Raya Sarkar's glad how survivors have found unquestioning empathy

Updated: Oct 14, 2018, 08:17 IST | Aastha Atray Banan

Raya Sarkar, an Indian law student in America, whose 'predator list' of 2017 called out professors for sexual harassment, says she's glad this time around, the survivors have found unquestioning empathy

Raya Sarkar's glad how survivors have found unquestioning empathy

It's possibly the most controversial laundry list of recent time. When Raya Sarkar, an Indian law student in America, published a list on her Facebook page, accusing close to 50 professors from top Indian institutes of sexual harassment, India said, the #MeToo movement is here. Curated on the basis of what she called first-hand testimonials, Sarkar's list published in 2017 and shared over 1,000 times pinned the blame on political scientist Partha Chatterjee and Jadavpur University's Abhijit Gupta, among others.

Sarkar's method of outing the alleged accused was called out by noted feminists, including JNU's Nivedita Menon, who said, "It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability."

Sarkar, who is currently preparing for the California Bar Examination, said to mid-day in an email interview that one year on, the scenario is very different. Edited excerpts.

You have spoken briefly about your own experience of abuse. Can you recount it?
I have survived sexual assault and sexual harassment in the past. In one case, I had approached the police in the country it took place. The police sat on the case and did nothing. That was the first time due process failed me.

What led you to put out a list of alleged sexual offenders across education institutes in 2017? Why did you focus only on academicians?
I was outraged the way Carol Christine Fair [professor at Georgetown University] was treated by a media channel [the professor had tweeted that GOP senators 'deserve miserable deaths' and was suspended from Twitter. She had alleged that the conservative news outlet Campus Reform had bullied and harassed her, asking her to clarify her tweets]. I was a student then and academia hit closest to home. The #MeToo movement in the US as well as the work of sexual assault whistleblowers in South Asia like Bhanwari Devi and Phoolan Devi encouraged me to create the list to provide closure to survivors and to warn other women.

What happened right after you put out the list? Did life change?
Yes. My inbox blew up with messages of solidarity from the survivors who had helped create the list. I also received hate mail. Several prominent feminists condemned the list on Kafila to everyone's shock and surprise and I think they did so because they were untrusting of me and were trying to protect their friends and acquaintances mentioned in the list. This led to widespread debate and many called the list a witchhunt. I am glad the discourse has changed today, and I am glad so many people are empathetic towards survivors this time round. They deserve empathy.

Why did you and your supporters refuse to share whereabouts of the incidents and date details, assuming you had those details in the first place?
I did not want to share details for the lascivious entertainment of people who were hungry to consume trauma porn so they could gossip. The reason I did not share details was because the survivors feared detection and professional retribution against them. They wished to stay anonymous and did not want to lose their careers. The list was not a deposition statement in a court of law. It was a list of closure and caution.

What do you believe a list such as this achieves other than shame alleged offenders? You believe students referred to your list before taking a call on which university to approach?
I think the list helped women figure out if the person who allegedly sexually harassed them had also harassed others. Many women messaged me about men I had placed on the list, to add their testimonies and offer supporting evidence. Some had no idea that they weren't the only ones who had an alleged bad experience. This helped figure out a pattern that would help if they were to ever pursue due process and prosecute. In addition, it offered many women closure. I am unsure if it affected student applications.

Political scientist Partha Chatterjee, in response to your reply that his name will not be taken down because details of incidents and dates are missing, he said: As far as I understand it, Raya Sarkar's post in response to my statement suggests that no further information will be made available on the allegation against me... It is justified to conclude that the alleged complaint against me has no substance. He placed the ball back in your court. Either spell out the charges or admit you have no case, the alleged accused are saying. How much responsibility does a woman who takes to social media to out a sexual harasser need to take?
I do have the right to make allegations and yet choose not to share details with him [the accused]. I have never revealed any details without the consent of the women who had reported the same to me. If the accused pursues litigation, I will co-operate with the court but I am not legally bound to respond to him.

Critics of the campaign say women prefer to remain anonymous and shoot from the dark on social media. This is a violation of men's rights. You too have advocated filing a complaint rather than approach an internal committee. Why not come out and file an FIR?
I have already spoken at length about the de-merits of due process procedures. Accessibility to justice is very poor. Filing an FIR is complex and often, the police refuse to accept complaints, passing them off as frivolous. Many universities do not have functional ICCs and students and workers often do not know how to pursue due process when these institutions are not present.

Does bringing the political into the personal - you've indicated that you are against the exploitative Left establishment - dilute the core issue, which is the vulnerability of women and a denial of their rights irrespective of their caste and economic status?
I am not categorically against the Left. I am unhappy that sexual harassment within the Left is not adequately addressed. We cannot look at women's rights as a monolith. Power doesn't work that way. Intersectional power hierarchies affect women's experiences and we need to keep them in mind to best serve the most vulnerable in any society.

Have you been following the campaign in India over the last few weeks post actor Tanushree Datta's complaint against veteran actor Nana Patekar? What do you make of it and where do you think it will lead?
I am following the #MeToo moment in Bollywood. I sincerely hope this triggers changes in labour laws. The workers in Bollywood need strong unions that represent them so that bosses are held accountable. Labour violations are a huge issue in the entertainment industry in my opinion, and I hope more folk working there feel confident enough to publicly talk about harassment and file cases against perpetrators who are influential and powerful. There needs to be a supportive framework and resources.

Along with the real allegations, there are also incidents of toxic relationships taking over the net. Do you think these are diluting the focus?
They do not dilute any movement. We should be discussing the ways in which women navigate through trauma and the ways in which people negotiate power in our society to survive. We should talk about bad sex, stealthing [the act of a man surreptitiously removing the condom during intercourse; consent for intercourse with condom doesn't extend to intercourse without a condom], unsolicited pictures of people's genitals, what consent means and does not mean. We must discuss everything. People are still creating a language to express things that they have experienced but could never put in words. I think limiting the discourse disrupts this process.

What advice would you give women who are in such relationships? Would you tell everyone to speak here and now?
It is often impossible to speak here and now because for the longest time, people do not know how to recognise the red flags, because we are socialised to please and never disappoint men. The process of unconditioning from the patriarchal mindset takes time. People should not demand that everyone quit such relationships, and then blame them for not leaving soon enough, especially when the nature and limits of consent, bad sex and patterns of abuse are never taught to people or even discussed. We need to discuss all this as a community and share knowledge.

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