#whatnow? Ponni

THIS POST IS WRITTEN BY PONNI

To all the men, women, and all those of named and unnamed genders in my life, intimate, private and public, who have shown me safety, joy, pleasure, comfort and love and who ask of me, gently, the same. I love you all.

I was raped when I was 14, Or maybe 15. Not sure. It took me three years to realise it happened. Another ten to choose to begin to deal with it. And another six to realise the details and extent of what happened. And so, the process continues. Far from over. So yeah, #metoo.

When I moved to Delhi I called home crying everyday, not only because I didn’t know Hindi and everyone chided me by calling me madrasi, but because I got sexually harassed everyday. It wasn’t the ‘far away’ whistling kind I was used to in Chennai. I saw penises from unzipped pants in the crushing closeness of Delhi buses. Again, on the bus, I had men masturbate on my shoulders and am still showering to get it off me. So yeah, #metoo.

Once I was older, I acquired some ‘power’ (by my standards) – people had heard of my name from publications, activist work – I was accused or it was implied that I could have sexually harassed or abused two women at two different times. I was in romantic relationships with them. Neither one made the accusation public. Neither one of them were my equals in age, or cultural capital. One of them got in touch many years later and tried to establish a friendship again while implying that she never meant to make me feel that way. But I was too scared to even respond. The other was much closer to me and so I said more and she said more to me. She was the one I had a physical relationship with. I will never forget that feeling of power, enormous self doubt, and painful reflection. I will always ask myself what my intentions were, how I may have expressed them and why I wasn’t able to negotiate power in a way that was adequately and appropriately dignified, respectful, kind and most importantly equal-ising.

I am a queer feminist Tamil woman without a highflying job yet. I am likely to have one soon enough, if I choose it. There are enormous privileges of course, of caste, class, of ‘passing’ in terms of gender and sexuality, among other things. But neither am I a straight upper-caste man in a fancy academic job. So here I am, having been on both sides of harassment and abuse. Now, as I think through the flood of the #metoo campaign and the google doc list and the responses that have followed- I realise, that in both sides of the equation, the powers of patriarchy lives within us all. Its incredible how my own imagination of what to do, how to respond, is stunted by the horror of this realisation.

Moments like this make us want to go back to the basics. The basics, as some of our feminist foremothers seem to imply is not ‘due process’. We all know that that is the trap of a liberal democratic approach to politics. The law in all its imagined g(l)ory(!) and society as seen from the perspective of law, policy, and procedure. The basics, as far as I am concerned, is patriarchy and power.

All of these debates have made me, among many other friends, identify the acts of patriarchal power enacted upon us and some of those that we have enacted upon others. We have brushed aside either ones or both for the sake of convenience and calm. I remember again, that PROTECTING CHILDREN is still not a non-negotiable bottom line, even amongst feminists. So often it can be made secondary to caste/kin/community relationships and maintaining statusquo within them. I remember how our cis-male comrades take up space in our political spaces repeatedly and we all choose to either fight for space with them for the rest of our lives or find spaces that don’t involve them. And let’s remember that the existence of the latter has been made possible by some of the very same foremothers mentioned and critiqued above.

The slightest disrespect from my cis-male colleagues or comrades has inspired in me a response. A response that insists that they look themselves in the mirror – at their power and privilege. This response of mine can seem gentle at times, but its intentions and sometimes, effects are not. This has left me, working with very few men over the years. Similarly, I remember reflecting recently on why I cannot, or have not been in intimate relationships with male persons. Even as I feel less and less tied to the categories of sexual orientation, my desire and imagination of an intimate space still has little space for anything from within the spectrum of masculinity. I told my friend that I would really need to be swept off my feet, inspired to negotiate and come to a feeling of calm about the social meanings of me being with a ‘male person’. Only if I can do that can I enjoy myself in that intimate space. In the event, that that seems unlikely, my imagination and desire remains stunted. In my own life then, personal, intimate professional, political- male persons are few and far between. Much of this was not a conscious choice, but in moments like this, these realities hit and we need to wonder why and face the hard truths it puts before us. Those truths for me, in this moment are that we don’t have a culture or language in which we are able to articulate, engage, live and work together across power hierarchies. This is an example involving gender. Similar realities can be readily seen with caste, class and sexuality hierarchies.

