How do the intersections of gender, caste, sexual orientation and class play out in an environment of exploitation and harassment?

Who gets to be the victim How Indias MeToo favoured privileged in the arts sector
news MeToo Monday, February 24, 2020 - 15:21

The #MeToo movement was started in 2006 by civil rights activist Tarana Burke, a black woman living in the United States. Her monumental effort to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of colour, got appropriated by wealthy white women. Prior to that, in 1989, lawyer and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw -- another black woman -- introduced the theoretical framework of intersectionality to show how gender can combine with race and other aspects of identity to intensify the discrimination faced by marginalised people. Her agenda to broaden feminist discourse beyond the experiences of upper and middle class white women was also hijacked by people who were already privileged.

How has the #MeToo movement and the concept of intersectionality been deployed in India, particularly within the arts and culture sector that is a bastion of elitism? There are multiple entry-level barriers or gatekeeping mechanisms, which can be surpassed mainly through caste capital, university alumni networks, social connections, recommendations and favours. These power dynamics create fertile ground for exploitation, harassment and assault of the sexual, psychological and verbal kind. How do the intersections of gender, caste, sexual orientation and class play out in this environment?

Kiruba Munusamy, an anti-caste activist and human rights lawyer practising at the Supreme Court of India, says, “The #MeToo movement in India was totally dominated by upper caste, upper class, cis-gender women. The entire space was so privileged with most of them being part of organised sectors that those at the margins of the society, especially women from unorganised sectors, members of LGBTQI community were either left out or felt unsafe.” 

Munusamy, who is the executive director of Legal Initiative for Equality, says, “The patriarchal casteist society practising Brahminism always looks for a moral entitlement. It needs a ‘perfect victim.’ To claim justice, the victim has to fulfil the test of suffering which is always expected to be physical. An offence is recognised only from the kind and nature of the assault and from whom it was committed by. That is why the due process of law does not always work for the victims.” According to her, the law is based on calculations about the degree of suffering and the extent of compensation. It is frustrating because it determines whether a particular victim is worthy of justice. As a result, it cannot provide justice to all the victims who have unique and different experiences.

For many professionals working in the arts and culture sector, it is challenging to define a workplace in the traditional sense because they do not necessarily operate from an office space where they meet their colleagues. “In the arts, so much of how we build connections and collaborate relies on personalities and individual styles. More so than other sectors, we form associations based on trust and understanding, often throwing over processes, contracts, and boring business structures. That is both our strength -- the ability to create deep, lasting, artistic relationships -- and weakness, with fluid boundaries, and deep subjective, personal situations with little structured precedent,” says Dipti Rao, head of research at The Art X Company as well as the Arts Culture Resources India City Chapter Host in Bengaluru.

What are the vulnerabilities that arise from such working conditions? What concerns come up around personal safety, and the ability to report instances of sexual assault without feeling that one’s career prospects will be affected? Nisha Abdulla, artistic director of Qabila, a Bengaluru-based theatre collective, says, “In the theatre for certain, the lines are often blurred. Members of a production are also friends who hang out after rehearsals, might also be partners who go back to the same home. Rehearsals are often in private spaces such as the director’s home or some such, and cast and crew have been known to stay back in case of delayed rehearsals...To someone who is a newcomer and wants to report an incident, this sense that everyone knows everyone else can feel rather punishing.”

Because of the structural inequalities in our society, the degree of access to the legal process, and to justice itself, is determined by one's social and political location. The dual curse of heteronormativity and cisgenderism worsens the situation. Listen to what artist, activist and writer Kalki Subramaniam from Pollachi has to say. She is the founder of the Sahodari Foundation, which works for the social, political and economic empowerment of the transgender, intersex and non-binary community in India. "Transgender people have to face a lot of stereotypes and prejudices while working with artists who might be brilliant with their art but have a long way to go as sensitive and kind human beings. It is painful to be working on a project where I have to deal with transphobia from some male artist colleagues,” she shares.

Sahodari's Red Wall Project uses art to highlight the physical and sexual violence faced by transgender and gender non conforming people by featuring hand written testimonials with pressed impressions of their palms painted in red to show resistance. It is based on interviews and testimonials collected from over 500 individuals from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Telangana, Karnataka, West Bengal and Delhi. "I find it intimidating when I post my art on social media and there are always people who focus on my body and  ask for my phone number instead of looking at my art," says Subramaniam, whose work focuses on building respect and eradicating discrimination and violence against the community.

Arundhati Ghosh, executive director at India Foundation for the Arts, and curator at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala 2020, believes that any approach to addressing sexual harassment in the arts and culture sector must take into account “the intersectionalities of vulnerability” She recognises that caste, sexuality, religion, class together with gender play an important role in making survivors vulnerable. “People from such severely more marginalised spaces must be protected more through enabling them to voice their concerns, pay attention to their specific needs and have zero tolerance to discrimination against them.” 

For this to happen, it is important to examine not only specific instances of violence but at the larger power structures in society and in organisations that enable violence to flourish so that processes aimed at providing justice and healing are survivor-centric. Smita Vanniyar, a queer feminist who works with Point of View, a Mumbai-based non-profit organisation, says that gender and sexuality need to be understood in broader, nuanced terms. “Both of these are wide spectrums and galaxies. If we don't form grievance redressal mechanisms around consent, then we will be building a system which leaves out a significant number of people, and more worrying, dictates a dichotomy in who can/does get harassed and hence who can seek redressal.” 

While diversity and inclusion is slowly becoming a priority for some quarters in the arts and culture sector as well, these gestures are usually cosmetic. They offer breadcrumbs to people who have been kept out, instead of giving them a place at the decision making table as equals. Since the world is not likely to change overnight, what can be done right away? "When we go into communities as researchers and designers, we have to be aware of the caste and class privileges we carry," says Naveen Bagalkot, who is a researcher and educator at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, and is a part of the Bangalore-based Design Beku Collective. 

Participatory design must guard against potential abuse of power so that academic priorities do not exploit the labour or knowledge systems of the communities the designers work with. Bagalkot employs collaborative design and critical making with organisations such as Deccan Living Labs, MAYA Health, IT for Change and Jatan Sansthan. 

Which voices get highlighted in the process of knowledge creation around movements such as #MeToo? This question is important to engage with especially in an area of social media influencers wherein who gets amplified and who goes viral depends a lot on a person’s access to privilege and not just technology. This translates into speaking and writing opportunities that are mostly available to English-speaking, Brahmin, cisgender heterosexual people with a university education and living in metro cities. I had these thoughts going through my mind when I attended a session on #MeToo in the arts and culture sector led by Vanniyar and Munusamy at the CultureCon 2020, an arts management conference held in Mumbai from February 6 to 8.

Munusamy says, “I have been part of a few #MeToo panels in India and I rarely found a Dalit, indigenous, transwoman or queer person in a panel. The question of sexuality and vulnerability of downtrodden, queer men was entirely missing. The privilege of Brahmin and dominant caste women was for no discussion at all...Also, the Brahmin, dominant caste women who are the face of #MeTooIndia should acknowledge that they are also oppressors of marginalised women in some context and are complicit in the exploitation of the downtrodden. If they truly engage to unlearn their casteist privileges, they will learn by themselves as to who should be the face of any liberating movement."

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer-researcher working on peace education, queer rights, and India-Pakistan dialogue.

Views expressed are the author's own. 

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