#MeToo sparks Debate on Gender and Caste in Indian Feminism
By Nandini Deo
As the #MeToo movement continues to gain traction across the world, it has given way to the #himtoo debate among Indian academics. #MeToo became a global phenomenon as famous actresses revealed a Hollywood producer’s sexual predation. As their stories circulated on social media, more women (and some men) began to post accounts of being harassed at work, on the streets, and in schools and universities. Ever since, the movement has made the cover of Times Magazine, and affected careers of prominent names in media, politics, entertainment and other sectors. It didn’t take long for Indian academia to find its #MeToo moment.
Christine Fair, a scholar of international security studies focusing on South Asia, added her own twist to the public revelations in a personal account of sexual harassment. In her article, she didn’t shield her harassers from public scrutiny and instead, identified herself and her perpetrators. She named several men, who occupy positions of power and prestige in American academia including several Indian academics and those in the field of South Asia studies.
Fair’s action prompted law student Raya Sarkar to put together a list of sexual harassers in Indian academia, which could serve as a warning to other women about whom they need to watch out for. She posted the list on Facebook and used a Google spreadsheet to keep track of the accused and the nature of the accusations against them. Of those named in the list, which is no longer available online, some had multiple accusers. Some of them were alleged to have committed rape while others were accused of creating a hostile environment due to inappropriate jokes and comments. This was an astounding turn. Instead of victims of sexual harassment being forced to lay their entire sexual histories and characters in the court of public opinion in order to be believed, the list puts the onus on male aggressors to defend themselves from anonymous charges.
Some of India's most eminent feminists wrote an open letter to Sarkar highlighting the importance of following due process to lodge formal complaints instead of an informal list. The critical response to them has been to suggest that savarna feminists are attacking a young dalit bahujan feminist by writing this letter. Savarna refers to Hindus within the caste system entitled to caste privilege as opposed to dalit bahujans, who are deemed to be outside of the caste hierarchy and, therefore, socially oppressed.
Nivedita Menon, who was one of the signatories, has written a long defense. Essentially, she rejects the idea that caste is a significant aspect of this debate. She positions herself as a feminist elder, who offers support and guidance to newer feminists. Sociologist Srila Roy has argued that this generational division within feminism is a way of framing the feminist movement as singular and linear when it has always been much more complex. She suggests that the generational tropes obscure the far more important debates over caste and its presence or absence in the Indian women’s movement.
It is interesting how caste, gender, ageism, and academic hypocrisy have all come together to produce a toxic brew. I think the naming and shaming of harassers is probably a necessary and positive development in our thinking about sexual politics. But I am also dismayed at the way in which some are dismissing the work of feminists like Menon and Krishnan as if these scholar-activists should be silenced rather than "called in" over their caste politics.
Caste in the feminist movement can be analyzed through the idea of hauntology. Hauntology refers to the idea that there are certain “ghosts” that make themselves felt even as they are absent in a material way. That is, caste is not spoken of, and yet shapes the interactions between all Indians, including in the feminist movement. Until, the ghostly presence of caste and its effects in Indian academia are openly discussed, the division the list created will continue to persist.
In the 1990s, Flavia Agnes and others pointed out that the Indian women’s movement, which presented itself as secular, was actually deeply influenced by Hindu language, metaphors, and assumptions. Today, Dalit feminists are drawing our attention to the ways in which the feminist movement in India needs to be self-conscious about caste. It always matters, perhaps especially, when some claim that it is irrelevant.
What began as a discussion of sexism in the workplace in the United States, quite naturally has become a discussion about how sexism and casteism work together in Indian academia. Dr. B.R Ambedkar, considered to be one of the founding fathers of the Republic of India, long ago pointed out that caste and gender oppression are inextricably linked. In the Indian context, to imagine that women’s equality is possible without an end to caste discrimination is simply foolish. The two have to go hand in hand.
About the author
Nandini Deo is an Associate Professor in the department of Political Science at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, USA. Her research is at the intersection of religion, feminism, and social movements in South Asia. Deo’s first book The Politics of Collective Advocacy in India was co-authored with Duncan McDuie Ra and focused on the gains of NGOs networking transnationally. Her second book, Mobilizing Religion and Gender in India: The role of activism compares the rise and fall of women’s movements and religious nationalism as an outcome of activist strategies as they responded to changing political structures. She is now editing a volume for Bloomsbury Press called Feminisms Beyond the Secular.