Earlier this month, in investigations published by The New York Times and The New Yorker, multiple women went on record with specific allegations of sexual assault against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, triggering the worldwide #MeToo campaign on social media. This week, writings have appeared on the Internet accusing male South Asian academics, including several very prominent ones, who, according to one post on Facebook, “have sexually harassed/were sexually predatory”. The writer of the post has invited women to send in names of other academics who might have behaved similarly, and promised to add them to the list of alleged sexual offenders. Some 60 men have been named and shamed — without any details of either their accusers or their alleged sexual misconduct. What questions and issues does this raise?
What is #MeToo, and how did it start?
Once the Weinstein story broke and actors Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan, among others, revealed they had been harassed by the 65-year-old founder of Miramax Films, millions of women and some men in a wide range of industries across the globe started to share their own stories of sexual assault harassment, hashtagged #MeToo. The trend was started by the American actor-singer Alyssa Milano who tweeted on October 16, “Suggested by a friend: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”,” adding, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet”. She then tweeted, “Me too”.
But the ‘Me Too’ campaign is much older than the hashtag. Ten years ago, Tarana Burke, an activist on matters related to women and girls of colour, started a nonprofit called Just Be Inc., which aimed to provide confidence to women of colour, and enable victims of sexual assault among the underprivileged. She called her movement “Me Too”. In a recent episode of Democracy Now!, the independent American TV, radio and Internet news programme, Burke said, “I also saw young people, and particularly young women of colour, in the community I worked with, struggling with the same issues and trying to find a succinct way to show empathy. Right? We use a term called ‘empowerment through empathy’. And ‘Me Too’ is so powerful, because somebody had said it to me — right? — and it changed the trajectory of my healing process once I heard that.”
Were the allegations against Weinstein cross-checked and verified?
Journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s October 5 report in The New York Times had, for the first time, women confirming on the record whispers that had long swirled around Weinstein. The investigation found “previously undisclosed allegations stretching over nearly three decades, documented through interviews with current and former employees and film industry workers, as well as legal records, emails and internal documents from the businesses (Weinstein) has run”.
In an October 10 report in The New Yorker, Ronan Farrow wrote, “In the course of a ten-month investigation, I was told by thirteen women that, between the nineteen-nineties and 2015, Weinstein sexually harassed or assaulted them. Their allegations corroborate and overlap with The New York Times’s revelations, and also include far more serious claims.”
Some say naming the Indian academics is also Breaking the Silence, and should be welcomed.
Breaking the Silence, especially on such difficult issues, is always welcome. But it must also include a process to determine the veracity of the allegations — which, in the revelations on Weinstein, was followed meticulously. While evidence-gathering is not easy in such cases, if there is absolutely no procedure or ground rules by which harassers are sought to be dealt with, naming-and-shaming can become a witch-hunt. Also, there are degrees and kinds of sexual assault — putting them all under one umbrella can, on the one hand, limit a problem of serious assault (such as scarring for life, pregnancy, or death) to just “harassment”, while overstating, on the other hand, the seriousness of what might be a relatively minor misdemeanour. Again, a flat and indiscriminate listing of individuals can result in reputations built over years being tarred unfairly, without genuine offenders being necessarily brought to justice.
What then are the ethical, moral, political, and legal issues in this kind of naming-and-shaming?
The allegations are open to a civil defamation suit. They have been made on Facebook, which is still regarded as informal media, but they can creep into ‘mainstream’ media as well. The law is increasingly taking note of social media communication and its impact on discourse offline. The Indian Express contacted the academics named in the post. Most of them declined to react in the absence of specific allegations, but one Delhi University professor said he would, after consultations with the university’s Internal Complaints Committee and experts, file a defamation suit. In cases of sexual harassment allegations against important people in India in the recent past, there has always been a specific allegation, or at least a semblance of a narrative. Putting out a bare list seems to imply that innocence is excluded as a possible outcome. Moreover, not just those who’ve been named but the institutions they are associated with, are implicated.
Some lawyers and activists have said that such a list, while purporting to be standing up for harassed women, could end up undermining their interests. How is that?
A statement by 14 prominent lawyers, activists and feminists on Kafila, a leftwing portal, says: “One or two names of men who have been already found guilty of sexual harassment by due process, are placed on par with unsubstantiated accusations. It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability. Where there are genuine complaints, there are institutions and procedures, which we should utilise…”
The signatories worry that loose allegations that border on hearsay undermine the arduous task of building watertight cases against harassers and exploiters more difficult. “This manner of naming”, the statement says, “can delegitimise the long struggle against sexual harassment, and make our task as feminists more difficult”. Some of those who have worked to change the paradigm, norms at work, and the law, are of the view that assuming that the burden of proof is on those named, will have a detrimental impact on the system which is in the process of being sensitised to this serious issue.
Society in India is undergoing massive and complex change at a rapid pace, including in the nature of work and sexual mores. Anonymous allegations can collapse into a case of crying wolf, and defeat the entire purpose. Dr Jhuma Sen, who teaches law at O P Jindal Global University, said she understood the anger behind the listing, but did not agree with the fact that it came without context. This, she said, “undermines sexual harassment committees in multiple ways; we can have a discussion that the ‘system’ has failed, but we must approach the system first in each of these cases, and not just throw a bunch of names together. Justice is hard-earned, and there are no shortcuts like simple lists.”
That said, where the odds are stacked so heavily against women at the workplace, any conversation around these issues ought to be helpful. It can be argued that putting out a list will, or should, move universities to have a conversation with the accused and the complainants (if their identities are available), and to underline the existence of grievance redressal systems, committees and laws. Silence has always been a part of the problem where institutions are involved.