Walking into a minefield: sexual harassment in the movement

I have been thinking about this issue for several years, because it’s been happening in the spaces I am part of, here in Malaysia, and elsewhere in my work, whether directly or peripherally, and have compelled some serious engagement. And it has taken me awhile to put the thoughts down onto a coherent form.

This may not be the coherent form yet, but it’s an attempt to start.

First of all, sexual harassment is an everyday reality in almost every single aspect of our lives. Ask any woman, chances are, there will at least be one story. They take place in every space we occupy. Whether by that gross uncle that we try to avoid during family gatherings, or the random men who throw their eyes/words/gestures at our bodies in the streets or shops, or the lecturer who makes sleazy remarks, or the boss who suggests a tat for a tit, or the fucker who sends unwanted messages/pictures/invitations to us over sms or FB – sometimes anonymously, sometimes not.

It is not surprising. It is part of a woman’s life. And it is also not right.

But it is an expression of patriarchy that we are all embedded in. That the feminine is sexualised, but not sexually defining. That the feminine is first body and container, before mind. That the feminine is fair game, presumably owned before fighting for autonomy. That our existence is cleaved, always, into the two.

It is more surprising when it happens amongst activists. Because we assume the same commitment to changing the status quo. Because why else are we doing what we do? Spending so much of our time trying to figure out power and how they sediment, emanate, so we may diffuse and dismantle them to something a little less violent.

So when it happens, we are taken aback, disappointed, outraged. And rightly so. We should hold each other to a higher level of accountability. And constantly check our own power, our own complicity and culpability in the very machinations we are trying to overturn.

But to expect activists to always, automatically already know this, is also an unrealistic expectation. It takes a lifetime to unlearn and rupture the patterns that have become imbued into our every assumption/action/reaction. And it takes a commitment. We cannot pretend that we are not sexist/racist/heteronormative/able-ist/colonialist/classist/etc simply because we made a decision to commit our lives to activism. It takes work. Constant work.

So what am I saying here?

I am saying that sexual harassment happens in the rights-based movements we are part of. Just like it happens everywhere else in our everyday existence.

The question is, what happens when this is made known to us?

We can express our political position. Clearly and without hesitation. That this is unacceptable. That we reject such behaviour, unequivocally. That is the easy part. Because even though we know this (the unlearning) takes work, we also know what is okay, and what is not okay.

Then comes the hard part. What do we do with the actual and very real experiences that have come to us? Given that these are often the lives of people that we have worked together with, dreamt together with, fought in the trenches side-by-side with. Whether in the intimacy of friendship or in the distance of solidarity. And these are also people whom we are not always in agreement with, but have made a commitment to try and forge an understanding because there is always, a Bigger Picture.

So this is about getting our hands dirty. To try and figure this one out. And to know that getting our hands dirty means also, not having the answers, but at least making the conscious decision to take action and figure it out. Because, well, we have to. This cuts close to home. If we can’t sort our own shit out, we can’t even begin to sort out the heaving pile of mess that our own shit is embedded in.

How do we start?

There’s been a lot of work done on understanding the dynamics of sexual harassment. The kinds of things that need to be put into place to change the sexist culture that we are part of. Clear codes of conduct, a redress mechanism, regular trainings so that they do not remain as inert pieces of paper that ticks a politically-correct box. There are reams of learnings that we can build from each other when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, or even in events and conferences that we organise*.

But there is less of a blueprint when it comes to sexual harassment in the nebulous, networked, shared space of a movement. Where accountability to each other is less based on structures, and more on us keeping each others’ politics in check through constant engagement. And where it is hard to even acknowledge that there are differences in power relations between us. Especially when the power is not defined through clear configurations and edifices of relation. So sometimes, we use the shortcut of identity containers to do this work. Male activists vis-a-vis female activists, white feminists vis-a-vis brown feminists and so on.

So when activists face sexual harassment, where do they go?

There is always a cost speaking up about sexual harassment. Whether by activists or by employees in an organisation. You could be accused of making things up. You could be seen as a trouble maker. An ‘over-sensitive’ person, and therefore treated with a careful distancing. Your private (and sexualised) life could suddenly become a matter of public assessment, held up for critique or judgement. And for activists, you could be accused of weakening the Big Picture work by raising this issue.

And this is why, confidentiality has always been a part of sexual harassment responses. To mitigate this circulation of damaging side-conversations. To try and reduce the cost of speaking up.

Because at the end of the day, what we want to do is change this everyday culture of sexism. And that the more this becomes known, and addressed directly, the more this can help to shift the understanding of people who have crossed the line. Whether with clear intention, or careless disregard of their own power. That crossing the line will come with repercussions.

Ideally, every single organisation/collective/space/community that has within its goal to end discrimination and to fight for notions of justice should have sexual harassment policies and mechanisms in place. Then this becomes a diffused and distributed network of accountability within the movement. Where no matter where it takes place, there will always be a point of recourse.

