Preaching radicalism from the pulpit is easy; turning identity into a weapon for shutting down debate when it makes you uncomfortable is not a hallmark of courage but a sign of anger without self-introspection.
Having a sense of history is critical for deconstructing the trajectory of any cause or political movement, be it secularism, communism or feminism. All ‘isms’ have their distinctive histories crafted by a multitude of people who play a crucial, if overlooked, role in advancing them. There is, however, no linear line of progression, no unhindered path through which a cause advances. Despite the best efforts and dogged work of those who believe in them, movements flounder or stagnate while ideologies or causes mutate and transform over time. To those who would much rather forget history than acknowledge the contribution of the past in shaping the contemporary, the temptation to shrug off the work of pathfinders as inconsequential is often irresistible.
In recent days, we have witnessed one such cause – feminism – unravel in ways that many have found to be disturbing. Among those expressing dismay over the cloak and dagger ‘naming and shaming’ campaign of alleged sexual harassers in academia are women who have, for years, doggedly fought the establishment, structures of patriarchal power, and social norms, laying the groundwork for what we understand to be feminism today.
Let us not forget that feminism was not always a cause célèbre. In fact, the last three decades bear testimony to the radical ways that feminists have found ways to assert their autonomy as women and as human beings. Taking on established, normative structures – whether familial or professional – has not been child’s play. In times unmarked by social media (giving you the easy opportunity of mobilising hundreds if not thousands by putting up a Facebook post or tweeting 140 acidic words), many of us chose to live lives that were decidedly a departure from the accepted norm. We didn’t make a hue and cry about it. We just did what we did. Fighting everything that came our way, often without even explicitly being able to name what it was we were challenging. We made families that were decidedly “different” from the structures feted and accepted by society. We negotiated with difficult landlords who asked us uncomfortable questions about who would live in apartments we rented as single women or women in unmarried relationships – with men, with other women. We crafted and guarded our own unconventional families, raised our children, or chose not to have any. We tied the knot, we chose to ‘live in sin’.
None of these decisions was easy. None was broadcast over media. None offered us protection from name-calling, labelling, and social isolation or discrimination. But we did change society in our own spaces, without fanfare, without looking for endorsement. With conviction. Eventually, over time, as such practices proliferated through larger parts of the social body, we began to identify as feminists, we began finding a language to justify our decisions.
During this time, as women quietly worked to transform private spaces, public spaces too became restive. Feminism had to work through its complexities. Feminists argued and debated with each other. Much of this led to acrimonious disagreement; but a sense of community – or togetherness – of being in the same fight – persisted through it all.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a second wave of feminism unleashed strident women’s agitations in the country. Those were the decades that marked the beginning of the contemporary women’s movement, moving away from an earlier phase of social reforms to focus pointedly on difficult questions surrounding gender, violence, feminism, and the law.
Violence against women became a rallying point for mobilisations. The rape of a 16-year-old adivasi girl, Mathura, by two policemen in the compound of Desai Ganj police station in the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, and the subsequent Supreme Court judgment acquitting the guilty on the plea that Mathura was “habituated to sexual intercourse” and of “loose morals”, catalysed massive protests. Around the same time, debates around dowry deaths transformed the quality and character of activism, translating the feminist assertion of the personal as political.
In an article in Seminar, feminist scholar Nivedita Menon writes, “These debates since the 1980s have not been restricted to seminar rooms, nor did they originate there exclusively. In a recognisable dialectic between theory, practice and everyday life, the transformative collective power of challenges to patriarchy, misogyny and heteronormativity have percolated to ground level common sense. The decades since the 1980s have been marked by a range of interventions. Workshops in rural areas, mass political struggles on varied issues, discussions in urban classrooms – all of these have been the medium of circulation of such ideas, carried by activists, students and teachers, writers, parents and children of all genders.”
Progress was slow, but women activists and scholars ensured that systems – legal and institutional – were put in place where there were none. True, these systems till today, remain flawed; and patriarchy is still thriving. But it is equally true that today’s campaigners are able to wave the flag of feminism from public citadels due in no small measure to the work that was done by feminists in preceding years and decades. Bit by bit, they cleared the path for millennial feminists. Nor did they do so by simply pledging faith in the law or committees against sexual harassment. Feminist efforts to fight sexual violence has, from the very beginning, appealed to law even while challenging it, established norms even while questioning them, and fought bureaucracies even while leveraging them when needed.
Ashley Tellis, an academic whose name figures on the list circulating online, points out in a column that though feminists have, for years, fought for justice and better laws combat workplace harassment, they have also been aware of the limitations of the law as an instrumental on redressal: “We have a law on the sexual harassment of women at workplace. Yes, all of these are flawed. Yes, we all know that the law is not enough. Those of us who have seen cases of harassment in educational institutions know the many ways in which they are mangled and used against complainants, trivialised, thrown out.” But, he asks, critically: “Do we give up what feminists have fought for (the sexual harassment law is the only law which reposes faith in the idea of the woman as an autonomous subject) and produce lists instead? Do we replace courts of law with kangaroo courts? Do we replicate the khap panchayat and produce rough and ready ‘justice’ at online chaupals?”
Denying the complexities of feminism as a movement, ideology, and practice, which has moved beyond the rhetoric of “all women are victims” and “women’s agency,” to include the agency and importance of queer communities – queer defined in the broadest sense as anyone who doesn’t fit within the norm, beyond but including the LGBTQ community – is to be ignorant. It is to overlook and simplify a struggle waged by successive generations in this country.
Name-calling and identifying an enemy – especially when the ‘enemies’ are feminists who have fought with blood and sweat to clear the way for you to raise your voice – in terms of class, caste, hierarchy, and privilege, is easy. It is easy to point a finger in anger instead of stopping to think about why some of the sharpest, most critical, most dissenting voices in a movement might be uncomfortable with your methods. Preaching radicalism from the pulpit is easy; turning identity into a weapon for shutting down debate when it makes you uncomfortable is not a hallmark of courage, but a sign of anger without self-introspection. At a time when Indian academia and Indian universities are under attack from a government nervous and on the run, unthinking attacks premised on the feeding frenzy of social media bolster the case of those who see universities as the breeding grounds of deviance and pathology.
Sexual violence is a problem. Sexual violence is structural. Sexual violence is endemic. All institutions – including universities – have failed miserably to address the issue as they should have. As flurries of think-pieces are written, reacting positively or negatively to the campaign going on today, we would do well to remember that many of the battle lines being drawn are artificial. Many of the divides being created between feminists in an accusatory mode simplify the fact that feminism has grown as an academic discipline and a way of life by challenging itself from within. Feminists were never a homogeneous group. Their strength was – and continues to be – their ability to question themselves, to push the boundaries of what feminism is. Debate, discussion, and disagreement is integral to this process. By buying into the sensational arguments being made we not only forget feminism’s history but also endanger its future.