other fields joined the global trend of #Metoo outpourings centred around their victimhood and the debate spread beyond the narrow confines of the academic world; a wish for similar lists in other fields was expressed — lawyers’ list, human rights activists’ list, journalists’ list, NGO functionaries’ list and so on, since sexual harassment is not confined within the power structures of the academic world. In many of these institutions, the “due process” mechanisms have not been set up and even where they are, they have lost credibility. It is here that a cautionary list would be most welcome by the young entrants.

Will it create a problem for those who are named? Those who helped in compiling the list seemed confident that no such danger exists. This will not lower their reputation nor result in the loss of job as the abusers are too well-entrenched within the academic world. It is due to the power they wield over the internal complaints’ committees that due process mechanism has failed and those approaching these committees are re-victimised.

The concern of feminists who urged that the list be taken down appears to be more in defence of feminism than with shielding their own mentors, colleagues and friends named in the list as they have been accused of. In the wake of the backlash of allegations that women file false cases of rape and dowry harassment, the “naming and shaming” strategy might bring further disrepute to feminism. But this logic has been rejected by several feminists across the generational divide.

The instant and sporadic public protests of yesteryears against wife murderers and rapists or the blackening of faces of abusers in villages did not follow any “due process”. There have been many instances where victims had declined to name their abusers, but despite this, the issue was highlighted in the media, seeking the resignation of the person concerned.

Feminism has not progressed in a linear mould and there are multiple ways of protest which victims may choose. The legal avenue of “seeking justice” is just one way, but it is not the best option as many have experienced it the hard way. In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a lower caste woman, was gangraped in a village in Rajasthan, but the court acquitted the accused on the grounds that higher caste men will not touch an untouchable, let alone rape her! Though Bhanwari Devi didn’t get justice, her case led to framing of the “Vishaka guidelines” in 1997, ushering in the concept of protection of women from sexual harassment at the workplace.

In a recent interview, the researcher who filed a complaint against her former boss and head of The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri),

Dr Rajendra Pachauri, in February 2015, shared her ordeal, depression and anxiety that she went through after filing her case. In an article by Namita Bhandare, “Culture of Silence Makes It Difficult for Women to Speak up Against Predatory Behaviour by Men”, published in The Wire, the Teri researcher urges all the victims to speak up. She states that the price of speaking up against sexual harassment is very high. Based on her experience, she offers a few tips: “Start saving money and before you speak up, get yourself a lawyer. Make yourself aware of all the options so that you can take informed decisions. Start planning on alternative job options…” Many victims shared similar harrowing experiences of lodging formal complaints. The support they need is long drawn and unflinching, and may span over several years.

The concern of established feminists stems from four decades of over-investment in law. In fact, every single campaign flagged by the women’s movement revolved around demands for stringent punishment as though this would usher in social transformation and serve to dislodge patriarchal structures. We know that patriarchal power is augmented with other power structures and hence, the “due process” does not provide a level-playing field. The few instances where victims have succeeded are when they have been pitted against men/boys from the weaker sections of society. The only instance where the stringent provision of the revised rape law was applied was in the Shakti Mills gangrape case, where two men, aged 19 and 22, from the marginalised sections, were awarded the death penalty.

The doubts expressed by articulate young feminists, about the efficacy of legal structures to bring respite to victims, are refreshing. But even while we acknowledge the failure of “due process” in selective spaces within carefully crafted structure, we continue to express faith that it works for ordinary women out there — the poor, the illiterate and the marginalised, obliterating their scepticism about the efficacy of legal redress. We have seen it in the well-intentioned Domestic Violence Act.

Yet the demands for more stringent legal provisions continue. These include declaring sexual contact with a minor as rape, bringing marital rape into the statute book, and so on. The latest in this trend is the demand for the judicial overreach of all divorces, negating community-based structures of dalits, tribals, lower castes and minorities which women find far easier to access.

It is not that as a lawyer I will negate “due process” or advise women to take the law in their own hands. But over-investment in transforming statutory law while disregarding the process of accessing justice on the ground has cost us dear. It is here that we need to invest and strengthen the mechanisms of accessing justice to induce faith in the “due process”. Until such time, we lack the moral authority to state the “only” or “correct” path to bring redressal. It’s not that in every case closure comes only when the accused gets the most stringent punishment.

Tags: feminism, sexual harassment