But the reality is, many do not. Not until an incident happens within their parametres. There are many reasons for this. One is the fact that many rights-based organisations are under-resourced and over-worked, facing all kinds of stress and challenges from the external world that they are trying to affect. Core funding to strengthen institutions is a rare luxury. And in the shuffling of priorities, sexual harassment ends up somewhere near the invisible bottom. Because also of the higher level of politically aware behaviour we assume from each other. Hence the ‘caught by surprise thing’ discussed earlier.

So what happens when there is no such institutional structure to hold the process?

Usually a case becomes known when someone takes it on. And the person who takes this on knows that there is a cost to this. And she either takes it on because the harassment is so intolerable that it cannot be left unspoken of. Or that there is a shared shouldering of the cost amongst a few people who have faced the same experience, and a shared sense of responsibility to prevent this from happening to others if they kept silent. Or that she has strong personal/social/political capital to be able to withstand the backlash. Or a combination of all of the above.

Either way, she takes it on, and she speaks out about it. Without an institution, the act of speaking out happens in a kind of public space. Where then the public becomes the accountability mechanism. In today’s movements, this public is also social media. Or the dis|embodied networked private-public of the space of trans-local movements. Confidentiality becomes an impossible thing. The mitigation of cost is uncontainable.

An unintended side effect is that the specific case of sexual harassment becomes a Spectacle. Something that is amplified, spectated, public, and also, with that strange intimate distancing that Spectacles compel. Like a reality TV show, where you root for one person over another, but you don’t really have the compulsion to personally invest your energy in an outcome. You can simply talk about it, have a position, or switch off. But the cost to the persons involved is real. The one who speaks up, the one who is named as the harasser. All of the careful and deliberate design of a space that can enable sexual harassment to be addressed in a way that allows both parties to move forward towards a more constructive, less sexist space and culture of relating, does not apply.

And this is the deep conundrum. Because what can happen here except a very public kind of shaming, or conviction? With such a high cost of speaking up, the expected exacted response for a kind of justice is also as high. Either the accuser becomes destroyed, or the accused. And depending on the power dynamics, anchored onto the personalities, context and capacities – this plays out. In the process, the number of women who have faced similar experiences of sexual harassment, maybe even by the same person, or in the future in a similar context, are increasingly silent. Because with such a high cost, anyone would think again and again and again, before speaking up about their experience.

And this is truly, such a failure of the movement.

Because sexual harassment is unremarkable. We need to deal with this, and deal with it urgently. It’s at the root of all of our activism.

So what can we do?

I’m not entirely sure. But here are some initial thoughts.

First, to recognise and see the cost of speaking up. To offer ourselves, our support, in solidarity. To know that this is hard, and that she is not alone, and that we have our own experiences to share in helping to figure it out, and to ease the sense of isolation. That supportive listening can be healing, for everyone.

Second, to break the damaging dynamics of simply raising the volume in a shouting match that happens in our publics. Because this just raise the stakes higher for reporting, and it has the result of silencing those who feel they cannot bear the cost. It becomes personalised, this person vs that person, rather than a systemic issue that is in our movements, that we must all confront, and do something about.

Third, to reflect on our own practices, our own power, and to recognise that at any moment, we could be both guilty of committing sexual harassment because we left our power-check somewhere behind, or of having experienced sexual harassment. To begin the process of learning from each other in how to respond to this. And if our own organisations or collectives or spaces have not taken this on, then begin the process, with a kind of seriousness and commitment.

And if we are the one accused, then the first and only meaningful thing to do, is hear the accusation. Listen. And listen deeply. It will only cause damage, if the first response is a kind of denial. A failure to listen. A failure of accountability. A failure to engage with our politics fully in tact.

Maybe what is required, is an autonomous mechanism that is collectively created and invested in by a range of actors in the movement, to receive reports, investigate complaints, make strong recommendations, and have the mandate by at least particular meshes in the network to ensure implementation. Something that as activists we commit to because we commit to shared principles of at the very basic, gender equality and human rights. Getting our hands dirty. Making mistakes as we figure it out. Beta version to beta version. Something that I’m currently trying to figure out with a bunch of incredible feminists in M’sia.

But what is definitely needed is hell of a lot more frank and open conversations about entrenched sexism and other kinds of isms in the movement, and how do we deal with power between/amongst ourselves. When we fall short, we call each other out, and hold each other accountable. But without the kind of hostility that places you so far away from me before I can speak/be heard. Because that fractures us. And the world is already a place that fractures.

This is not a coherent or complete thought. But a start of trying to figure something complicated, and painful, out. Maybe a start of a conversation.



Some resources collated by the IGF Gender Dynamic Coalition in their effort to develop a Sexual Harassment Policy for the Internet Governance Forum space