Indian law student Raya Sarkar who is now studying in California, US, took the internet by storm by releasing a list of perpetrators of sexual violence on Indian campuses. “The Naming and Shaming” exercise of Raya created newer conversations on dealing with sexual harassment on campuses. Here is an exclusive interview Raya has given Ippodhu:
Ippodhu: Having started the fight against sexual harassment in campuses, you have been going through the struggle of being blocked on facebook, being attacked by self-styled feminists who are not understanding the impact of your campaign or the campaign’s ability to change men’s attitude towards women. What keeps you going?
Raya Sarkar: Our collective struggle to address failures of due process, failures to protect vulnerable bodies, and drive to protect vulnerable bodies keeps me going.
Ippodhu: In the interview to the New Indian Express, you said you had not faced much of sexual harassment on campuses. However, you recalled few instances on your Facebook post later. Were you suppressing your own story until others could speak out?
Raya Sarkar: I wanted to address other’s cases first and then addressed mine, especially after Ashley Tellis published an article claiming I only added him because he was against what I did.
Ippodhu: More and more young women are speaking their hearts out. Young woman scholar Manasi Karthik defended your stand strongly. What do you say to the women who are standing by you?
Raya Sarkar: I thank them for their courage and for relaying their traumatic stories. Many women have also shared screenshots and come forward with their accounts of sexual harassment by some of the people on the list. Thank u for making the world safer for women.
Ippodhu: Your campaign, I believe, will make men behave on campuses; five years from now, what do you hope to achieve from this campaign?
Raya Sarkar: It wasn’t a campaign it was just me trying to warn other students of harassers. especially on my friends list. but since it has gone viral I hope men in positions of power understand that they do not work with impunity.
Ippodhu: In the caste-ridden Indian society, school girls are facing sexual harassment from teachers from influential castes. They are fighting the system with help from parents and well wishers. What are you saying to them?
Raya Sarkar: Please keep fighting. Parents need to believe their children when they come home and say they were harassed or molested. And parents should educate their children about consent from a young age.
Ippodhu: The disappearance of Google doc is explained by you. You said Inji handled it. Can you please get us the alternative link for that file. Many conversations were based on that file as well.
Raya Sarkar: We deleted it because it was an unsafe platform
Ippodhu: Would you like to add anything more about sexual harassment on campuses?
Raya Sarkar: I hope sexual harassment stops! that should be the main goal. Redressal systems would not be required at all if sexual harassment becomes non existent but since it is a reality and a rampant problem redressal systems must be reformed. If they are I’m sure many many victims would have sought redressal.
(This interview was corrected on 06 Nov 2017, 12:51 IST for facts after an email from Raya Sarkar)
Manasi Karthik’s defence of Raya Sarkar (Manasi studies at SOAS University of London):
I’d like to respond to the concerns feminists have raised about a list that calls out perpetrators of harassment in academia. I shared the list because:
(1) If a woman is calling out a man who has abused/harassed her, I have a moral obligation to stand by her. Silence is complicity. There have been countless cases of women who call out their abusers but are ignored, silenced, dismissed and gaslighted. Time and time again it comes out that if only we took these women more seriously when they first came out we could have prevented a lot more women from facing the same abuse. But instead we wait. We wait until we have a string of cases, we wait until the evidence is staring at us in the face, we wait until its simply too hard to ignore, we wait until the elephant in the room has gone on a rampage.
(2) They key issue at stake here is the power differential: In situations like this, when being asked to take a side, the correct decision is to stand with those that don’t have power.
In academia, the power that men have over women is compounded by the structural hierarchy of the institution. If I were a student in a PhD programme who was being harassed by my supervisor, even as the staunch feminist I am, I would be shit scared to do anything about it. There are many reasons for this and I could write a whole essay on how and why academia is systemically weighted against young women but the most obvious reason is that academic positions rely completely on letters of recommendations. Oftentimes, supervisors have full access to all your writing and can steal credit for it. Early career researchers are often left with no choice but to allow themselves to be abused. They have to pick their battles. And this is one that could destroy their careers. Academia systemically privileges mid-career male professors at the expense of early career, female researchers.
Last year in Berkeley, a very well known and well-respected academic was fired for sexual harassment. It took 2 YEARS and a long string of students complaining before anything could be done about it. For 2 YEARS, female students had to attend this man’s office hours despite warnings of what he was capable of.
A report in The Guardian states that:
“Public records released this year on sexual harassment investigations revealed patterns in how powerful UC faculty target vulnerable students under their purview. Tenured faculty members have TYPICALLY AVOIDED SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES after the university found they violated policies, resulting in them stepping down ONLY AFTER NEGATIVE MEDIA COVERAGE” (emphasis added)
(3) Nothing about calling these men out on FB precludes a free and fair trial. Please correct me if I’m wrong. But the women who wrote this note were not calling for any particular consequences. They were not taking law into their own hands. It was solely an act of calling out. And if calling out abusers amounts to a ‘witch hunt’ then I think the ‘feminism’ of the women standing against this is in question.
These are powerful men who have written eloquently and profoundly critiqued colonialism, capitalism and myriad other injustices. They, and their supporters, are perfectly capable of rebutting allegations made against them.
In Berkeley, TWO men in question not only powerfully rebutted the claims made against them, but also personally SUED a string of their young, female victims and the school itself.
This brings me back to my first point- women who speak out against their abusers are doing so at great personal risk to themselves. Women are made aware of this risk time and time again. As in the case in Berkeley, when they had lawsuits filed against them. And as they are now, when other feminists are taking a stand against them.
This promotes a climate of shame, fear and harassment that surrounds victims who are calling their abusers out. And the first step towards this is to respond differently when women call their abusers out. To say we hear them, to take them seriously, and to stand with them.
(4) Feminists taking a stand against this post are asking ‘how long’ a post like this should stay up. This simple answer to that is: as long as it takes.
If a free and fair trial against abusers in academia takes years. And in the process victims have to even face lawsuits filed against them, then shouldn’t we, at the very least, protect other female students in the interim period? Why are we promoting a culture of silencing when these very same professors are going to continue to wield power over female students well after they’ve been formally accused of harassment?
When I go to a male professor’s office hours, why must I have to rely on hints and whispers I hear in the corridors to know whether I should worry or not? It has happened so many times. I casually mention that I’m going to meet a professor, and female friends say something like ‘oh yeah, he can be real charmer’.
When I decide who to choose as a PhD supervisor, why must I have to rely on contacting past students in the hope that they will tell me if there’s something I have to worry about.
If making a formal charge against a professor is a threat to a young woman’s career and if, even the process of adhering to jurisprudence can be one that drags the case out over a period of years, then that weighs the system against other female students like me. In the absence of facebook posts like this, what recourse do I have when I go to my next office hour with a senior male professor?
If a professor I am going to have to interact with has so much as flirted with other students then I have a right to know. And I am going to support that right to know using the only means I have. It might not be the best means and it may not have been done in the best way. But right now it feels like all we have.