In the film Mom, Sridevi’s character takes the law into her own hands after the courts fail to punish the men who gang-raped her daughter. She goes on to kill them one by one, in a plot that would be politically and legally incorrect.
But it’s just a Bollywood film, after all, one in an entire genre called ‘rape revenge’.
Mostly, these films are well-received. The audience understands that a rape victim (or her brother or husband or father or mother) would never get due justice in real life, so they are willing accomplices in the protagonist’s personal vendetta.
There is a catharsis when the rapists are killed or punished, and moral justice has been served.
But a similar support is not available to real-life heroines. When US-based academic Raya Sarkar published her list of sexual predators in Indian academia on Facebook this month, she faced backlash from both men and women, inside and outside the academic world.
The detractors of ‘the list’ used similar arguments: “Why didn’t the women speak up sooner?” “Why didn’t she go to court instead of social media?” “Naming and shaming is not right without legal evidence.”
A list of acclaimed feminists made a statement against it on Kafila, urging “those behind the initiative to withdraw it” and follow the “due process” of the law.
Senior academic Ashley Tellis – who is gay and also on the list – wrote, “Anyone’s name might be put on a list. The person who puts the name is anonymous, the specificities of the charge undeclared, the evidence irrelevant, the defence unnecessary, the condemnation total. That’s a great world for a nationalist and patriarchal video game, but not one to which feminists might aspire.”
This positioning, however, is problematic – for it allows men and patriarchy a certain code of conduct while disallowing women and victims the same.
Feminists are supposed to be above all that revenge drama.
One doesn’t have to look far to see how this subliminal permission pervades all kinds of social oppression, whether it’s based on caste, gender or religion. Those responsible for the deaths of Rohith Vemula or Mohammad Akhlaq – and hundreds like them – go scot-free and some reportedly even rewarded for their transgressions.
Many continue to flourish in their careers despite charges of rape or sexual harassment, such as RK Pachauri and Imtiyaz Ahmed Parvez, both of CSIR.
On the other hand, Indian jails are disproportionately full of people from three minority communities – Dalits, Muslims and tribals.
Of late, the court has also been making anti-victim judgements in rape cases that undermine the idea and sanctity of consent.
Indeed, if you are of a certain gender, caste, sexual orientation, class or religion in India, you’re possibly doomed to not just oppression, but also miscarriage of justice from the authorities, and a brazen lack of empathy from the public at large.
This writer has herself faced the cold shoulder of the law. It was not very difficult for a wealthy wife-beater in a certain case to get away without giving his wife a home to live in or maintenance for the children due to a male judge’s personal bias in a civil case filed under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005.
After years of battle, the courts could not ensure his legal wife a home, maintenance, or justice for the violence, rape and abuse she and her two children went through.
The only law that has helped her and such wives in the past get some sort of reprieve has been 498A (a criminal case), which has now been diluted. Understandably, she advises other women in similar situations, “Don’t bother going to court. The laws appear to be in the woman’s favour but the judges are not.”
In another case that happened with a loved one decades ago, a student was harassed for two years by her professor to such an extent she dreaded going to college. Though she was a brilliant student, she lost out on a first division in her final degree due to his poor marking after she rejected him.
Whom could she complain to? Who would even believe her? The man continued to grow in professional stature, and even years after she left the college, he proudly used the anecdote to warn female students (including her own younger sister): “See what happens when you don’t do what your professor says.”
Try telling her and victims of caste or communal harassment and violence to follow the ‘due process of the law’.
Have a look at some of the comments comedienne Mallika Dua got this week when she accused Akshay Kumar of sexual harassment at the workplace. Or how women who stood up to say #MeToo – in solidarity with other survivors of sexual violence and abuse – were trolled. Or how the Google document that named sexual predators in the American media was berated for being reckless and harming innocent men. It’s a worldwide malaise.
It’s not easy to be a woman and name and shame your oppressors. Unlike in Bollywood films, there is no justice for you from either society or the law.
No wonder those of us on the side of the oppressed will secretly support lists such as Sarkar’s. That’s the only voice we have, the only way we can get some sense of vindication. Who knows, maybe future Rohiths and Akhlaqs will find their own methods to name and shame their oppressors.
In fact, after centuries of misuse of privilege and power, it is now the turn of the oppressors to worry. After all, anyone can publish a list on social media anonymously. No wonder the entitled are lashing back, afraid. Very, very afraid.
If you’re neither oppressor nor oppressed, the least you can do is be grateful. And listen.
Paromita Vohra in Mumbai Mirror: A New Language of Engagement
Barkha Dutt in Washington Post: What India’s Liberals Can Learn from Harvey Weinstein’s Fall
Apoorva Sripathi in The Ladies Finger: Shit Has Hit the Fan With Raya Sarkar’s Post On Sexual Harassers in Indian Academia. But Will It Just Stop There?
Pathikrit Sanyal in DailyO: Why a Facebook List of Alleged Sexual Predators in Academia has Spooked Vocal Indian Feminists