#Metoo & feminist activism in India

by Mehroonisa Raiva and Salla Sariola

When the #metoo campaign spread globally, women in India also used social media to make visible that they had been harassed, sexually and otherwise. The campaign made evident what everyone knew but had not quite witnessed the scale of. Moreover, the #metoo campaign sent verberations through India’s feminist movements in unprecedented and dramatic ways, questioning key ideas of the movement, and means of mobilisation. Solidarity and sense of unity were at stake.

India’s feminist movements have a long and vibrant history, and violence against women has been a key theme in mobilisation, at least since the earliest colonial upper-class women’s movements that politicised sati, widow-burning, in the 17th century, as part of a colonial move to socially legitimise British imperialism of regions covered by the then East India Company. While ‘the woman question’ was also at the heart of the struggle for independence, Hindu nationalist movements adopted oppressive casteist and patriarchal notions regarding gender and sexuality, continuing to subject women to excessive control in the name of honour and protection. Sexual harassment, ‘eve-teasing’ as well as using extreme violence to reinstate male power over and possession of women remain common in households, public spaces, and politics still today, as the ‘Delhi Rape’ in 2012 attests to. Contemporary topics around which feminist, queer, and women’s movements have mobilised include e.g. right to sexuality, caste discrimination, environment and deforestation, sex selective abortion, and women’s health to mention a few.

Access to social media and politicised used of twitter and facebook have led Sonora Jha and Alka Kurian to claim that feminist movements in India were leading ‘a new kind of social media-based ‘fourth wave’ feminism, well before the recent feminist resurgence in the US’. Such movements include e.g. the #pinjratod. and #whyloiter that questioned restrictions on women’s mobility, and violence in public spaces.

To the extent that these movements made explicit important dynamics about sexuality, vulnerability and desire, we propose that it does not make sense to conceptualise #metoo as a ‘global movement’. What we have are various – quite different – articulations that seem to be singular because of the hashtag function. #Metoo appears as though it is a singularity and generates the affect of collective action, when these are actually manifestations of quite different political moments in quite distinct conditions.

Two things come to mind. Moira Donegan argues in The Guardian that #metoo articulates what she calls a ‘social feminism’, and that the feminist detractors of the hashtag articulate an ‘individualist feminism’. Whether this actually makes sense in the context of the UK, the US and parts of Europe is unclear, but such a claim might make sense in deeply individuated societies where neoliberalism is the organising principle. In the Indian context, to make such an argument would be absurd. The #metoo campaign, based on Mehroonisa’s ethnographic fieldwork on student politics in India before, during and after the #metoo moment, supported by Salla’s discourse analysis on the social media content, is precisely the push to alienation, to individuation, to the return to individual injury as the origin of political action. This has undermined collective action and the intimacies that animate and hold women’s collectives together.

The second thing that comes to mind is how the #metoo campaign in India relates to the articulation of female sexual agency and desire as political, as central to a feminist understanding of the structures of patriarchy. Let us do this by reference to another older campaign that claimed the position of ‘global’ – the Slut Walk. In its articulation in Canada, and then in other parts of the west, the primary disassociation being made was between female sexual desire and sexual assault – it was a movement against ‘slut shaming’ and an articulation of the right to be sexual itself. When the same campaign articulated in the streets of cities in India, this crucial element was inverted – it was as though about the demand to be seen as asexual, rather than about the demand to be seen as sexual. It became a ‘I should be able to dress as I want without being sexualised’, and sexualness itself articulated as violence. The same form then articulated almost oppositional ideologies – one the affirmation of female sexual agency, the other, its radical erasure. These dynamics are activated by the central role that social media has in the campaigns on violence against women which had profound implications on feminist activism at large.

Online platforms as controversial spaces of resistance

In October 2017, a California-based lawyer with South Asian roots started a post on her facebook page with names of academic men who had sexually approached or harassed students. She invited victims of abuse, and third party witnesses to contribute to the list and her blog states that this was done to warn students about academic men who might be their teachers and professors and to prevent further harassment. Currently the list runs to 70 names of highly positioned men across colleges and universities in India, as well as in Europe and America. Names are provided in full with affiliations. The description on the page states that all cases have been discussed with the victims as testimonies of the experiences.

The List quickly became the subject of extensive comments on blogposts and social media debates. It was welcomed by many, claiming to break silences around sexual and other harassments through public naming rather than institutional reprimands. The List was also target of criticism by well-known feminists in the country. A response was published on Kafila blogspace signed by fourteen feminist women stating their concerns of naming perpetrators without explication of what happened. They worried that “anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability”. The signatory feminists stated that they remained committed to strengthening formal procedures and principles of justice. When there “are genuine complaints, there are institutions and procedures, which we should utilize”, they stated.

