justice debate

‘It’s like blackening faces’: Why I am uneasy with the name and shame list of sexual harassers

We cannot afford to throw away due process and adopt vigilantism.

I write this in response to a post by a Facebook friend addressed to “Kafila feminists” and some others who have been expressing disagreement with and concerns about a statement, signed by a group of 12 feminists and carried on the Kafila website, asking for the withdrawal of an online campaign to name and shame Indian university teachers accused of sexually harassing or assaulting students.

To me, this predicament is not new. Throughout my life as a feminist and Left activist, I have seen courts, legal processes, etc betray women. I really have little faith in those processes but my unease with the name and shame campaign is not about claiming faith in processes, which in most cases do not exist and if they do are deeply unfair to victims. To me, the issue has always been this: is the cure offered more dangerous than the ailment? I had used this exact line – “the cures being offered worry me” – in a 2012 speech, which went viral, about cries for summary justice, mob justice, death penalty, castration, and so on.

In villages and mohallas, I have seen activists – and no, they are not Savarna, or elite, or on Kafila or Facebook – confronted with situations where victims of sexual abuse and the communities backing them feel so frustrated with the unjust “processes of justice” that they demand to be able to just go in a mob and beat up the accused person, blacken his face, parade him, and so on. What concerns activists in such situations is that it is so common for young Dalit or Muslim men to be accused anonymously (without any woman actually having to come forward as a complainant as some women or men claim to be her proxy) and lynched.

I wrote a post in October 2014 about such situations (citing cases from Delhi, Nawada in Bihar, and even the Jawaharlal Nehru University), arguing why we have no option but to insist on some sort of a due process. I have been in situations where a man was being beaten up on the pretext of molesting some woman, and I had to step in and say, “Where is the woman? I will help her file a complaint. You cannot just beat someone up based on hearsay.”

What about due process?

What alternatives do we have, really, to the available due processes, however weak and flawed these are? If we can create lists and put them up on village noticeboards, social media or TV, and declare social boycotts based on them, then so can a Khap Panchayat or groups like the Durga Vahini; in fact, they already do. By accepting the politics of lists in one context, are we not robbing ourselves of the argument of due process that we make in the other contexts of power?

I am not saying the men on the name and shame list are necessarily blameless. But I have always made the distinction between a woman speaking for herself and making a specific complaint – I have supported innumerable such complaints, at heavy personal and political cost – and the politics of anonymous lists.

So, no, I will not sign up to the politics of anonymous lists. I do not put mocking labels on people curating and publicising or defending such lists, but I respectfully refuse to be part of this project. The project of creating anonymous lists is, to my mind, akin to blackening faces, publicly parading and socially boycotting people based on anonymous allegations. And we know who, generally, wield the power to do so in our society and over whom.

It’s alright to be unpopular for taking this position. I am used to it. I have taken the unpopular position of opposing the death penalty, of speaking up for Hadiya in Kerala, of opposing Islamophobia, of speaking against human rights abuses in Kashmir. In fact, I have held unpopular positions for most of my political life.

I am saddened that in the blink of an eye and a click of the mouse, those of us who have lost skin in innumerable battles supporting survivors against “men of our own ideology/politics/milieu”, who are the usual suspects supporting every such complainant and facing vicious hostility for so doing, are being pilloried and mocked on social media as “establishment feminists protecting their own”.

The statement I signed does not question the motives of “younger feminists”, indeed of anyone defending the list, but it does express uneasiness and respectfully make an appeal.

No need for transparency?

I appeal feminist collectives of all kinds to think this through. Are you really comfortable with this project of preparing and circulating lists based on anonymous testimonies, where those named are to be damned without a defence? If you are doing this, are you really including all names being shared with you? Are you quite sure that those creating the lists are not exercising their discretion? In other words, are you simply a neutral medium through which accusers can anonymously name the accused, or are you exercising some discretion based on criteria that are not really transparent?

My criteria are transparent. I am willing to name and hold accountable men who are accused through some sort of a process.

I cannot arrogate to myself the power to accuse people without this minimum criterion, else I would be like those news anchors who point an accusing finger every night, and when asked about process, just say: “I have said it, now it’s up to you to disprove the allegation. I said Najeeb Googled ISIS, now how do you know he didn’t?”

I am sure many women are frustrated and angry about the impunity enjoyed by men who wield power and use it to prey on women. I have been asked if we should not be asking what led to the creation of this list in the first place (the lack of faith in internal complaints committees, in due process)?

Someone asked me on Facebook, “Why have the complainants not made a complaint to the ICC? Does each of the named colleges even have an ICC? Is it trained? Does it know the law? Are the members approachable? Are they people known for their fairness? How can we blame the victims for not following the due process when college authorities have not followed it?”

My response is: we have in no way blamed the victims for “not following due process”, and certainly not chastised them for naming their harassers. The questions we are asking are integral to the battles that need to be fought – for one, making internal complaints committees autonomous, accountable, accessible to all and gender-sensitive. That’s no easy task, but it can be done by launching sustained movements in each institution invested in this work. When we appeal to people to pursue these avenues, we do not do so glibly, assuming the processes are easily available. In fact, our statement acknowledges the opposite: “We too know the process is harsh and often tilted against the complainant. We remain committed to strengthening these processes.”

What will be the consequences if we collectively give up on due processes, if we replace processes with crowd-sourced registries? The registries may, in a handful of cases, result in follow-up processes, but in most cases the process of naming and shaming itself will be the punishment. Those curating the list will be the only process that is available or legitimate, and there will be no room for appeal. That is power with which, as a feminist, I am deeply uncomfortable, for reasons I have cited above.

We cannot afford to throw away due process and adopt vigilantism. Although vigilantism may feel satisfying (after all, we are thrilled reading about the exploits of the fictional Lisbeth Salander, hacking into the secrets of sexual predators and giving them their just desserts), it has grave consequences for feminist politics, for progressive transformative politics of any kind. We have no options but to fight for better and more autonomous and accountable enquiry processes, better support systems for complainants on campuses, workplaces. I hope we can reflect on these issues, seriously and quietly, without the kind of acrimony, distrust and disrespect being witnessed on social media.

Kavita Krishnan is the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association.

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