I have been agonising over how to respond to the list of South Asian academics named in a Facebook post on Monday for alleged sexual misconduct – the so-called creep list – that has been doing the rounds of the internet. There have been a thousand conversations in the past three days with friends and colleagues, all of whom agree on one matter: we need to talk about sexual harassment, and its entrenchment in academia.

I am not going to claim I am in a position to address every nuance of this conversation, or that I exist outside of my subject position and possess the authority to speak for women in academia. I do, however, think I need to put together some coherent thoughts on a few things that have troubled me since the list emerged, made the rounds, and snowballed into what it is right now.

Social media, as it operates now, speeds things up, and then forgets at the drop of a hat as a new matter to be outraged over emerges. I do not wish for this to be a part of the same cycle of outrage and kneejerk responses. Sexual harassment in academia is an entrenched and endemic problem.

The shape the conversation around the list has taken is troubling to me because it has snowballed, now, into unproductive binaries – especially a particularly damaging binary of Establishment Feminists versus Young Upstarts.

This binary is damaging because it has effectively taken the focus away from sexual harassment and towards personal credential checking – a sort of “show me your ID”, if you will. By this account, everyone endorsing the list is either a radical revolutionary or a harpie, and everyone questioning it is an apologist or a correct feminist.

No politics is above questioning: not of the listmaker, not of the list-making, not of the responses (such as the much-contested Kafila response, and rightfully so) and think pieces, not of the responders.

This is not a call for us to hold hands and get along because we are ultimately all sisters fighting the Man. This is, however, a call for us to talk about sexual harassment instead of each other.

The problem in academia

There is a reason why this binary has emerged, and it has nothing to do with the upstart nature of younger women comfortable with the social media versus grassroots activists who do the hard work on the ground, or any of the other reductive narratives that seem to be circulating at the moment. A significant section of women endorsing – I do not know anything about the complainants, since the list is anonymous – the list occupy a particularly vulnerable location within the hierarchical world of academics: they are either graduate students and research scholars or untenured academic instructors, or both.

The mass casualisation of academic labour has produced a sort of vulnerability that we scarcely comprehend, despite our periodic demands for tenure for all. It has made for a fragile existence that is produced and reproduced in everyday humiliations, in small defeats, in minor infarctions and dismissals. It has deepened the existing hierarchies of academia and produced an anguish that we have not even started to articulate, let alone address.

It should not be surprising that sexual harassment is one of the major points of contention.

It should not be surprising that approaching sexual harassment mechanisms is a terrifying risk in the absence of any institutional or community support, with the sure knowledge that very often, those doing the harassing are the potential (if not actual) employers, supervisors, recommenders, figures who will feature in interview panels and scholarship panels and sometimes – no, often – in the internal complaints committee itself. It should not be surprising that the laws of caste and community hold sway in these spaces, define who gets away scot-free and who gets a rap on his knuckles, if at all.

The fact that it has caused this much surprise at all in itself highlights the absolute lack of articulation of the vulnerability of academia’s young and expendable.

Speaking out, honestly

The thing with the list is that it has always existed.

It has existed in conversations between juniors and seniors, between female colleagues, between female participants in research groups. It has existed in the shape of whispers and rumours, in the shape of “please stay away from that terrible man” warnings.

The list was never meant to be articulated in words, or released to the wilds of the internet, committed to its eternal memory. Or so we thought, until that was no longer the case.

If we are to have a serious conversation about the potential of justice, we must speak, honestly, of the networks of informal speech that have always existed and had our active – at times salacious and at other times concerned – participation, and examine how the whispers have functioned in normalising what is and what should be conduct most unbecoming.

How does harassment work? Is it, as we often imagine it, a large predatory man overpowering a woman and having his way with her?

It is, of course, but consider these:

  • The established professor who solicits photographs from a young graduate student; her subsequent attempts to reach out to mentors are shut down.
  • The untenured assistant professor who cracks a joke about pinching bottoms, failing to understand why it is unfunny.
  • The tenured assistant professor who texts every other female student about his marital problems and his deep need to connect with her.
  • The tutor who calls an undergraduate student at 11 pm and tells her why he thinks his quest for a real woman might be fulfilled through her, and her alone.

So on and so forth.

