“To say that the more we punish people, the less crimes there will be is a naive and stupid idea that does not provide any justice but only serves to satisfy our own bloodthirstiness,” says Madhavi Menon, Professor of English and Director for the Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University. This is the second of a two-part interview that NewsTracker’s Zinnia Sengupta recorded with the noted author and academic, known for her provocative writings and unconventional approaches to English literature. Read part 1.
Since you were once the Chair of the Committee Against Sexual Harassment at Ashoka University, could you comment on existing official attitudes towards sexual harassment within academic spaces? Do you think the situation varies from private to public universities — if so, how? What needs to change in order to make these spaces safer and more inclusive for all genders and sexualities?
So, at Ashoka’s CSGS (Centre for Sexuality and Gender Studies), we came up with a set of videos about sexual harassment with a complete manual on how to train people from other colleges on how to use these videos and conduct workshops themselves. We wrote to several colleges across the country and about 90% of them did not even have a CASH. So yes, the situation differs radically from private to public universities.
As for the existing scenario within spaces with a redressal committee like CASH, this is where the question gets complicated. I think there’s a very entitled, ‘customer is right’ kind of attitude that prevails. If there is any complaint against anybody, it has to be validated. Otherwise you are violating someone’s sense of, I don’t know, suffering? Trauma? And validation cannot be the end goal of any committee against sexual harassment. It is not there to provide validation or invalidation, but to provide some sense of justice and actually having open and widespread conversations, especially in universities.
It doesn’t matter how much you punish people; I never have been or will be a believer of punishment. As studies from around the world show, carceral modes of deterrence always, and only, punish the weak, which is why the prisons of USA are filled with black men. To say that the more we punish people, the less crimes there will be is a naive and stupid idea that does not provide any justice but only serves to satisfy our own bloodthirstiness.
VALIDATION CANNOT BE THE END GOAL OF ANY COMMITTEE AGAINST SEXUAL HARASSMENT. IT IS NOT THERE TO PROVIDE VALIDATION OR INVALIDATION, BUT TO PROVIDE SOME SENSE OF JUSTICE AND ACTUALLY HAVING OPEN AND WIDESPREAD CONVERSATIONS…
The reason I find student conversations about this absurd, is this insistence that women are always right and that the men have always done something to them, which I think victimises them as much as anything and clashes with the idea of not calling women victim, but ‘survivors’. You’re saying that there’s only one way to look at their story. And I think the difficult part for most women, especially since almost each and every one of us has experienced sexual harassment in our lives, is to go through what we’ve gone through and also be able to think about it critically. If we lose that ability, I think we’re giving up too much.
Women are taught their entire lives to be ashamed: of their bodies, of their desires, of their sexuality. We grow up with that, no matter how liberal our family or milieu might be. So when a young student comes to a university like, say, Ashoka, it’s perhaps the first time they’re venturing out of their homes and living in such proximity with the objects of their desire. And let’s say some kind of sexual interaction happens between two people, I think the most normal reaction given the abnormality of our upbringing would be to feel immense shame and guilt. At that point, it is completely psychologically possible to project that guilt and blame outwards. So, the other stakeholder in the situation gets to bear a large chunk of the burden in that process, whether or not it is rightfully accrued to that person. It is no doubt experientially true, but people might say things like “I didn’t mind, but the next day I felt horrified.”
It is this horror, then, that is projected backwards into what happened the previous day. How do we adjudicate in such a situation wherein we are taking the woman’s horror seriously but not necessarily hanging the man for it? That is a very difficult line to walk. In many cases, we don’t have to walk the line at all, since it’s clear that there’s been an act of violence, a juridically reportable crime. But in universities, especially, where it is not, in fact, what happened. So how do we take this seriously? Not to validate the woman, since she doesn’t need validation, but to open up the space so that she can think critically.
HOW DO WE ADJUDICATE IN SUCH A SITUATION WHEREIN WE ARE TAKING THE WOMAN’S HORROR SERIOUSLY BUT NOT NECESSARILY HANGING THE MAN FOR IT?
The complex factors that are at play in making her feel the way she does are not merely related to what happened in that isolated incident, but to entire histories of the things that have happened to her and narratives that have been told about her and to her. I think we need to, as educators and students, open up that space. The kind of punitiveness that demands resignation or retribution is, to me, extremely masculine and patriarchal. “I’m going to show my power over you by subduing you.” Can we come up with different languages and ways of talking about this? Saying it’s my way or the highway is a truly masculine language to speak. So I’m not a big fan of ideas like ‘the survivor is always right’ or expelling or hanging men.
But in some cases, as you’ve said, the crime is quite evident. What do you propose can be done with the perpetrators in that case?
