Sexual harassment is too serious a matter to be viewed in binaries.
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]arooq Abdullah, a union minister and former chief minister of India-occupied Kashmir, is under fire from rights groups for what has been described as a “sexist” comment.
Here’s what Abdullah said on Indian news channel Times Now in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment against former Indian Supreme Court justice A. K. Ganguly: “I am scared to talk to a woman these days,” he said. “I don’t even want to keep a woman secretary. Who knows, I might end up in jail because of a complaint. No, I am not blaming the girls, I am blaming society.”
This put Abdullah in the belly of the beast and his own son, the chief minister of India-occupied Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, tweeted: “I’m sure the attempt wasn’t to trivialize [the] important issue of women’s security so I hope dad apologizes for the misplaced attempt at humor.” This is more like, “C’mon, Dad, don’t stir up a hornet’s nest,” than putting a perspective on what dad said.
Perspective, I said? That’s the problem. When emotions are running high, the first casualty is perspective. We saw that during the lawyers’ movement in Pakistan; we have seen this in religious rioting and more recently in the polarization over the use of drones by the United States. Examples abound, cutting across cultures and political systems.
Social movements, or at least their leaders and storm troopers, don’t like nuances to inform a debate. Nuances have a bad habit of presenting people with more than one dimension to a problem and multidimensionality is a killer for the purity that galvanizes a movement and gives it space—militant space, if you will.
The movement for the rights of women is no different. There is, of course, the normative. There always is. War is undesirable. But wars happen. So we try to have just war theories both in deciding which wars to fight (jus ad bellum) and how to fight them (jus in bello). That’s not the end of the affair, though. States are not equal in de facto terms. Some dominate the discourse. And those who do can make that which is unjust look just—at least that’s how those who can’t dominate the discourse think and would like us to think.
The point is simple: issues are not one dimensional. Beyond this simple point lies complexity. But if one looks at partisan discourses around any issue, no one gives a nickel for it. To think that sexual harassment—nay, the entire spectrum of man-woman relations, more so today than yesterday, with women shedding traditional roles faster than one can say Jack Robinson—is an issue that can be dealt with through linear simplicity is naïve at best, and partisan at worst.
Pushed into a corner, Abdullah has mounted a weak defense: “Things have gone haywire, people are scared now. No doubt we are all against rape and anything which undermines the prestige of a woman; they should get their respect … If there is something I have said that has gone wrong, I’m sorry, I never meant it that way.”
I don’t blame him. He said something important but put it tritely. He is no philosopher. And given the landscape, there aren’t many takers for nuance anyway. Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal is already in jail following a rather pathetic cover-up. There have been other cases, more bestial in nature. This is not an environment conducive to subtleties. One woman activist has shot at Abdullah, saying: “What’s his fear in hiring women secretaries? Such power statements convey that either women buckle in to sexual exploitation or lose their job.” She couldn’t have gotten it more wrong. Far from making a power statement, Abdullah is actually making a baffled one. Maybe this is a world he doesn’t understand fully. That, of course, is his problem.
While some offenses against propriety and a woman’s body can be more easily understood and action taken against the offender, a clear combination of mens rea and actus reus, there are other instances that lie in the grey area and would depend more on an interpretive structure varying from one to another individual than an allegation set in stone.
Art Buchwald, to my knowledge, wrote at least two pieces in his inimitable style, set apart by three years, which dealt with the intricacies of sexual harassment, especially verbal sexual harassment. He was against it, as would be any sensible person. Nonetheless, as his 1980 and 1983 columns indicate, “the issue is still a much cloudier area than anyone wants to admit.”
Perhaps it’s less cloudier today than it was 35 years ago but if it is, I haven’t seen any indication of it. Let me clarify again since I am certain that I will be misunderstood, deliberately more than unwittingly: no one has any right to force himself or herself on another person. Sexual misconduct is a very serious issue. But such is equally the case with most issues informing our daily social grind. We deal with them, and we try to resolve them, through debate. It doesn’t serve any purpose to close the door on the debate and raise something to the level of theological purity. In fact, it will be both deeply ironic and paradoxical to strive toward getting rid of the trappings of medieval theologies and then produce more of them in the service of rights and modernity.
Funnily enough, the most nuanced piece that I chanced upon is by the very girl, Stella James, who was allegedly harassed by the former Indian judge. After talking about the incident and her feelings, she puts across the complexity, not just of her feelings but also the frame, or the absence of it, in which she is supposed to react:
“This emotional response was also completely at odds with the powerful feelings of righteous anger that the protesters in Delhi displayed. I am not trying to say that anger at the violence that women face is not a just or true response, but the polarization of women’s-rights debates in India along with their intense emotionality, left me feeling that my only options were to either strongly condemn the judge or to betray my feminist principles. Perhaps this confusion came out of an inadequate understanding of feminist literature, but if so, isn’t then my skewed perception a failing of feminism itself?
“If the shared experiences of women cannot be easily understood through a feminist lens, then clearly there is a cognitive vacuum that feminism fails to fill. Feminists talk of the guilt a woman faces when sexually harassed, like it is her fault. I felt a similar guilt, except my guilt wasn’t at being assaulted, but at not reacting more strongly than I did. The very perspective that was meant to help me make sense of my experiences as a woman was the one that obscured the resolution of the problem in my own mind, presumably an effect that feminism does not desire. And if not a result of feminist theory itself, the form that it has taken in India, especially after recent incidents of sexual assault, strengthened the feeling of ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’ in a fight that I feel I can no longer take sides in.
“The incident is now a while behind me, and they say time heals all wounds. But during the most difficult emotional times, what helped me most was the ‘insensitivity’ of a close friend whose light-hearted mocking allowed me to laugh at an incident (and a man) that had caused me so much pain. Allowing myself to feel more than just anger at a man who violated me, something that I had never done before, is liberating! So, I want to ask you to think of one thing alone—when dealing with sexual violence, can we allow ourselves to embrace feelings beyond or besides anger, and to accept the complexity of emotions that we face when dealing with any traumatic experience?”
There’s more truth in James’s write-up than in the slogans and the partisan anger that inform the first, second, or third wave of feminism. We need not indulge the political and social activism from leaders and storm troopers of movements which, like all such movements, create binaries by pitting men and women in perpetual conflict. That’s no way to deal with a serious problem. For the sake of this girl and others in her situation, it is important we—I say ‘we’ because this is not just an India-centric problem—debate the issue without losing its many dimensions.