Monday, February 6, 2023
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Why ‘The List’ shouldn’t become the new four-letter word in Indian feminism

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“The List” shows that there is a churn in Indian feminism, and something new is taking shape. There is a need to watch this space, without rushing to judge.

The most surprising bit about “The List” on sexual harassers in the Indian academia that came out this week is the sharp, polarising and singeing reaction to it. That there are so many well-respected professors in universities who are sexual predators is no surprise. That so many of them are so-called “liberals” isn’t surprising either.

The moot question then is why “The List” has divided feminists so sharply. Some say it is because of caste. Some say it is because the entrenched, traditional and privileged liberals like to steer public discourse, identify enemies and dictate modes of resistance. Some say feminists are divided because some want to play by the rules and processes, and others are impatient and are done with waiting, and some like to bring the ethical and legal lens into everything, and others say it is about the generational change underway within feminism.

There is truth in all of this.

But perhaps the divide is mostly about the next wave in feminism. Simplistically put, the first wave was predominantly about the right to vote. The second was about opportunity and workplace. The third was about diversity and intersectionality, and then came “networked feminism”. The story gets more interesting here. We are in the second phase of networked feminism, and “The List” is the most recent manifestation of it.

A few years ago, when the SlutWalk protests (which began in Canada) spread across different cities of the world, Delhi wasn’t impervious to its defiant rage. Some young students began mobilising on Facebook to stage a SlutWalk in Delhi too. I reported on it and spoke to several activists at the time. Many young women went to established women’s groups to look for support. They did not get it.

“Women in India have tried so hard and for so long to gain respect. Why should we now regress and want to call ourselves ‘sluts’,” asked one. Another said “this Western import will not work in India. Our culture has deep roots in the women-as-goddesses concept”.

But the SlutWalk took place nevertheless. Not just in Delhi but in several cities, big and small. Even though it did not take place in big numbers, it was an “ajooba” for everybody. Policewomen guarding the protests giggled and quizzed the marchers. Many women watching a SlutWalk streetplay in Gurgaon told me: “Is this the right direction?” “We have tried so hard to shift the blame for rape away from women. This ‘yes I am a slut’ takes us back to the era of victim-blaming. We need to get away from the word slut, not embrace it.’

The young university students won this round — not because this was big but because they had managed to use Facebook to introduce new ideas in language to recontour the accepted public vocabulary about women. It was my first encounter with networked feminism in action — among university women — in India.

Mobilise online, march offline.

This online-offline mode was also seen in the “Pink Chaddi” campaign before this. Gaining followers on Facebook, it called for physical action offline, to protest against Pramod Muthalik by sending him thousands of pink panties.

Then the 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape happened.

When the university students went to the police station, there were many leaders from women’s groups there as well. They were both clashing with the police on the same issue. But the latter saw how quickly the younger women used social media to bring big crowds for the massive anti-rape protests.

“These young women turned on their phones, and tweeted and posted to bring a large number of protestors in no time,” said one senior feminist leader, who had earlier frowned upon the SlutWalk. “Bringing crowds was something we had been doing for so many decades. And it used to take so long for us.”

Both generations were converging here — and recognised the benefits of online mobilisation. But it was still the “mobilise online, march offline” mode.

There are other examples. Temple entry protests began online, manifested on the streets. Pinjra Tod is another example.

Now, this mode has grown a new mutant form — Mobilise online, act online. We have seen several examples of this in the past two to three years.

The List phenomenon made no call to come on the streets to protest against the names. Offline is losing its power slowly — (of course, in Delhi physical spaces of protests are literally shrinking too. India Gate is inaccessible. Jantar Mantar appears to have come under the NGT scanner for noise pollution). That is why I call it the second wave of networked feminism in India.

This new version follows different rules. No leader, no pressures of dealing with police lathi charge, no resources/costs, no loss of workdays. All you have to do is hashtag and share. In the “sharing” economy, decision-making is decentralised, there is no gatekeeping on laws and ethical boundaries. No lengthy discussions about risk-assessment and direction.

And that explains the widespread unease.

“A tweet isn’t an FIR,” said someone. Yes, but what do you say to young women who say it is, in the Indian law enforcement and judicial context, more powerful than an FIR. Will you label them Internet anarchists?

I see tremendous cathartic value in “The List”. I support the increasing impatience with incremental, evolutionary, rule-based quest for change. But I also recognise the risks.

What one can say for sure is that there is a churn in Indian feminism, and something new is taking shape. There is a need to watch this space, without rushing to judge.


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