In cases where it’s clear that the person shouldn’t continue on campus, fine, you expel them. But what good is that going to do? Will that person continue to do so in another setting? Do we suspend them and have them go through therapy sessions to figure out what’s making them act so violently? I really believe in education and rehabilitation. Punishment is really not the way out; it’s so easy! You sign a paper, remove someone, and it’s done, you have no responsibility.
I’m assuming you don’t believe in capital punishment?
Not at all. I’m really dismayed that it’s something that so-called feminists are asking for, because it is shameful. I don’t think capital punishment should exist for anybody. I don’t believe that the state can give itself the right to kill people when it’s punishing other people for killing people. That kind of hubris is ridiculous.
Speaking of media coverage of rape and sexual violence, do you think it is intersectional? Do victims from marginalised communities have appropriate representation in reportage or if they even have a voice? Especially considering how the profession itself is dominated by the privileged sections of society?
I don’t know the details or statistics involved here, but as a viewer, I think it’s pretty evident that this is indeed the case. Which is not to say that if you’re an upper-caste, upper-class Hindu in this country, you will necessarily behave in one way or another. If we all thought like that, nothing would ever change. Because you can believe that people are not always going to behave in ways that they are born to act, you have to believe in the possibility of change and solidarity-building.
IF YOU’RE LIVING IN A REGRESSIVE SOCIETY, YOU’RE GOING TO SEE A SPIKE IN INCIDENCES OF VIOLENCE. WHAT’S ALSO GOOD IS THAT YOU’RE SEEING A SPIKE IN REPORTS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE
But yes, what you’ve mentioned does play a huge role in not just reporting, but editing and deciding what gets published and what doesn’t. One possible way to address it is to write more, speak up more, and see if more voices can be heard.
As a diversely complex society, how do you think the country’s outlook towards sexual violence has morphed over the years, in terms of mindsets and reactions? Do you think it has anything to do with the ways in which said violence has been reported in the media?
I’m no expert on this, but in general, our views and laws on sexuality are regressive rather than progressive. So clearly, if you’re living in a regressive society, you’re going to see a spike in incidences of violence. What’s also good is that you’re seeing a spike in reports of sexual violence.
Speaking of this spike, how have the trends of the reporting of sexual violence changed over the last couple of decades or so? Personally, I’ve observed a rise in the coverage of rape since the Nirbhaya case.
There are certainly more reports of rape, of violence within families in the news nowadays. There’s more conversation and awareness about it, which is probably why the numbers have risen. The growing Americanisation of the world, the youth speaking a different language than previous generations, both metaphorically and literally, are factors that have contributed to this. These are the people becoming journalists, so they’re more open to covering cases of rape and sexual violence as well.
Coming to the role of the literary community in this equation, how do you think literature can shape and question societal approaches towards rape and rape culture in general? Drawing from your own experience, would you say that exploring the domain of desire and sexuality in the field of writing would work towards opening up the conversation, normalising taboos, and perhaps improve the culture of repression that we previously spoke about?
I think nothing can do it as well as literature, The trouble with that, of course, is that if you’re dealing with the written word, you are automatically cutting off the large portion of the population that is illiterate. So when I say literature, I mean oral cultures as well. You will find time and time again, over several epochs of Indic civilisations, stories that play with desire, gender and sexuality, even in the face of much repression.
A LOT OF OUR HOPE MUST RESIDE IN LITERATURE AND IN ACADEMIC SPACES. WHICH IS WHY UNIVERSITIES ARE INEVITABLY A TARGET OF FASCISM BECAUSE THEY’RE ALL ABOUT TEACHING PEOPLE TO THINK
Once we realise that everything that constitutes how we live, our politics, our culture, our narratives, are stories that we tell about ourselves and about others, that is when we will start taking actual stories more seriously. I think we truly need to do that since that is the only place that allows itself the space in which to ask what if. That crucial space of the subjunctive is the domain of the literary. There is not a single period in the history of any country where you haven’t had these kinds of narratives challenging the status quo. So yes, a lot of our hope must reside in literature and in academic spaces. Which is why universities are inevitably a target of fascism because they’re all about teaching people to think. The minute you take that away, you’re taking away the ability to ask, “what if?” And you’ll be left with a country filled with docile, obedient pro-status quo people.
How do you think the current literary scenario is in the country?
Well, I think now is when the need to write about these subjects is more urgent than ever, but doing so is also more dangerous than ever. But yes, people are trying. Think Prayaag Akbar’s Leila, which got the government into such a tizzy because the dystopian future it imagines resembles the present we’re living in. Perumal Murugan’s novels in Tamil Nadu are also doing very well right now, after his recent resuscitation. You see a lot more women writing as well. Amrita Patil has come up with a graphic novel with Devdutt Pattanaik about the forest and women. The problem remains, however, as to how many people will actually get access to these works and how many publishing houses will be comfortable printing these.