26 September 2018 03:17 AM

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SEEMA MUSTAFA | 26 OCTOBER, 2017

Feminist Vigilantism?

SEEMA MUSTAFA


NEW DELHI: There was something worrying about the #MeToo campaign, or rather the direction it was taking, from almost the very beginning. In The Citizen we took an editorial decision to give space to the many, and very reasonable voices questioning the method and the manner of the campaign that seems to be wavering between feminist (?) ruthlessness and an almost cathartic outpouring from the countless women who have been victims of sexual abuse.

However, the list brought out by a bunch of women to “name and shame” who they claim are sexual abusers -- which was then circulated via social media; Facebook and even Whatsapp -- is really transgressing all grounds of fair play. I am shocked that there are women actually supporting this complete violation of all rights, and the very concept of justice. I see little difference between these vigilantes in the name of feminism, and the right wing vigilantes seeking to punish people on grounds of morality or food habits. The concept is the same, just the method different. At least for now.

How does any one group, or individual, have the right to use the social media to name and shame a person for alleged sexual abuse? How can this be accepted and condoned? If any one is guilty of abuse, the victim has the right to move the courts, and seek justice in a democracy that gives the accused the right to defend himself. To say that courts don’t move the way we want them to is such a pathetic shameful argument that I would not even go there, except to point out that is the precise reason why the police indulge in encounters where innocents are killed without recourse to the law; and why vigilantes take the law into their own hands and kill a Pehlu Khan on the streets so that they do not need to go to the courts where the evidence in all probability will not hold up.

Feminism has to function under well laid out, intelligent rules. It cannot give women a space to use without accountability and responsibility. It is a struggle for equality not domination, and certainly not through the use of foul means such as this list in the so called Hall of Shame. It is not even a clever gimmick, it is shameful to put it mildly and highly dangerous. As it allows a free for all on the social media that can then be used by the more organised to turn the tables. And for those who would like to feign ignorance about the meaning of this last sentence, imagine this (and somehow I fear you might not need imagination as it could be real even as we discuss this): the right wing forces that many of these misguided, and dare one say completely directionless feminists, claim to oppose brings out its own list for a second Hall of Shame. Fictitious of course, but prove it. And in the process also prove that your list is not fictitious. One shudders to think of the outcome and the consequences.

Many who endorsed this #MeToo campaign on the social media failed to even gauge the possible results of such an outpouring. Seemed sexy enough, exciting, and a sort of bra burning event on the social media that infused us women with a sense of purpose. Without the understanding that such a campaign on the social media could create more problems than it would resolve.

One that was apparent at the very start, its contribution to the utter trivialisation of abuse. As a brave journalist wrote, the campaign had no space or even understanding of the trauma that she had gone through while abused. And that the man who was responsible was one of the #MeToo badge holders, self righteous and a friend of many she knew on Facebook (including this writer).

And two, for me the very worrying space that has been given feminist vigilantism where the women operate as the moral police, judge and hangman throwing out all principles of impartial and fair jurisprudence. There was a calming voice during the protests following the young girl raped and killed on the bus in Delhi seeking to remind the crowds that the demand should not be to ‘hang the guilty’ but for their arrest and speedy trial.

This voice is often missing from the feminist discourse on individual cases. An activist friend killed himself as he could not withstand the ‘shame’ of alleged rape heaped on him by those he knew. The case was still being processed, but he was unable to withstand the accusations from a section of feminists and committed suicide. “He is guilty’ has often been the verdict pronounced by feminist vigilantes, taking the law into their own hands, to declare individuals guilty and then attack those who point out that this is for the courts and not for them to determine.

And three, this behaviour is at variance with all the struggles for rights being waged by individuals and groups, often at risk to themselves. The campaign against the moral police creating havoc in small town homes of Uttar Pradesh by attacking young people, creating communal strife, and emptying villages of persecuted minorites. All done on the basis of rumours, and by those who have taken on the mandate to try and hang the ‘other’. Even as we speak reports of attacks on Christians in Chhatisgarh are coming in, with the vigilantes determining the right to worship for the small community.

The same holds true for the lynchings in the name of beef, with the gau rakshaks filming their attacks, posting these on the social media to create an atmosphere of terror. These mobs insist that the person they have decided to lynch is guilty because they say he is, and so help him God!

How then is this list of ‘offenders’ any different. A bunch of women say these are perpetrators of sexual abuse, and so it is. To a point where we are publishing and circulating the list on the basis of ‘evidence’ supplied outside a court of law by ‘victims’ who have stayed outside the court of law. This is not to say that the list is genuine or not, or to dismiss the victims claims, this is to raise a loud ‘alleged’ with the reminder that this behaviour stinks of vigilantism, and cannot be condoned. Just as abuse cannot be condoned and needs to be exposed and acted against, so also kangaroo courts have to be shunned and condemned in strongest possible words.

These campaigns cut into the fight for equal rights, for justice, for space. These give a list, and an opening to those who have always branded feminism as an extreme ideological positioning, to basically strengthen their discriminatory anti-women stance. Women rights are far from being realised with very little headway being made with skewed sex ratios testimony to the discrimination that starts from the womb.

As women in India are on the receiving end. Equality continues to defy them, even as sexual abuse levels rise and the law and order system reacts in fits and starts. From foeticide, to infant mortality, to education, to employment the woman’s journey is dotted with victimisation and horrific abuse.

But this fight has to be based on principles. And on responsibility. It cannot begin, or end, with gimmicks no matter how dramatic these might be. It cannot justify kangaroo courts. It has to keep faith in democracy and the institutions of democracy, no matter how weak or ineffectual these might appear at any given point in time. There can be no compromise, if this fight has to be won. It is slow but it is making progress.

But then what is progress? Is it the ability of women to join #MeToo kind of campaigns? Or is it the ability of journalists to point out the pitfalls of such a campaign? And for others to listen and ensure that the campaign does not transgress responsibilities that should come with it.

(note: do feel free to counter this with arguments. But to ensure that rejoinders don’t delve into the usual ‘oh is she a feminist” kind of argument let me tell you I have fought relentlessly for women’s rights as a journalist, being amongst those crime reporters who linked up with the women’s movements to ensure that dowry deaths were treated as murders, that they were not by the police for several years. As a journalist in a man’s world the going believe me has not been easy, with discrimination eventually ensuring that women journalists never reach the top of a political publication till date (I am not talking of TV anchors as there being a woman does help in the ratings but of the hard print world) But that’s another story to be told of course, at some point).

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