Moving away from the ‘personal’ as it were, this piece could have emerged out of my public engagement as a feminist in debates on Sexual Harassment and Assault laws. It could have been based on the myriad individual cases I have worked on. It could have been discussed through how the women’s movements’ continue to ignore the issue of criminalising marital rape. Husbands rape wives everyday. More than men on buses and back alleyways, and yet we don’t want to go there. But then again, perhaps that debate too is too much of a mirror to ourselves and our lives. Who wants to see all that there is in there? I am not sure I do. It can be written through the experience of proving that domestic work is work within the ambit of including the unorganised sector work in the bill for sexual harassment at the workplace. The whole world knows domestic workers are targeted in their workplaces. Everyone knows they have absolutely no safety net to fall back on in these instances. And yet, it was such a struggle. I could have spoken about this through the sustained, profound voice of sex workers and their allies asking how they can even begin to prove in our courtrooms that they too can be raped. And the uphill task of making the perpetrator gender neutral in cases of custodial violence within the sexual assault bill, primarily based on sex workers experiences of being abused by female police officers. This piece could have been written through the lens of my own journey with gender neutrality in sexual assault law and my experience of participating in those debates.

I could have written this based on the number of accused sexual harassers on that list that I have known and worked with for years. I could have structured it through my panic about, if any

chosen male person in my personal life, might be on this list someday. And last, but not the least, and this is part of how this piece IS structured i.e. from the place of the personal, the realisation that as much as I could be one of the women who could add a few names on that list, I could also be on that list.

Here, I am not making any simplistic arguments about us all being part of the same structures and all of us being capable of such harassment. That is yet another argument that will shut down conversation and that is not my intention. Here, my intention is to say that the structures of oppression is in us all, in different and complex ways. As much as our place in hierarchies can be simple in moments, in others they can be messy. Especially in the latter, it is important for us to identify the fundamental structure of oppression and never lose sight of it as we navigate the choppy waters of life and politics.

I am hoping to make a much more complex argument. Complex, and yet startlingly simple as many important things in life and in politics can often be. Power is all pervasive. Everyday with every move, every word and touch we are participating in an act of power or powerlessness. All of our interactions are mediated by this reality.

A feminist exercise at evolving deep professional relationships, of camaraderie, of solidarity (even if momentary), friendships, desires – love in all its forms – requires work that is much deeper in our bodies and souls. When we engage with a fellow human, a constant awareness of the power relationship there in has to be part of our being in that moment. It has to be there as a given – as a framing of our ethics in our actions and words. Simultaneously, it must not weigh down, restrict or shut down our spaces and relationships. To do this, we must be present in our fullness to those moments. We must not be lazy. Laziness, too, is privilege. We must learn to live life with that consciousness. We need to consider this for us to create spaces of intimacy, that takes seriously deep involvements, along with boundaries, as we move forth together. It is a space that is based on honesty and integrity. It is a space not of fear and policing. It is a space that keeps us aware of power just as it does of oppression. It is a space that urges us to accept our limitations and ask ourselves deep, hard questions with kindness. It is a space that teaches us that to hold another with dignity and respect, requires you to hold yourself with the same. It is one where there is no pleasure without respect. Where consent isn’t just a word – it’s a listening in, to the flow of breath, of blood in our bodies and those of others. It is a space, a way of being, that has the courage to face ourselves in all the ways that we oppress and all the ways that we are oppressed and to navigate the paths within. To know that it is murky, but is worth it. That to the madness there will be method. It is a space that wishes, everyday, to breathe the breathe of freedom that is beyond power grids and their negotiations- knowing fully well that that freedom will always be a distant horizon, a dream, a wish. And yet, it is worth it. Because the point is the journey and not its destination.

……

I think of some of the men on that list who I know and I cannot with a full heart argue against any woman who may have felt harassed by them. They are not free of patriarchy and their process with living that power in their bodies and souls is as ongoing and incomplete as is mine.

The question of ‘why public shaming?’ does not arise for me either. Because, why not? These women who have made the list and others who are defending it are exploding in the face of eons of lack of public acknowledgement and structures of support- legal, emotional and social. Over the past few days as myself and others witness male persons we know get on the list, I have had mixed feelings. On the one hand it feels brutal. But simultaneously, I am not inspired, in the least, to defend, any of my colleagues and friends on that list. As I wonder why that may be, I remember that, we as women and many others (often of non-normative sexuality and gender identities or of oppressed caste/class backgrounds) bear the burden of being what we are and the abuse and assault that is common place in all our lives. I literally do not know a single female person who has not been abused or assaulted. It almost feels like, it is their turn- of the male persons to bear their share of the burden. The burden of being what they are in this world. A knee jerk response coming from a place of preserving their fragility in the face of these allegations isn’t forthcoming in me. But neither is there a celebration of the naming and shaming. It is what it is.

It isn’t just about those in power getting away with harassment. Women may not go to the law because of its inaccessibility and its re-enacting of the same violence it seeks to redress. But women also go to the law because we don’t have in place existing systems of non-legal social support where a woman may feel like we have got her back. That her friends/comrades will make it clear that they trust her and stand by her during this time of pain. Also, that their judgment of the person who enacted that power upon her, however, complicated the situation may have been, will be taken into consideration while they proceed to interact or not with that person. And that they will have the dignity to explain all this to the affected woman. These processes involve so much nuance that is hard to find words describe them. (I say ‘woman’ here only because that is the only ‘gender’ we are even discussing here. I would like to mark here, the act of power in discussing only women and not male persons with visibly transgressive masculinities, trans persons, men in inferior positions of caste, class and profession who are also harassed. However, I will not pretend to have thought about, leave alone having evolved reflections on harassment of the latter.)

