Anonymity is a necessary tool for India’s #MeToo movement

Anonymous social media accounts that provide a safe space for women to talk about sexual abuse deserve protection.

Subodh Gupta reuters
In response to a lawsuit by artist Subodh Gupta, the High Court of Delhi ordered an Instagram account which posted anonymous testimonials about sexual abuse to be shut down [Charles Platiau/Reuters]

On September 30, the High Court of Delhi ordered the Scene and Herd Instagram account, which posted anonymous testimonials about sexual harassment and gender-based violence in India’s art industry, to be shut down. The court also ordered Facebook, which owns Instagram, to reveal, in a sealed envelope, the “particulars of the person/entity” behind the account at the next hearing on November 18.

The order came in response to a lawsuit by the artist Subodh Gupta, who was named as an alleged perpetrator of abuse in posts published by the account. He denies the allegations. His lawsuit is seeking 50 million rupees ($700,000) in damages, arguing that the testimonies published by Scene and Herd have damaged his reputation.

Since the ruling, a number of young artists and art industry workers have emailed me to recount their experiences in India’s art scene and to explain why they believe the account’s closure is going to contribute to the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in the industry.

In their messages, which they wanted me to share anonymously, they detailed instances of harassment that often took place in full view of those in positions of leadership at arts organisations, biennales and events.

They explained how, since industry leaders choose to turn a blind eye, the anonymity provided by the Scene and Herd account became the only recourse for those with little access to power to warn others about predators. They also explained how it is “very difficult to feel safe lodging a complaint” through official channels.

The stories shared with me, like those that appeared on Scene and Herd, made it clear that sexual harassment – and other forms of violence – endured by the class of invisible workers who set up shows is not only pervasive in the industry but accepted as a routine condition of work by many.

Such a culture of violence against women cannot exist without a system of powerful institutions and stakeholders protecting those who have, for decades, been known to be predators.

Abusers are protected because they make money for galleries and institutions, because collectors do not want the value of their artwork to be reduced and because there is a close-knit community at the top of the art industry whose members depend upon each other. They do not want to damage their social and professional ties and potentially lose lucrative opportunities in order to help young artists and workers who cannot offer them anything in return.

As one person explained to me: “Even the most powerful believe they are in positions of precarity, daring not to speak out against abusers lest they burn an important bridge for their social capital/careers.”

The significance complainants attached to the anonymity afforded by Scene and Herd is evidence of how damaging it is for anyone to stand up to an industry that “cancels” those who do not prostrate themselves before the powerful, and how difficult it is to change these toxic practices.

Scene and Herd helped create a serious dialogue about violence against women in the Indian art industry.

“Abuse is a spectrum. It’s not just sexual” noted one post, which went on to detail how a male artist who owed a female artist money threatened her whenever she asked for it to be repaid.

Critics of anonymous “callout” sites and accounts, such as Scene and Herd, charge that they encourage irresponsible vigilantism, where false accusations can be made without consequences. But there are obvious reasons why women in professionally and socially vulnerable positions in India’s art scene cannot speak openly about routine sexual harassment and violence. 

Most of the women who reported anonymously on the account have precarious jobs. They are assistants, curators, gallery workers, aspiring artists. They lack networks of solidarity and face social censure and potential loss of a professional future and income. They know that they are likely to be blacklisted if “outed”.

The nepotism within the industry and the lack of existing avenues – free of internal organisational bias – for submitting complaints also tells us why those who experience sexual and gender-based violence do not seek due process. It tells us why those with less power choose to complain anonymously, rather than trust their employers’ processes for reporting complaints – that is, if their workplaces even have them. They know that established channels and legal processes often fail women and re-victimise them. 

They choose anonymity because they already know that shaming and social ostracism are routinely used tools of censure that remove someone’s “social value” by discrediting their word, experiences and contributions. Rather than address and correct violent behaviour, a whole system works to negate, silence and suppress dissent.

But the anonymity provided by Scene and Herd and similar accounts allows them a safe space.

As one curator noted, “anonymity is a sort of refuge”; but it can also be a location of power for those who are marginalised.

By publicly sharing stories of routine abusive behaviour, sexual harassment and assault, Scene and Herd threatened the deeply insular power structures that determine the pecking order in the art industry. Women, in unison, ended decades of silencing.

Should Facebook comply with the court’s recent ruling and reveal the identity of Scene and Herd’s administrator, there may be further requests for all correspondence received by the administrators to be revealed, which would result in the names of the accusers being exposed. 

To avoid this, more than 250 artists, scholars and arts professionals signed a petition, created by students at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, condemning Gupta’s civil defamation suit. The petition argues that Gupta’s suit is an “obscene display of power” which stands as “testament to the structural violence that prominent names can unleash”. It charges that the suit is intended as “strategic intimidation” to “make an example of those who had the courage to speak out so that no one builds up that courage again.”

This petition is a powerful statement. By naming themselves, the signees publicly express solidarity with those who could not name themselves for fear of repercussion. But it may not be enough to quell the powerful push-back. 

Those who hold established positions in India’s art scene and beyond must stand with survivors. Without that support, the welcome changes ushered in by the global #MeToo movement may be arrested in India. 

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, two investigative reporters who broke the story on Harvey Weinstein, note that it was difficult, even for those actors with established careers, to speak up. In an interview with NPR, Kanto explained: “Nobody wanted to go first … out there alone … [they wanted] company in going on the record.” But after running into dead ends for months, the actor Ashley Judd returned a phone call, saying she was ready to speak publicly. Then Gwenyth Paltrow. That changed everything.

Imagine what would happen if the powerful in the Indian art industry who have witnessed abuse found the courage – not to “go first” – but to join the ever-growing list of names?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.