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

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.

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.

Categories Gender