The #metoo campaign, the ‘sexual harassment hall of shame’ are combustions, explosions that emerge from eons of repression and lack of space for redressal or support. And yes, this lack of space I urge exists in spite of years of feminist mobilisation and women’s movements’ work (of which I have proudly been a part) that have sought to address this lack – institutionally, socially, politically, physically and emotionally. Having said that, let me add again, another caveat that requires more thought and work on my part, all our parts – we may want to ask ourselves about which spaces we want to have these conversations in?

Other than a mass audience, why do we choose social media? Does a mass audience give us more voice? At the end of the day, who is profiting from our expression of oppression? How much money is FB making off of #metoo? Let’s not forget that it is this platform that facilitates sexual harassment and silencing as well. As we ask these questions, perhaps its wise to consider whether it is time to have a deeper conversation rather than wider ones? What could they look like? Sound like? Feel like?

But combustions and the conditions of societies/communities/institutions/minds/bodies that lead to them pay another price: that is of creativity and imagination. This moment, hard as it may be -because of the all the people on that list we know, love, respect; because of those who have spent their entire adult lives trusting that institutional, legal, social and political changes can come from collective political action feeling defeated and heartbroken; because of the undeniable unkindness of it all – is yet another moment of realising that we don’t have a language and a way of being which at once acknowledges power while also fostering relationships, intimacies and trust amongst us. It shows up a mirror to us all – I ask myself, ‘why aren’t you adding to the list?’ ‘Wow, now that I think about it, was that harassment?’ Or ‘I could be on that list?’

This is a moment of destruction. Necessary perhaps, but of destruction nonetheless. This image won’t leave my mind – of a large hammer made of all the years of repression, lives destroyed, deafening silence, belittling, infantilising, the resulting depression, lack of self confidence and just giving up on it all. This large hammer, carried by a few, I see taking this path. And destroying everything along the way. Chipping away – or perhaps making a biggish dent in patriarchy. But also destroying the structure we, as feminists, have built to address patriarchy – laws, institutions, languages, relationships, ways of being/working. The hammer is heavy and hard to carry. Shoulders perhaps not strong enough and injured in the process. So, we hurt each other and ourselves. And yes, we are hurt already by the rape, harassment, silence. And yet, we must acknowledge we are hurting ourselves further. Again, it might be necessary but we mustn’t forget the pain and the destruction – of the self and the other. As we remember the pain, we must also remember that, like with all pain, we cannot eradicate this one either, but we can build strength and hope for transformation.

Nevertheless, what is left is rubble. In the rubble lays paper collages, beautiful pottery, mirrors, crafts made with waste material (like the ones we all made in school.) Pieces of broken mirrors are still mirrors. So, the work of making us look is made possible through the destruction. But it is destruction nevertheless. So, what now? Do we start from scratch? What does that even mean? Where do we go from here? Those thoughts and questions too might be in this rubble and it is all our responsibilities to search.

I wish, from the depths of my heart, in all honesty and with all the political, emotional rigour I can muster- I wish, in all of this, that we could acknowledge the destruction in all its horror AND its beauty. I wish we could collectively commit to a creative and imaginative sustained process. A way to evolve space and language to talk through these realities and see how we may live differently with one another. I urge us all to come into a space of conversations, however hard, however heartbreaking, however sometimes inane and other times plainly ‘insane’ (here, I hope it is clear that by insane I choose to forefront madness as a method rather than insult it from an ableist position). I urge us all to walk into that space. Because some day, we must clear the rubble to plant some seeds and grow something. We must grow something so we can all be nourished. It is the only way for us not to perish.

4 thoughts on “#whatnow? Ponni

  1. This sounds so much more like the Menon I had deeply appreciated and loved.
    Our feminist solidarities can only develop through such rigorous self reflection, I think. Where we take steps back, look at the damage, and enquire into our own actions, positions and locations. This would be loci of care for me, which is also the loci of shame.
    I am sorry you had to go through the rape (s) and sexual harassmynt (s). As a queer individual, my school narrative was mainly three rapes by my teachers. My B.Sc. narrative was regular sexual bullying. My regular narrative now is still a regular self-ousting of my own sexuality. Our sisterhood (and I talk about it in plural) is strong only because we come together through common systems of oppressions that have systematically disarmed us in a majorly armed world; I hope we can keep the hope alive, and grow in and with our own discourses.

    1. Nivedita Menon

      This post is NOT written by me. I only posted it as a Kafila member. it was written by PONNI, whose name appears in the title, and in a byline below.

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