In need of a broader solidarity#MeToo is an intersectional issue where gender, caste, and ethnicity all come into play
In the latest development of #MeToo moments in Nepal, a former Sociology Professor at Tribhuvan University (TU) and eminent indigenous rights activist, Krishna Bhattachan, is facing charges of sexual harassment. Bhattachan’s response has been brief: He claims those ‘baseless’ allegations are forwarded ‘to sabotage and systematically attack the Indigenous Peoples’ movement’.
Given his stature within academia and the indigenous people’s movement, public responses remain sharply divided. Many argue that these allegations are not about ‘identity/caste/ethnicity,’ rather they are about unequal gender relations and sexual predation by men in power. Others, particularly some in the Janajaticommunity, claim that these allegations are a deliberate attempt to assassinate Bhattachan’s character justified on the grounds of the longstanding mistrust of hill Bahun-led mainstream media.
In a country where women are still denied the right to citizenship, and speaking out against any kind of sexual violence is a massive risk, we respect the survivors for their courage in coming forward. However, we are uncomfortable with the two dominant narratives that these allegations have been mired in—one that insists this is simply a ‘gender issue’ and discussing other factors derails the movement, and the other that discounts the claims of women who have come forward and maintains it is simply about caste and ethnicity. Both fail to acknowledge that our subjectivities and social relations are inherently complex, and hence, as rightly pointed out by Black feminist Audre Lorde, ‘There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.’
It is important to analyse the grey areas, intersectional identities and nuances that shape the experiences of and responses to sexual harassment, assault and violence. We need to contextualise #MeToo within our own existing socio-political hierarchy if we want to start conversations on how to build solidarity across differences and create a #MeToo movement that is inclusive and sustained.
We acknowledge our privileges, including our higher education abroad, yet we are also women who belong to marginalised ethnic/regional social groups—identities that we are reminded of and negotiate with every day.
In Nepal’s context, the Hindu caste hierarchical system institutionalised through various legal codes and mechanisms since the1850s is a major social structure that reproduces and reinforces unequal power distribution across social groups. Caste/ethnicity is inseparable to understanding the societal power matrix, and it is intrinsically entwined with gender.
In this particular case, two of the victims in their article published in The Record write, ‘We understand that there are a couple of reasons why we were targeted. One of us is a Madhesi woman, and our perpetrator admitted in conversation his belief that “Madhesi women are submissive and do not speak out…because they are always suppressed by men.” One of us is Bahun, and speaking out means that his followers…will stand with him because “a Bahun is encroaching on his marginalised ethnicity.”’
Without judging the argument’s merits, we simply want to point to the fact that gender, caste and ethnicity are rooted in how both the survivors and the accused understand interpersonal dynamics. It illustrates that we are never disembodied from other social identity markers beyond gender.
How we understand and respond to sexual harassment, assault or violence is negotiated across social identities, and these intersectional premises warrant acknowledgement.
By claiming that #MeToo is not a ‘jat/ jatiya’ issue, we might be further marginalising women who face multiple intersecting forms of discrimination. And we might be silencing important conversations on how caste/ethnicity mediates how different female bodies are gazed at, commodified, shamed and policed in Nepal. While sexual violence is prevalent across the board, there are some important questions that are rarely addressed: Why is violence against Dalit women higher than that against any other group? Why are Janajati women most frequently victims of trafficking? Why is widespread discrimination against Madheshi women normalised as a community-rooted ‘social evil’and overlooked as a multifaceted structural problem?
Besides patriarchy and misogyny, women may experience intersecting oppressions such as casteism, racism, homophobia, ableism that shape their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. In fact, ‘Me Too’ was started by Tarana Burke over a decade ago to raise awareness about sexual harassment and violence against women of colour.
Although initially rooted in the North American context, as #MeToo transcends borders it interacts with different socio-political contexts that determine its scope and potential. And so, as we contextualise #MeToo within Nepal’s ethnopolitics as well as the women’s movement, we have been reflecting on the following questions: Given that sexual harassment is pervasive, why and how do few stories emerge while the majority do not? Along with risks involved for the victims, perhaps it becomes important to analyse and understand how men, depending upon their caste and class privileges, have a different level of social capital that determine which stories can be investigated and published, while others neatly covered up.
Also, is #MeToo all about public shaming and individual ‘demonization’? Perhaps not, because that will not get us to the complex roots of the problem. And to do so, we need to look at the institutions and structures that shape and enable individuals to become perpetrators and how they manage to get away or don’t. At the same time, it becomes important that we have broader conversations led by victims on what justice might look like.
Most importantly, in a context where ‘mainstream’ women’s movement has failed to take into account intersectional identities, how do we ensure that all voices are heard and believed, from sex workers to persons with disabilities? Perhaps, the starting point is to have reflective conversations on our grounds for solidarity both within and across movements. But that will only be possible when we stop giving into the larger political agenda where identities, complexities and uncomfortable questions are brushed aside as ‘diversion’ or threat to ‘communal harmony’.
Limbu is a Kathmandu-based researcher. Jha is a graduate student at York University, Canada.