Naming sexual harassers without due process is mob justice
There is an intriguing wave of feminism sweeping across the world right now. From shaming Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein to the online #MeToo campaign followed by #TheList.
The first started as women came together spontaneously across the globe to air long suppressed stories of sexual harassment. It brought out the sheer scale and depth of abuse that women have endured silently for centuries. Then came the #TheList, a crowd-sourced attempt to name and shame largely Indian academics, who had allegedly sexually harassed, or assaulted women at some point.
But it also sparked a furious debate on due process and forced several prominent feminists to issue a statement of caution.
The #MeToo campaign made everyone think about the normalisation of sexual harassment in an unequal society. Now, #TheList breaks the myth that academia is a utopia – it isn’t and the ugly truth is that predators walk the portals of academia as well. The list, put together by an anti-caste law student based in the US, explicitly names and shames a group of academics who occupied powerful positions; some are also seen guardians of gender parity.
Academics often teach that the starting point for any issue is to look at a wide spectrum of competing narratives to arrive at a fuller perspective.
At first, the dominant narrative was enthralling – to see how this list received immense popularity among women to talk, deliberate and comprehend the nuances of privilege, position and power. The list also reinforced that victims need to be heard, protected and safeguarded.
However, the other side of the narrative was completely ignored. Those accused have already been judged or presumed guilty just because they were named anonymously in an open list. Let us think about the gruesome murder of 13-year-old Arushi Talwar, whose parents were recently acquitted after a nine-year legal battle. The initial narratives in the media and police had convinced us that the parents were the killers.
Similarly, as the list emerged, it convinced many of us that those named were already guilty. But so far, there is no way to authenticate the veracity of the allegations against those included on the list. In most cases, we don’t even know what the allegations are!
It must be granted here that it is important to believe the victims of sexual harassment and assault and recognize that the “system” is heavily stacked against them. However, this argument stands only to the extent of accusing a person – not for pronouncing a guilty verdict. Neglecting the other side of the narrative would mean a presumption of guilt without any due process to reach such a conclusion. The evidence claimed by the creator of the list stemmed, apparently, from WhatsApp chats, call recordings, and emails, which she considered sufficient to hold the “harasser” guilty.
Women assuming the role or moral vigilantes
But, this also means the person who drew up the list has also sat in judgment and pronounced these individuals guilty. The so-called “evidence” remains with the law student, and most of us have no to access it. A counter-argument could be that evidence needs to be protected, to safeguard the victim’s consent. But, this is women assuming the role of moral vigilantes, without having seen the evidence. This is also how lynch mobs operate, and every mob is always convinced about the legitimacy of its cause.
We also need to examine the notions of privilege and power. The move to name and shame has defied the norms of privilege and brought in an element of intersectionality.
But that should not merely restrict itself to the debates of “upper” and privileged castes and the “lower” and oppressed castes. This isolates and divides women. Does this mean that women from the “upper” and privileged castes are not victims of predatory sexual behavior and violence? That is certainly not the case; women from all castes and classes have borne the brunt of patriarchy for centuries to varying degrees.
Also, the calling out of privileges must not function in a reverse fashion whereby we transfer our historical baggage of humiliation onto another person’s shoulder.
Having said that, it is possible for a Brahmin woman to understand and speak for the concerns of a Dalit woman and vice versa. From available reports, the law student who started the list is a Singaporean citizen who studied in one of the most expensive private law universities in India and is now pursuing a Masters from the University of California. The majority of women in India, irrespective of caste, don’t share her extremely privileged background.
To have an inclusive feminist movement, there needs to be a sufficient connection – so debates do not end up with someone being labelled or dismissed as a ‘dalit‘ or ‘elite feminist’.
Lastly, the naming and shaming, or blacklisting of people negates the chance of state or legal follow-up. The passing of a domestic violence act and a law against sexual harassment at work only came after years of struggle and perseverance by feminists.
Sexual harassment and violence requires an overhaul of current power structures and building an institutional response. And any such move must be inclusive. Imagine if a million women sent in narratives of sexual harassment – could one give equal attention and justice to each of claim by publishing all the names on this list? The #MeToo campaign has already established the scale of the problem. Does #TheList add even greater depth to the problem? It’s a question worth pondering.
A massive section of the population has no voice in such a list. Women from non-elite, lesser-known or provincial institutions who have suffered harassment and abuse would be unlikely to reach such a list.
And as the debate regresses towards ‘the list’ versus due process, the matter of publicly shaming remains. While some may argue that our laws are a shambles and that there is no justice, we must remember that mob justice is not the solution.