Consider also the murky world of male faculty and an endless supply of starry-eyed women (at times, male faculty and starry-eyed young men as well, and female faculty and starry-eyed younger men), navigating a world of dubious consent and an absolute imbalance of power. Consider the aftermath. I know and you know and you know that I know and I know that you know and we all know that we do not talk about this beyond hushed whispers and salacious sniggering.

There is a lot that the existing vocabulary of harassment and assault does not articulate, let alone carry over to the institutional structures and grievance redressal mechanisms (when these mechanisms exist at all).

A march demanding safety for women in New Delhi. What will it take for the very real women articulating their very real anguish to find redressal? (Credit: Raj K Raj / HT)

Impact, not intent

Shame is irrelevant: abusers often feel no shame and the script of shame, as we know, is not beyond question.

The name hides as much as it reveals, because the name in the absence of an articulation of action, of complicity, of dubious silence and betrayals, remains just a name. Beyond the catharsis of naming in itself, a name is a name, no less and no more.

The list, as we know by now, was not intended to bring forth justice as such, but as we also know, intent does not matter so much as impact. In the aftermath and the shake-up, it is justice that we must seek, a question that goes beyond placing the onus on the anonymous complainants to lodge complaints before competent authorities.

Demanding justice

This poses a conundrum: if a name is just a name and if grievance redressal mechanisms cannot necessarily accommodate matters we scarcely have words for, then how does one even begin to seek justice?

This seemingly unbreachable gap is what we must address if we are to get anywhere close to untangling the situation we are in, which reveals, on one hand, an absolute state of cynicism over the possibility of a process let alone a due process, and on the other hand, plain and simple despair.

The binaries emerging, again, have much to do with this gap, with our absolute inability to articulate or even fathom how unequal our mechanisms – however hard fought for – are, how tenuous the access to them is, how draining and tedious the due process might be without adequate support networks. The binaries and the subsequent incoherence has much to do with the fact that we have failed to define harassment beyond vague codes of conduct in a rulebook no one reads (how many erudite colleagues know the content of the Vishakha Guidelines on dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace? How many institutions highlight it with the same significance as anti-ragging guidelines?), that we have failed to address and sensitise colleagues entering institutions with degrees that do not equip them to address this power that is handed over to them. We have failed to articulate how, through our networks of rumour and well-meaning caution, we have in fact remained complicit in the production of inept mechanisms that allow no respite for survivors of various forms of sexual harassment.

I do not mean to suggest that the letter of the law is equivalent to justice; we know it is very often not. I do, however, believe that if we are to get to the bottom of this and to produce anything more substantial than social media conversations that will be forgotten tomorrow, we have to work towards addressing this in our workplaces.

A healthy scepticism towards institutional structures and the letter of the law notwithstanding, radical politics, as I understand it, steps outside of the law not in order to dismiss law in itself, but to insist upon the dynamic nature of law – not as a monolith, not as a word of god, eternal and unchangeable. Justice is not a statue in some courtroom drama.

The long, agonising debates over what is a correct feminist politics is something that I, beyond a certain point, have little competence to address. But if there is anything I have learned in my reading and my politics, it is that feminist politics at its radical best seeks to articulate an ethic of care.

There is no denying the problems of anonymity or actions based on collective outrage alone – that has been discussed by people far more articulate than I. But what will it take for the very real women, often from marginalised sections of society, articulating their very real anguish to find redressal? If we believe in building mechanisms – not static ones, of course – as many of us seem to do, then how does one go about the tedious matter of filing complaints, creating a network of support that enables survivors to speak and to cope with the exhausting, emotionally draining process of articulating violation, of negotiating with the police and the courts and lawyers, of ensuring accountability and minimising the potential of revenge-seeking from those in positions of power? How do we productively link it with our longstanding fight against casualisation of academic labour and the pervasive sway of caste within academia?

At the heart of the matter, to cut this very long story short, is this simple question: why are so many of our female colleagues so very angry and anguished by the absence of justice, and what sort of a place does that make our workplaces? How can we do better?

Think pieces are not enough. Social media conversations are not by themselves liberatory. Transformations cannot happen without organisation.

Swati Moitra has taught in the Universities of Delhi and Calcutta.