Outside the Frame

In a lecture titled ‘On Complaint’, Sara Ahmed talks about how, sometimes, exhaustion is not just the effect, but becomes the very point of the complaint process in a court of law. She is referring here to the rigmarole of legal procedures that often leaves the complainant exhausted in the process of addressing their complaint. The law, after all, is dependent on being cited and is confirmed in the repetition of its prescriptions.

In sexual harassment cases, the complaint (especially when put forward by a female body) assumes the sound of a “tantrum” or “grudge”; the anger exuding from the complaint is coded as hysterical behavior, which raises questions around its legitimacy. Workplaces have been grounds for many sexual harassment cases, and policies have been made to ensure safety in this regard. But do these structural visions take into account micro issues that also impact not only the complainant/survivor but also those related to the accused? Does it take into account the seemingly benevolent “warnings” against filing a case of harassment, and by extension, recognising it as such? Does it take into account the narratives around being a “killjoy” in the workplace by causing damage to the accused? Does it take into account the myriad ways in which power is dispensed through networks that assume the nature of social capital in informal fraternity cultures?

The art world, amongst others, has recently seen cases where established and reputed names have been called out by anonymous figures on grounds of sexual (and mental) abuse. There have been reactions from the accused, their gravity often in disservice to the general cause of creating a space for survivors to speak out publicly without fear of repercussions to their jobs and mental health. But voices have persisted, and sustained by a rage used both as an emotional expression and political instrument. Rebecca Traister points out that the act and sight of a woman “opening her mouth with volume and assured force…is coded in our minds as ugly”[i]. Despite the legitimacy of the anger, its female bearer is often infantilised or dismissed. In popular culture, the image of the angry woman is often glamorised, trivialised or fetishised to create an empowering avatar of the survivor. What about the many women who struggle to make their cases heard while worrying about social ostracism? How to even find a language to express the problem, especially when it involves grey areas of negotiation? The onus always falls on the survivor, and the bureaucracy around the complaint registers her trauma as a file. The anonymity of the complainant then dissociates the narrative from a face, and consequently focuses on the content without disproportionate attention to the name. When justice seems elusive in practicality, a whisper network is galvanised through the seismic power of rage.

The anonymous account, called ‘Scene and Herd’, came into being on Instagram through a network of solidarity that arose organically in opposition to the extant legal system that treats complainants and survivors like atoms by keeping their experiences small and apart from each other[ii]. The workshop, ‘Pact of Silence’, organized by Actants Meenakshi Thirukode and Arnika Ahldag, attempted to address these legislative concerns through discussions with Advocates Shreya Munoth and Amrita Chakravorty, who walked the attendees step-by-step through the many policies around prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace over 3 hours. The process took a toll on the general listener through content absorption, the understanding being that this exhaustion multiplies in effect for a survivor who is expected to follow the legal process through in the court, thus submitting to a potentially dehumanising pattern of verbal repetition and contest. The workshop saw discussions around the Sexual Harassment at Work (SHW) Act, which came into being after 20 years of women’s activism in the area. Although limited in its view of the survivor only as an “aggrieved woman” (thus excluding other marginalised bodies from its scope), it walks the reader through an effective list of conditions for the recognition and redressal of sexual harassment in the workplace.

In creative industries that function on informal grounds, questions around payment, contracts and labour also become slippery territory. In romanticising art as a bohemian space for free creative expression, one often neglects the drawbacks of its informal infrastructure that disservice those in more precarious positions. The workshop looked at the constitution of Internal Complaint Committees (or ICCs) in institutions that seek to internally address the imbalances and hierarchies that render a workplace hostile to the survivor. The ICC puts the onus on the employer or the institution rather than the employee, and has, in the #metoo era, recognised anonymous complaints against harassers on social media, with their rising relevance as platforms for registering the first trauma. The idea is to create a platform where such information can be disseminated for common perusal.

The Actants are working towards alternative institutions where the accumulated knowledge can be put to practical use by cultivating networks of solidarities where informal peer warnings can give way to more organised bodies that provide clarity on legitimate actions towards redressal. It is a potential space where issues can be addressed with due legal knowledge, and one can move beyond narratives of sabotage towards a sensitised response to abuse in workspaces that are premised on imbalanced status quos. The “pact of silence” must be penetrated with rage, dissent and dialogue.

P.S. Keeping the issue of accessibility in mind, the legal information disseminated and discussed by the advocates during the workshop have been made available above by the Actants for your perusal.

[i] Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Woman’s Anger, Simon and Schuster, 2018

[ii] Sara Ahmed, On Complaint, lecture, YouTube


All Images Courtesy: Annette Jacob

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