The debate polarised quickly, and anyone asking critical questions or disagreeing was deemed to be a rape apologist. While we do not suggest that violations did not occur, the subsequent discussions, and the conceptual coupling of sexuality and violence, left no space for the possibility of female sexual agency, or even impulse in consenting adult relationship, across professional hierarchies. The debate hovered around a notion of consent, and the erasure of its very possibility in conditions where parties to the transaction are located in structurally unequal positions vis-a-vis each other. Nivedita Menon’s otherwise well-thought through piece  also fails to recognise the problem with this. In relation to the question of relationships between students and teachers, and the attempts to formulate codes vis-a-vis these, for instance, she says: ‘…We are in effect taking the position that in such a situation, the consent of the adult woman to intimacy of whatever kind with a man of her choice, is somehow tainted, that her consent is not to be taken seriously.’ The question of appropriate behaviour is now reduced to whether the woman gave her consent and nowhere is it possible to imagine a woman capable – not of consent, but of sexual desire and sexual agency. This resonates with a longer term move towards a deep conservativism, a discomfort with the sexual per se and a failure of maintaining the possibility of right to pleasure, to desire, and to sexualness in political terms without coupling it with violence. Now, it is as though to speak of the sexual is only possible to speak of violence. Or rather violence is the only idiom remaining for speaking of the sexual in political terms. The point here is that while #metoo in other contexts might not be ‘sex negative’, in the Indian context this is precisely the effect – the reduction of the sexual to violence, the erasure of the possibility of negotiation with power.

Digital landscapes of feminist activism – note for STS

While the case would provide a lot more for the analysis of gender, sexuality, caste, and hetero- and cis-normativity, in this commentary we want to focus on three most crucial points of inquiry vis-a-vis STS. The first should be clear by now: that there is a need to recognise the shift in the role of the digital for feminist activism. From a point where the digital formed one increasingly important part of the political landscape, of the materiality of political action, and political subjectivity, in the aftermath of the #metoo movement, we see what might be considered the mechanism of enclosure – whereby rather than being one part of the landscape, the digital becomes the landscape itself. Here we have a situation where politics is contained within the digital, and the only political subject that remains legible is the digital subject. The affect and intimacy of embodied collective action is not simply diminished in its significance – it is evicted from the newly sequestered realm of the political itself. With this comes the fact that the conditions of political subjectivity in the digital is overdetermined by the logics of the digital – of which there are many elements.

Second, the logic of the digital is that of binary opposition: one is either ‘with us or against us’. There is no space between or beyond these positions and all articulations must be fixed in one or the other position. Those that fail to perform are nevertheless pulled in and fixed through the twin logics of ‘silence is complicity’ (and therefore evidence of being a rape apologist), or ‘silence is the evidence of oppression’. Perhaps never before has this logic been more clearly articulated than around the #metoo campaigns.

Third, stemming from this logic of binary opposition is the reduction of politics to condemnation and/or outrage. This is best thought of in relation to Katariina Kyrölä’s contemplations on the politics of affect, where she argues that today the only way to feel good is to ‘feel bad’. It is almost nostalgic to now think of feminism as a space for dissensus, for thinking together and contestation, for the coming together of a range of different experiences and positionalities so as to act on the varying manifestations of patriarchy. That space has been closed – at least on the digital, it seems. This has unfortunate implications for movements that are committed to reimagining politics in the form of horizontal, deliberative democracy, which recognises that a politics of consensus is necessarily one of hierarchy and which develops a politics of dissensus, of diversity and debate. A politics of condemnation is in this sense antithetical to horizontal, deliberative democracy. And, so, we find the condemnation of those feminist groups that espouse this form. Having ‘failed’ to make statements in support of The List, and condemning the feminists who questioned it, – for a statement of condemnation is not possible when there are multiple perspectives arising from multiple locations and experiences – these groups are themselves immediately condemned as being elitist, upper caste etc., as being assimilationist, for failing to be ‘radical’.

This, in turn, affects the dynamics in these groups themselves as the status of their members comes to be somehow tainted by this ‘failure’ – thereby erasing the work done in terms of embodied, on ground collectivisation, the painful and tiring processes of working through conflict and crisis on the ground, the passion for direct action – of behaving as though the world we demand is already here.