‘Carceral modes of deterrence always and only punish the weak’

Part 2 of an interview with noted author and academic Madhavi Menon

Zinnia Sengupta
Dec 11, 2019 · 8 min read
Image courtesy: Media Studies / Ashoka University

“To say that the more we punish people, the fewer crimes there will be is a naive idea. Rather than serving justice, this punitive mindset serves only 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?

At Ashoka’s CSGS (Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality), we came up with a set of videos about sexual harassment for Indian university campuses, because all the videos that trainers had been using until then had been borrowed from the UK or the US. We also created a manual on how to use these videos to conduct gender and sexuality workshops. We wrote to several colleges across the country and about 90% of them wrote back to say they did not even have a CASH, and did not hold any training workshops. So yes, the situation differs radically from private to public universities.

As for the existing scenario within redressal committees like CASH — this is where the question gets complicated. There has to be fine balance maintained between punishment, on the one hand, and education and rehabilitation, on the other. The Committee against Sexual Harassment does not exist to provide validation or invalidation in individual cases, but to provide some sense of justice and foster open and widespread conversations, especially in universities.

The shocking truth is that punishment often does not act as a deterrent — in India, even capital punishment for rapists has not ensured either a drop in rape or an increase in the number of convictions for rape; in fact, quite the opposite. I have never been a believer in punishment as a deterrent: studies from around the world have shown that carceral modes of deterrence disproportionately punish minority communities, which is why the prisons in America are filled with black men. To say that the more we punish people, the fewer crimes there will be is a naive idea. Rather than serving justice, this punitive mindset serves only to satisfy our own bloodthirstiness.

THE COMMITTEE AGAINST SEXUAL HARASSMENT DOES NOT EXIST TO PROVIDE VALIDATION OR INVALIDATION IN INDIVIDUAL CASES, BUT TO PROVIDE SOME SENSE OF JUSTICE AND FOSTER OPEN AND WIDESPREAD CONVERSATIONS…

Conversations around sexual harassment on University campuses have to be built around pleasure and agency rather than shame and punishment. The difficult part for many women, since we have all experienced sexual harassment to different degrees in our lives, is to go through what we’ve gone through and also be able to think about it critically. But if we lose that ability, I think we’re losing a lot.

Women are taught their entire lives to be ashamed: of their bodies, of their desires, of their sexuality. We grow up with that shame, no matter how liberal our family or milieu might be. So when we first act on our desires, or when our desires are first kindled in tangible form, then that is a frightening and overdetermined situation for us.

But it would be a mistake, I think, to focus only on the horror of that particular situation, and ignore all that has gone into creating it in the first place. And to a large extent, this troubled space is what we encounter in universities. Barring a few incidents of violence and physical brutality that can and should be reported immediately to the police, how do we deal with issues of deeply-entrenched gendered behavior, shame, guilt, anger? These are the spaces that need to be opened up so we can think critically about sexual harassment.

BARRING A FEW INCIDENTS OF VIOLENCE AND PHYSICAL BRUTALITY THAT CAN AND SHOULD BE REPORTED IMMEDIATELY TO THE POLICE, HOW DO WE DEAL WITH ISSUES OF DEEPLY-ENTRENCHED GENDERED BEHAVIOUR, SHAME, GUILT, ANGER?

The complex factors that are at play in sexual harassment cases are not related to the incidents alone, but to entire histories of emotions and behaviours and politics and narratives. I think we need to, as educators and students, open up spaces in which we can talk about those narratives. To me, that is a feminist politics at work, as opposed to a patriarchal politics of punishment that thrives on displays of power. We need to come up with different languages and ways of talking about sexual harassment. \

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, they should be removed. But how much good is that going to do in the long term? Will that person continue to be a sexual predator in another setting? Shouldn’t we have them go through talk therapy sessions to figure out what’s making them act so violently? I believe in education and rehabilitation. Punishment is easy, but it is not a lasting solution.

I’m assuming you don’t believe in capital punishment?

Not at all. In fact, I’m dismayed that feminists are the ones who asked for the death penalty in the Nirbhaya case. 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 even as it is punishing other people for killing people.

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 behave only in one fixed way. If we all thought like that, nothing would ever change. You can only believe in the possibility of change and solidarity-building if you can believe that people are not always going to behave in ways that they are born to act.

IF YOU’RE LIVING IN A REGRESSIVE SOCIETY, YOU’RE GOING TO SEE A SPIKE IN INCIDENCES OF VIOLENCE. BUT THE ONLY PROMISING FACTOR IN THIS SCENARIO IS THAT YOU’RE ALSO SEEING AN INCREASE IN REPORTS OF AND ABOUT 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. But the only promising factor in this scenario is that you’re also seeing an increase in reports of and about 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. Different kinds of people are becoming journalists, so they’re more open to covering cases of rape and sexual violence.

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 provoke thought as well as literature. And when I say literature, I mean oral cultures as well. You will find time and time again, over several epochs all over the world, narratives 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. BUT ENGAGING WITH THE SUBJUNCTIVE IS ALSO THE REASON 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 stories more seriously. I think we truly need to do that since literature is perhaps the only domain 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. But engaging with the subjunctive is also the reason 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 of the current literary scenario in the country?

Well, I think the need to write about fascism, harassment, violence, is more urgent now than ever, but also, discussing these issues is more dangerous than ever. Think of Prayaag Akbar’s Leila, which got the government into such a tizzy because the dystopian future imagined in the novel eerily resembles the present in which we’re living. Perumal Murugan’s novels in Tamil Nadu have also rattled the status-quo. You see a lot more women writing as well. Amruta Patil has just released (with Devdutt Pattanaik) a graphic novel about the forest and women. We’re seeing more memoirs about caste and religion and sexuality coming out. The problem, however, is how many people will actually get access to these works and how many publishing houses will be comfortable printing them.

** This interview was updated 4 July, 2020, to include clarifications on some ideas

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