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Breaking the “savarna feminism” rules – how Raya Sarkar’s list of alleged harassers divided opinion in India

A student decided to compile a list of alleged sexual predators. Then other feminists stepped in – to defend them.  

On 24 October 2017, the law student and vocal anti-caste Indian feminist Raya Sarkar put up a Facebook post. In it, Sarkar asked fellow students to share their experiences with academics “who have sexually harassed/were sexually predatory to them”. Coming in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein saga and the #MeToo movement, the post quickly went viral. Hundreds of women messaged Sarkar on Facebook and WhatsApp to tell their stories and name their abusers. Starting off with just two names, the list quickly grew to 72, many of them prominent figures in liberal and progressive circles.

“Honestly it was an act of impulse. I was infuriated to know that Christine Fair's article was removed from Huffington Post and the ridiculous reason they took it down for,” says Sarkar over e-mail. They (Sarkar uses this pronoun) were referring to an open letter by the senior American academic in which she named several men, including noted Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, who had harassed her over the years she spent in academia. (The article was taken down by Huffington Post, but has since been republished by Buzzfeed; Chakrabarty told a Chicago paper that he had “always worked to maintain a respectful, professional, and cordial relationship with my students” and would listen to any complaints “carefully and take appropriate action.”)

Sarkar continues: “I just wanted students and my friends to be wary of alleged sexual harassers in academia. I used first hand accounts and whatever evidence the survivors could gather to make the post using my personal social media account. It was a cautionary list, pretty much how women warn each other in person.” Nevertheless, the list ignited a firestorm of debate in Indian intellectual and liberal circles that refuses to die down. 

“There's a reason the list exists in the first place”

Reactions to the list have been as varied as they have been predictable. While many took to social media to support the list and demand justice for the victims, others decried it as “vigilante justice” or a “witch hunt”. Much of the discussion has revolved around Sarkar’s “methodology” and the ethics of a crowd-sourced list of anonymous accusations. The fact that there have been no official complaints registered against the majority of those named has further muddied the waters.

One of the men on the list pointed out the lack of details in the list (Sarkar does not mention specific allegations, ostensibly to protect the accusers from reprisals), claiming that this made it impossible for men to defend themselves. Almost immediately, several women responded with specific allegations. Another - Ashley Tellis, an English professor who claims he was fired as a lecturer at St Joseph’s College, Bangalore, for “being gay” - claimed that he was only added to the list because he criticised it publicly, and went on to imply that the List and its supporters are deliberately or unwittingly working hand in hand with the “government’s complete disrespect for procedure, nominating people as harassers and being done with any idea of justice”.

For some, this misses the point. “The discourse has shifted to whether it’s ethical or not,” says feminist writer Shreya Ila Anasuya. “But I think that's a question we can tackle once we've all agreed that there is an egregious abuse of power in these institutions and that there's a reason the list exists in the first place.” Apart from a couple of investigations and one resignation that may or may not have to do with the list, she notes, there have been few real world repercussions for the accused men. “I would like to widen the lens of what ethics we're looking at. Is it ethical for students to have to go through harassment year after year without any recourse to any kind of justice? Is it ethical to dismiss the list just because we don't agree with the methodology?”

Criticism of the list hasn’t just come from men or conservative women. Immediately after the list started getting visibility on social media, a statement criticising it appeared on independent radical blog Kafila, co-signed by 13 prominent feminists, including noted author and academic Nivedita Menon and All India Progressive Women's Association secretary Kavita Krishnan. The statement said that they were “dismayed” at the list and urged those behind it to withdraw the list and “follow due process”. On social media, others urged the complainants to come forward and report cases to the police or to the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at their universities, set up in the wake of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013.

But defenders of the list say these calls ignore the fact that it is their frustration with these very mechanisms that motivated these women to approach Sarkar. “I asked the victims the same question and the answer is pretty clear,” says Sarkar. “They did not approach any committee in place because it is exhausting. They are scrutinised and singled out in their institutions.” In the tight-knit world of academia, the women fear a backlash among colleagues, as well as pressure to withdraw their claims. “Most victims don't approach these committees also because often there are conflicts of interest between the accused and the people carrying out the investigative process,” Sarkar adds. 

Even feminists who are uncomfortable with the ethical implications of crowd-sourced lists acknowledge that existing “due process” is severely flawed. Writing in The Wire, Delhi University professor Ashwini Deshpande draws from her own experience at the Delhi School of Economics. Deshpande served as the chair of the Committee Against Sexual Harassment, the forerunner to the committees established after 2013. In some cases, such as explaining to a male professor that texting a female student repeatedly late at night could make her uncomfortable, the committee could intervene. But on other occasions, red tape, institutional indifference and the lack of any real power rendered these mechanisms ineffective. “The rules are such that if you want to bury cases in red tape and bureaucracy, you could do that very easily,” she tells me over the phone from Delhi. “It was all a function of individual initiative, whether or not the chairperson or some members of the committee were pro-active and sensitised to the issue.” Deshpande believes that committees need to be less centralised, and closer to the possible complainants. “At the moment, the architecture of the committee is not conducive to that,” she says. 

“Would a list of Uber drivers enrage us so bitterly?”

Aside from questions about due process, the Kafila statement also ignited a passionate, and occasionally vicious, debate within feminist circles. The dispute exposed longstanding fissures within the Indian feminist movement along generational, caste and class lines.

