Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Limits of Female Agency

The Limits of Female Agency - Aardra Surendran

Even as the case of attempted rape against Tarun Tejpal, the Editor-in-Chief of Tehelka, has firmly entered the legal sphere, there continue to be a multitude of questions that the case has opened up. For some activists of the women’s movement, the event has marked a sense of confusion with respect to the texture of solidarity expressed with the survivor. This is a note of dissent with a seemingly popular argument on the understanding of ‘agency’ and the role of the women’s movement in the backdrop of the Tehelka case.

The argument put forward by a few academicians and activists rests on four important planks. First, the victim’s views on dealing with the situation need to be respected.  Reliance on her ‘agency’ in the matter requires those in solidarity with her to see her as capable of taking her own decisions.  Secondly, the primary responsibility of feminists after such an incident is to offer support to the victim ‘of all kinds till the end’. One position asserts that ‘all we need to do is to back her’, so that she makes the transition from a victim to a survivor. Thirdly, the legal or judicial route need not be the preferred or desirable route for resolving such issues. A leading lawyer held that ‘the criminal prosecution route is not superior to or more valid or more legitimate, than other ways of seeking accountability’. Fourthly, any view that sees the role of the legal mechanism as integral to addressing the issue of sexual violence is ‘unimaginative’ about the notion of justice, and suggests an ‘unreflective statism’ in the matter.

I disagree with the understanding of both the ‘agency of the survivor’ and ‘feminist intervention’ presented in these viewpoints. There is a larger sense of responsibility that one undertakes on behalf of the women in this country while writing as feminists and activists of the women’s movement. The unqualified use of the phrase ‘women’s movement’ is our acknowledgement of the differential implication of women not just in structures of gender, but also in other realms like class and caste.  Accountable spokespersons of such a movement are expected to articulate the interests of all women, most importantly those of women from working class, Dalit or minority backgrounds. The mass character of this movement must be evident to its constituents. The women’s movement in India has never shied away from considering the state and the legal mechanism as crucial agents of change at the mass level. Legal victories, establishment of relevant laws and policy changes have been among the concrete proofs of advance for the movement. Even today, the women’s movement makes demands in this very language, as in the demand for a comprehensive law against honour crimes.

The choice of the legal or non-legal course of action is the prerogative of the victim and ought to be given due respect. However, the important concern of the movement should be the context under which such choices are made, which frequently involves pressures and threats of various kinds. When we foreground the argument of the victim’s agency as representatives of the women’s movement, we speak on behalf of victims, not a victim, of sexual violence. We imply that every survivor is completely cognisant of her situation, the gravity of the crime committed against her, and all the available options at her disposal. The distance of this suggestion from reality is apparent.  A corollary argument is that the case is different when it comes to communal, caste or ethnic violence. But is large scale intimidation the only condition under which women are reluctant to complain? Is that not too simplistic a notion of the ways in which the interplay of class, caste, religion and family impinge upon women’s lives? If a Dalit agricultural labourer is unwilling to file a complaint against her landlord who periodically rapes her, is she exercising her agency or merely succumbing to the pressures of survival? If victims of mass violence may not have agency, while those like the young journalist in question may, we are groping in the dark about the ‘quality and quantity’ of agency in every case of harassment. Are we then in a position to insist that the victim’s agency is a sufficient basis of action for the women’s movement?

If the role of the movement is exhausted by respecting the ‘agency’ of the survivor and ‘offering her solidarity and support till the end’, it falls far short of its aspirations at the mass level. A section of activists points out that there needs to be a distinction between the roles and responsibilities of the employer, the police and the complainant in cases of sexual harassment. Indeed. But is the role and responsibility of the women’s movement the same as that of the victim? There is no further mention of this aspect in any of these positions. Neither is there any indication that this is even part of the imagination of justice in the matter.

The suggestion that non-legal modes of closure can be an equally effective recourse to women assumes an unreal level of democratisation of gender relations. The implications of ‘choice’ are far more severe on victims from oppressed classes and castes. We are not in a position to put the cart ahead of the horse – the law is our only democratic hope that the landlord who rapes the Dalit labourer will be held accountable, and that he does not subject more women to sexual violence. That role cannot be relegated to a khap panchayat controlled by the landlord himself, allowing the woman’s silence to be termed ‘agency’. In effect, the ‘agency’ argument ends up shielding the perpetrator. In terms of vision, we have to have a basic minimum. If the women’s movement’s task is empowerment of the great majority of women, it is counterproductive to act as if choices made by women are unsullied by the pressures of structure.

Left women’s movements, whose primary struggle is directed towards achieving this basic minimum for millions of women, differ on the approach of centre-staging ‘agency’. As things exist, even movements have been of limited help to women after their withdrawal from a formal mechanism. In effect, it takes the victim off the radar of intervention. It is definitely not a cakewalk once the victim decides to file a formal complaint. But if ‘agency’ is invariably employed to explain a victim’s withdrawal from a formal scenario, it needs scrutiny. Currently, ‘agency’ has become a euphemism for the fact that women are forced to arrive at decisions with full knowledge of their location in the structure. There is no point in blaming the victim in such a scenario, and solutions need to be sought at the level of movements.

However much we may wish it away, the only formal expression of the aspiration to hold accountable the largest number of perpetrators of sexual violence, is the law. The strength of the women’s movement, and movements in general, is that they have fought to make institutions more equitable, and achieved significant victories. The suggestion that holding the legal mechanism central amounts to ‘unreflective statism’ is not consistent with the history of women’s movements. It amounts to asking women to forgo the weapons that they have won in their continuing quest for gender justice.

Institutional and legal mechanisms and movements have to work in tandem. Without this, it is unlikely that any woman in India will bother to take her struggle forward. It is here that the ‘agency’ argument falters – it belittles the role of movements in enabling women to fight. In suggesting that every woman in India is in a position to fight her own battles, it paints an unreal picture of the lives of millions of women in the country. It restricts the scope of both the victim’s agency and feminist intervention.

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