Priya Ramani acquittal opens new paths for Indian feminist movement

The verdict in Priya Ramani versus MJ Akbar represents both a closure and a new opportunity. The cathartic moment of 2018, which was shared by women who told their stories and those who believed them, has long been replaced by the unsurprising realisation that the world has, by and large, returned to normal. While most of the men accused have been rehabilitated, the immediate consequences for women who shared their stories have been negative for the most part. For women at large, the consequences are more indirect with employers, globally, expressing an unwillingness to hire more women.

The case, perhaps, most clearly represented the harsh consequences women must face in a world that is all too forgiving of “respectable” men with a history of sexual misconduct. The respectability of privileged men has been the bedrock of patriarchal societies and is used as a justification for everything, from sexual misconduct to honour crimes. It is a form of power that revels in delegitimising consensual relationships women forge and refuses to acknowledge the lack of consent in coercive situations. It also allows for unlikely allies across the political spectrum, united in their faith that civil society will collapse if men, despite their disreputable actions, are not allowed to continue with their reputations intact.

Since last year, we have seen a renewed campaign to restrict consensual Hindu-Muslim marriages, where local leaders of Hindutva outfits have openly declared that consent of women is a non-issue. In 2017, one Mahmood Farooqui was acquitted of rape by the Delhi High Court on the grounds that a “feeble no” could be overlooked. Others accused of sexual misconduct, including filmmakers Vikas Bahl and Subhash Kapoor, are back at their trade, collecting laurels even as feminists assess their options in a political landscape marked by a blatant disregard for individual liberty.

The feminist movement had, even during the peak of the #MeToo movement, grappled with an intense and, at times, ugly internal conflict on the question of strategy. In a previous article (‘The Right Identity’, IE, October 30, 2018), I had called this a generational struggle between veteran feminists, who had fought in and led many battles against violence and discrimination, and younger sisters, who did not have the patience for institutional processes that repeatedly fail women. A crowdsourced list of perpetrators in academia, now known as LoSHA, had triggered polarising conversations on strategies as well as the right way to be a feminist.

World over, intersectional feminism has been promoted as a best feminist practice for its focus on different identities that combine with gender to determine both our privilege and marginalisation. It is one of the reasons why the #MeToo movement connected with women globally — it allows us to present our stories in all their complexity and still find a feminist sisterhood. As Kavita Krishnan has written earlier, narratives of women — even anonymous ones — are something we can all rally behind even if a non-transparent list of men sans accusations made many of us wary.

The verdict has momentarily united us by both acquitting Ramani and validating the stories of multiple women who had accused Akbar. It not only upholds women’s right to tell our stories in our own terms and at a time of our choosing, but it also disregarded lofty claims to male respectability and the time-(dis)honoured tradition of questioning women’s motives.

In accepting the defence’s argument that a man with an alleged history of sexual harassment is not one of stellar reputation and emphasising that reputation cannot be protected at the cost of human dignity, the judgement offers us a path forward. It demolishes the edifice of respectability built around privileged men — brick by brick, to use the words of Akbar’s lawyer, Geeta Luthra — that allows sexual crimes to be perpetuated with impunity. The judgment will also support any future moves by women who want to take the campaign for sexual consent and against non-consensual acts out of the legal space and into the public sphere through social and news media posts.

In her 2015 Signs article, the American feminist scholar, Janet Halley, had argued that struggle for affirmative consent has to be fought outside the courtrooms and in the real world. According to her, the struggle represents two distinct features: Liberalism with a capital L and liberalism with a lowercase l. While the former represents attempts to “promote individual freedom to decide the course of one’s own sexual engagements” as part of a broader orientation toward individual liberty, the latter is realised through an engagement with the state and through the cooperation of male paternalistic elites. She proposes that we instead put the norm of affirmative consent “into legal proceedings in the real world.”

The acquittal of Priya Ramani can be a real opportunity for us to make sexual consent a dialogue in the broader public sphere where stories shared by women without fear of retaliation through legal means can become catalysts for change. It is a dialogue that does not necessarily seek punishment for sexual assaults, or operates independently of the legal processes, but rather seeks to displace notions of male privilege and honour that allow for both the perpetuation of sexual crimes and the clampdown on consensual relationships.

The conversation on best strategies in a world that no longer encourages legal claims to individual liberty is ongoing, but putting our faith in stories that question and strip male privilege appears to be the best way forward for feminism in India.

The writer is a Marie Curie Fellow at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and the author of Courting Desire: Litigating for Love in North India

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