For supporters of the list, such as the feminist writer Anasuya, the Kafila statement smacked of “turf and territorialism”. Its tone was seen as patronising, while the promise of the “support of the larger feminist community” suggested the writers felt ownership of the feminist movement. Other critiques focused on the shared caste and class of the accused and the feminists who signed the statement.

Indian academia, like the rest of Indian society, is heavily dominated by Brahmins and other “upper” castes. Individuals from those background enjoy an in-built legitimacy and social and cultural capital from their location on the caste hierarchy.  Ironically, even supposedly egalitarian and progressive fields such as post-colonial studies and gender studies are largely the preserve of caste elites – a group which includes both the men on the list, and 11 of the 13 feminists who signed the Kafila statement. As Vidhya Reveendranathan and Nitin Sinha ask in The Wire, “would a list of Uber drivers enrage us so bitterly? Perhaps not.” Or, to put it another way, why is Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, OK with naming and shaming misogynistic trolls on Twitter, but uncomfortable when others name and shame academics for offline sexual harassment, abuse and worse?

The debate has also become increasingly personal. Two days later, one of the more prominent signatories on the Kafila statement, Nivedita Menon, responded to these allegations with a rambling 7,300 word post titled “From Feminazi to Savarna Rape Apologist In 24 Hours” (“savarna” is a term that denotes those with caste privilege). Menon raised some important critiques of the list, especially the lack of specific allegations and the importance of establishing institutional procedures to deal with sexual harassment cases.

Nevertheless, much of the post was devoted to establishing her credentials as a feminist and questioning the role of her - and her co-signees’ - caste in this debate. She went on to equate anti-caste feminists calling out “savarna feminism”, i.e. the privileging of upper caste feminist narratives over those emerging from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi (DBA) and other marginalised communities, with anti-feminist attacks by right-wing Hindu nationalist trolls. (For non-Indian readers, this smacks of the same logic that leads white American progressives to blame the rise of Trump on “divisive” identity politics, rather than on their own failure to reach out to marginalised communities.)

For Menon and many others, especially on the left, this attack on upper caste feminism has led to a “destructive polarisation” within the movement and “the annihilation of mutual trust.” But, as Anasuya points out in a must-read piece on DailyO, “even claiming that the movement’s ‘unity’ is being threatened is a savarna construct and a sign of this privilege. Dalit Bahujan activists and still others who are in different locations have never bought into the idea of a singular "feminist movement" - why should they, when they have been systematically excluded by savarna feminists?” 

Feminism in India has disproportionately focused on issues of concern to upper caste, upper class women. Simultaneously, the contributions of Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi women (such as Savitribai Phule, the Dalit poet and social reformer who opened the one of India’s first girls’ school in 1858 along with her husband) have been erased.

“This culture of disbelieving victims hits minorities the hardest”

Before Sarkar was known for their list, they were known as an anti-caste campaigner. “Savarna feminism has dominated post-colonial theory and feminism in India,” she says (Menon did not respond to queries seeking comment for this piece). “How many Dalit women have been given the opportunity to publish their own stories, their own theories in academia? Savarna feminists refuse to pass the mic to Dalit women but would rather speak for them, come up with words like ‘subaltern’, without Dalit academics and scholars being given the opportunity to write their own histories and theories about their own subjugation.”

While discussions of sexual harassment and reporting in the US and Britain have focused on the relative privilege and power of white men, in India the discussion has included the idea of “caste capital”. Sarkar argues this plays a major role in whether victims get believed when they choose to complain about sexual harassment. “This culture of disbelieving victims hits minorities the hardest who do not own the caste capital that their savarna professors enjoy,” says Sarkar. In one case, Srilakshmi Prabha, a Dalit research scholar, filed a case against the university’s vice-chancellor, on the grounds that a job reserved for a woman had been given to a man. Later, she found her post-doctoral fellowship was blocked, in what she believed was revenge (the case is currently being examined by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes). “The power dynamics cannot be disregarded,” argues Sarkar.

This splintering of the feminist movement has brought long overdue discussions about intersectionality - or the lack of it - within Indian feminism into the public eye. This debate continues, and will continue, to rage on for months and years to come. In the meantime, the question that many have raised is “what now?” Different people I spoke to had different answers. Deshpande, the former committee chair, believes that the solution lies in working to strengthen the existing mechanisms to address sexual harassment within the university. In another post on Kafila, anthropology student Nandita Badami explores ways in which crowd-sourced lists like this one can be made more robust and less problematic, suggesting that they can bolster the work of anti-sexual harassment committees where they do exist, and act as a first port-of-call where they don’t.

Still others see the list as an end in itself, a digital version of the “whisper networks” that already exist offline to warn women of potential abusers. And then of course, there’s the fact that all of this action is restricted to academic and urban liberal circles. Apart from a few academics, and one music venue owner in Pune, powerful men across various industries – from Bollywood to law to government - continue to believe that their position gives them the impunity to harass their women employees and colleagues. A broader cultural shift will take much more time and effort.

Nevertheless, despite the acrimony, some recognise Raya Sarkar's list marks a turning point. “Aside from these action points, I think we need to pause and realise that this is a big moment,” says Anasuya. “We need to historicise this moment and look at what's happening now post-Weinstein. What is this moment, where women who haven't spoken publicly for decades are coming out with their stories? It's been happening all year, so we need to really think about this and grapple with the whole of it.”

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

***

Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

***

Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

The author attempts to curl

After a few failed attempts, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.