Last week, a young woman accused Shamir Reuben, a popular male poet, of trying to elicit nude pictures from her. The case has hit news headlines, and caused a lot of shock, outrage, accusations, defensive statements and more in the poetry community in Mumbai. Since then, there have been other accusations and statements. Show biz is tumbling.
Soliciting nude pictures may be a socially taboo topic of discussion. But it’s not strictly speaking, illegal. The young woman says she was underage at the time though, which is what takes this into the realm of a crime.
The accused is a well-known face on the local Spoken Word/poetry scene. But this scene is a young one and still new to the limelight which has caused an outpouring of ‘I didn’t even know who this guy was until yesterday so why are they calling him famous?’ How well-known a person is or perceived to be, has nothing to do with the incident. Or does it? Shamir’s social currency as a known poet and a senior person in his company makes this an imbalance of power, with regards to the victim (who was a student and a new poet on the scene then). Harassment and abuse can both only happen in a situation where there is an imbalance of power/privilege. Her age and gender also make this complicated since articulating NO or even the fact that she was asked something she should not have – are difficult.
Shamir has been much admired for his work and his feminist viewpoints. This makes it a hard accusation to digest but also an easy one to turn into outrage. This uncontained mess of emotions has resulted in one of his female friends being harangued to the point of trolling, for her feminist views while having been friends with him. The meninist brigade is screaming for proof and about not ruining the man’s life. Blame and shame are being rained on everyone around with proportionately defensive reactions. We seem to be losing sight of the issue on hand, which is that a minor was asked and possibly coerced to send nude pictures.
I know Shamir slightly, having met him once and having admired his work often. Because this is happening in the space I frequent and love, this bothers me, yes. But perhaps because I cannot claim to be a close friend and also possibly because of the harassment I’ve faced as a woman through the last year and half, I’m not as shaken. I am relieved that we are finally talking about it, even as I’m saddened that an underage girl had to be harassed for the poetry circle to take cognizance of the issue.
I’ve been part of a number of discussions in the past few days about power, privilege, consent, harassment, abuse and more. It’s been hard, trying to keep my thoughts straight while respecting everyone concerned (because make no mistake, every human being deserves that) and also not adding to the uproar.
I was quoted in a Mumbai Mirror story titled ‘Sexual Misconduct Case: Working Towards A Safe Creative Community‘, where I’ve said,
Ramya said, “We’ve each experienced misogyny and silencing and (SXonomics) have come together because we want to do something about it. We are not here to police people, especially after an act has been committed – that is for the law authorities. But we’d like to make people conscious about how they think and treat each other, especially women. Lecturing doesn’t take one far so we’ve tried to bring out our messages in engaging ways, using what we do well – performance, writing and art.”
An earlier interview of mine was also quoted as part of a Mid-Day story covering the case.
“Spoken Word poetry is not a new art form. It has its roots in every oral performing tradition. But it has gotten a new lease of life. Currently, the popular flavour is for performances to sound angry and rage against something specific. With time, I think, these themes and tones will evolve too. All in all, I think we’re set for some very exciting times in storytelling, performance and art!”
And finally, the Kommune (Shamir’s now former workplace) invited me to participate in a discussion on building safer spaces within the performing circuit. A part of this discussion can be viewed on Facebook Live here.
Possibly, I sound pacifist. If you’ve ever read my work or seen any of my performances in the past two years, you’ll know that is not who I am. But I don’t see any point in adding further anger and outrage to this story. I am not one of the victims in this case so it does not feel right for me to co-opt their stories. All my anger and pain and outrage of the last two years only resulted in further attacks and in my being shut out of spaces. I have no desire to fight any more of those battles. But I am still invested in the stage, Mumbai’s stages. I want to spend my efforts and any influence I wield, in making this better, taking what we’ve all learnt as a community, from this unsavoury episode, to be more responsible and equal. I stand for equality and respect for all performers and artists.
If you’d like to talk about this, feel free to leave a public comment on this post. I’m still sorting through my thoughts about sexual politics that the accusations and counter-statements raise.