In the name of progressiveness: A Note on the recent Speak-Out movement in Kerala

By Praveena Thaali for

In recent times, Dalit-Bahujan women have started a speak-out* campaign to reveal their experiences of sexual harassment, which until now it has been relatively unfamiliar in the public sphere of Kerala. Many women began to write on social media about their experience of sexual harassment that happened in workplaces, friendly circles and activist spaces by progressive Savarna-Dalit men. Initially, Chandini Latha, a Bahujan student from the University of Hyderabad posted on Facebook about the slut-shaming and rape threat she was subjected to by a friend and the sexual advances and abusive messages she encountered from a Dalit activist as well. Further, Arathi Ranjith, a Dalit journalist shared her experience of harassment, while she was travelling to Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu with Dalit documentary activist Rupesh Kumar. Her Facebook posts were widely shared and have sparked off a massive discussion in the cyberspace. Prominent Dalit feminist writer Rekha Raj openly expressed her solidarity and offered legal support to these women. She also wrote a detailed note on Facebook regarding the various sexual assaults done by Rupesh Kumar and Rajesh Paul to many Dalit and Bahujan women. Following this, many women, including Trans-people from all social locations have begun speaking-out their experiences of sexual harassment.

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The two accused men are Rajeesh Paul, a Savarna Christian man who is active in secular political spaces and social media, and Rupesh Kumar also a known figure in cyberspaces and the Dalit movement through his activism and writings. The Dalit women who engage in public space discussions have openly spoken about their experience of sexual harassment on social media. This article is a kind of exploration of the possibilities of social media in such instances. As far as Dalit women are concerned, these types of sexual assault and violence were dealt in state institutions such as police stations. Moreover, this speak-out campaign has various dimensions; primarily the detailing and explanation of the sexual assaults have always happened in private space, due to the so-called public morality which determines the future life of the survivor. In a way, these women have displayed the immense courage to cross the boundaries of private space in order to expect support from the large public in social media. Some newspapers have attempted subsume it within the initial #metoo campaign, but this movement has been relatively different in its nature. Here the women openly revealed their identity to the public.

The Indian episode of the #metoo campaign was vehemently criticized by some Savarna feminists since explanations and evidence were not made public to substantiate the list of sexual harassers. However, women from this speak–out movement revealed their identity, the particular incidents and contexts. Dalit women such as Remya and Arathi have addressed the public through videos.  They did not merely share the details of the sexual assault they faced but the shock of experiencing it from an activist friend who always talks about progressiveness and democratic rights. Ami, daughter of imprisoned Maoist parents talked about the sexual harassment done by Rajesh Paul when she was a minor. He was a supporter of a pedophilic campaign in social media. All the women in the campaign stated that these men had taken advantage of their participation in public activities.

Hence, the women’s decision to travel for a professional purpose or for being in a friend’s circle of men has been considered as consent for sex.  The artificial intellectuality and liberal anarchist image of these men get access in many contemporary discourses, which has been used as a way to perceive women as sexual objects; and especially women from Dalit and marginalized communities. Apart from that, these men project themselves as different subjects by debating subaltern ideas to criticize the left-liberal discourse of Kerala. However, these incidents clearly show that they carry the Brahminic patriarchal value that sees women as mere sexual objects.

Politics of Speak-Out

The recent speak out campaign put forward certain political questions to the Kerala public. The young Dalit-Bahujan and Savarna women unmasked the well-known “progressive” face of Kerala. The nature of violence they faced was not merely an attack on their body but also their intellectual capacity. Besides they were morally policed, when they denied the sexual advances and resisted the attacks by those abusive men. In other words, they were termed as moralistic and not liberal enough to fit into the progressive community. These questions also make us think how far the liberal Malayali men are progressive and democratic. According to Gargi Harithakam’s Facebook post, “Jeevan Thomas a painter cum sculpture tried to sexually abuse her after their “intellectual” discussions on painting wherein he switched the discourse to liberating women’s bodies. Remarkably, these abusers repeatedly talked about liberal sexuality with women who befriended them. They, however, understand women’s friendship or companionship as consent for sex. This has been the experience of all women in the speak-out campaign. Moreover, these men tried to define morality in their own terms to blackmail women with the given privileges of patriarchy, but the present movement brilliantly resisted and exposed them to the public.

Historically, rape of Dalit women is a religiously sanctioned idea. The Brahminical value system legitimizes the rape as part of Hindu patriarchal customs (see J. Indira). Therefore, rape and any other sexual assault on Dalit women have been normalized in India. The Dalit-Bahujan women in this movement declared their agency over body and sexuality by transgressing the existing Brahminical patriarchy. Thus this movement may not be read merely as an extension of the #metoo campaign. As Rekha Raj observes ‘it is not a campaign for claiming the victim status but an assertive movement by survivors of sexual assault who politically articulate their experience and expose the abusive men in the public” (see Rekha Raj’s Facebook posts). These rising voices of women also interrogate the hegemony of male-centric social movements that often see women merely as sexual entities. As far as the Dalit movement is concerned, Dalit men have relative power to treat Dalit women as subordinate subjects that always reject equal recognition and dignity.  Therefore, it cannot be read only as a campaign to expose the facts of sexual assault rather, it is a political articulation led by Dalit-Bahujan women that in the process addresses male dominance, exclusion, violence and humiliation. This movement also led to a discussion on the alliance of caste and patriarchy in the public space of Kerala. Furthermore, this movement also provided more visibility to the everyday political struggles of Dalit-Bahujan women. If Dalit –Bahujan women are raped or murdered, they usually get attention in the mainstream media. Hence it can be read as an impact of social media discussions that highlights Dalit-Bahujan and minority issues nowadays.  Likewise, this speak-out movement has received a lot of attention amongst the politically sensitive public. However, the other political interventions of Dalit women hardly receive the consideration of social media spaces that deal with the question of rights. For instance, Saranya a Dalit women journalist from Kerala was discriminated by a News channel on the basis of her caste; unfortunately, it wasn’t a sensitive issue to the social media and the groups which argue for the rights of women journalists in the workplace. Therefore in the context of such invisibility, the wider-support to the speak-out campaign in social media must be critically analyzed

The speak-out and the right to talk  

This movement has been reported by a few mainstream newspapers. However, the recent ‘Deccan Chronicle’ (DC) report by Vandana Mohandas led to further discussion. The foremost criticism was raised by Dalit Bahujan women in Kerala; they opposed the unethical stand of the report in projecting Savarna women as authentic respondents to this issue. The journalist did not seek out the opinions of the women who initiated this movement although the report showed a clear awareness of the issue and the people involved. At the same time, it also projected Arathy Ranjith merely as a victim, and this, in spite of the fact that she herself rejected the cult of victimhood and claimed herself as a survivor. It could be read that the DC report rejected the agency and leadership of Dalit-Bahujan women in the Speak-out movement. Many women, including me, pointed out the erasure of subjectivity and the ways in which both the reporter and the respondents capitalized on the pain of Dalit Bahujan women but these criticisms were misread as Savarna women tried to hijack the movement. This is not an issue of a few Savarna women giving their opinion. Instead, their words were considered as an authenticated one in the report. The question that arises here is that in spite of the fact that there are Dalit women like Rekha Raj who is capable enough to talk about the issue, why Savarna women were brought to articulate the intellectual aspect of the story? If the reporter is not willing to reach out to the leaders of this movement, then the report itself lacks certain ethical elements.  Obviously, the mainstream media required privileged and value-added faces for their stories, but the women who responded to DC did not realize the absences of the representation of Dalit-Bahujan women. Notwithstanding, it can be read as a continuation of Savarna women’s capitalization of the existing women’s spaces. In addition to that, these capitalisations can be understood as a form of violence that occurs from their caste privileged position. The choices and preferences adopted by journalists are significant issues here. I do not think that the selections of the women (who are in the report) are an innocent decision by the journalist. This clearly reflects that our media is Brahminical. Instead, her social location and convictions also reflect it.  Moreover, Dalit women are picturised merely as poor/ helpless or lifelong fighters for basic human rights in our public discourses. Thus they hardly appear in media to articulate their own issues intellectually. Eventually, the Savarna women patronise and appropriate certain issues in the critical absence of Dalit-Bahujan women.

Spaces and political correctness

The political space of Kerala is designed through the imagination of Savarna educated men. However, it has influenced the Dalit and Bahujan men who are active in current political discourses. In addition to that, the power structure and male dominance in these spaces have not become a wider debate. Thus the present speak-out movement intervenes in those spaces by addressing such dominance with their political correctness. There are two existing arguments; one describes it as an extension of the global and the Indian #metoo campaign by centring the victim status, while the other is by the women in this movement who assert themselves as survivors. However, I read this movement as a political intervention of Dalit –Bahujan women asserting their agency that critically engages with the power structure of existing spaces. Some feminists have expressed their anxieties on the fragmentation of feminist solidarities, especially on occasion when women raise different stands. This phase of women’s struggles invalidates the old equations and previous dimensions of gender and the idea of homogeneity of womanhood as well.  Spaces are very critical, especially those that are acquired through various struggles. This is especially so for Dalit –Bahujan women because they have a historical claim on self-respect and women’s rights, even before the so-called feminist movement emerged in Kerala. Shobana Padinjattil says “these issues of sexual harassment either considered as gossips or normalized through negotiation or survivors might be in exile if it happens in any other space”.  However, Dalit –Bahujan women’s interventions raised those issues as a political question in the public. Moreover, it is the possibility of identity and micro-politics as well”.

The speak-out movement can be read as a critical involvement initiated by Dalit Bahujan women towards democratizes political spaces. The sexual harassments against women in those spaces are considered as individual cases and negotiated in terms of the predator’s caste, class and other privileges. Dalit- Bahujan women have fearlessly taken a stand to talk about these abusers with proper context and explanation of incidents and this, in turn, has given confidence to Savarna women as well. Apart from that, the normalizing of sexual abuse in liberal, political or academic spaces is a crucial thing; precisely women who engage in those spaces are misjudged as available even by their colleagues. Thus the speak-out movement put forward brilliant political questions for the significance of a democratic space for them.  The women’s act of revealing in social media shocked Kerala’s public sphere since the sexual harassers were the people who stood for Dalit-Muslim-Adivasi and women rights. But the left activists of Kerala used this as an opportunity to bash Dalits and identity politics. Hence the Dalit movement did not come up with a stand against those activists. However, many people individually supported the cause of these women. Many activists in the Dalit movement misread the speak-out campaign as an initiative that would demoralize the movement, and some of them even supported the harassers publicly.

Some sympathisers of harassers argued that this is sheer mob lynching on social media. The accused must, in fact, be punished by law. Factually it is neither mob-lynching nor an attack on individuals; instead, their friends and colleagues exposed their real activities that contradict their progressive politics.  The sexual harassment cases of women in general and Dalit Bahujan women, in particular, have hardly seen justice in time. Thus the speak-out campaign through social media becomes very significant; therefore it demands wider support from the people across genders who believe in democratic rights.

I am thankful to Dr Rekha Raj, Asha Rani, Ria, Chandran Komath, Reji Dev, Joby Mathew, Ashabahi Thankamma and Anjitha for discussions. *The term “Speak-out” is a translation of the Malayalam word “Thurannuparachilukal” which is repeatedly used by women in the movement.

The author is a PhD research scholar at the University of Hyderabad