Written by J Devika.
There can be little doubt that feminism is under threat in today’s India as it is globally. This is not because Indian feminism has failed to reinvent itself. Indeed, Indian feminism has transformed itself over the past decades through productive engagement with new and critical forms of politics emerging from marginalized groups. However, much more needs to be done.
For instance, the threat of right-wing Hindutva cultural politics alerts us to the need to rethink, say, women’s self-help groups, a key strategy of governmentalized welfare in India now, and the concern with pornography and sexual violence filtered through global governance feminism, away from their present heteronormative forms, which are easily recuperable within right-wing conservative family norms of female sexual purity. Secondly, many of our failures are plainly clear in the harsh light of Narendra Modi’s brutal regime. Despite ample evidence that the most oppressed of India’s female population, women of Dalit and tribal communities, were being punished as the ‘bad subjects’ of what Barry Hindess has called ‘post-imperialist liberalism’ – excluded from the neoliberal order of self-help which sets up women, globally, as its ‘good subjects’, and hunted down in the name of ‘security’, often privileged Indian feminists (including myself) have failed to re-examine their relation to the state and development critically. Thirdly, new anti-patriarchal subjects have emerged in this period, including people interested in on-normative gendered lifestyles, and the ‘secular youth’ rebelling against unfair gendered restrictions. Not all identify with feminism. Fourthly, most political formations remain suspicious of feminism, including new anti-Hindutva radical anti-caste and Muslim politics.
In sum, re-imagining feminisms in times of Hindutva is urgent. Central to it is the task of building new solidarities among feminists, and between feminism and others oppressed by Hindutva.
Opening mainstream feminism to the criticism and anger of excluded groups is not easy, if by this we mean the effort to build alliances and new spaces of political education that enable active mutual transformation of the many participating groups with (differing) stakes in the struggle against patriarchy. This is different from the common practice of ‘tolerating’ critiques, expressed through self-flagellation, self-policing, and retreat from dialogue, none of which generate the ‘un-homing’ necessary for openness to the other. At best, they can undergrid strategic alliances; at worst, they induce a paralysis of transformative dialogue and critique. Worse, they can be driven by either sympathy or empathy towards the struggles of marginalized women and others who critique the feminism of the women of privileged origin and leave the elite-non-elite hierarchy. In India too, then, we have a challenge familiar to feminists elsewhere: how do we construct new spaces of feminist political engagement and education that create the conditions under which the fully-expressed anger of non-elite women criticizing mainstream feminism does not evoke reactions from privileged-origin feminists, but a genuinely self-transforming response?
We know of the dangers of using the metaphor of ‘home’ and of values like love, care, and non-violence in reimagining feminist spaces, which may replicate relations of power between the subjects of distinct forms of anti-patriarchal politics. We need, then, to imagine a mutual connection that builds a common yet critical sense of belonging among groups whose social locations are structurally antagonistic. In the Indian context, we could possibly turn to B R Ambedkar’s reflections on maitri in his Buddha and his Dhamma. In his excellent reading of the elaboration of the idea by Ambedkar, Aishwary Kumar (2015, 334) notes that in Ambedkar’s discourse, maitri is more that its literal meaning, i.e. friendship. It is a gesture that one makes to one’s enemies, offenders, or strangers – in short, to the other. Most importantly for our purpose, maitri does not exclude force – it only separates it from faceless state power and embeds it within equality and justice. Thus critique, even penalty, is possible in a relationship or space animated by maitri. Secondly, this is linked to Ambedkar’s “struggle to formulate an ethics of autonomy for the weak, indeed, their sovereignty, which must, at the same time, save itself from becoming a justification for mastery of the weak.” (p.331). Maitri takes us beyond alliance-building for predetermined short-term or long-term goals.
What kind of political-intellectual work will feminist maitri enable? Maitri underlines the ultimate mortality of all bodies; it directs us to view all identities as constructed, and therefore subject to revision. This means that we may have to move beyond (not simply move away from) ‘strategic essentialism’, for the simple reason that the latter perpetuates the habit of treating identities as essential however provisionally. And it also goes beyond the equally popular post-structuralist-feminist approach that treats identities as perpetually ‘becoming’, pointing to diversity and contestations in the meanings of identity-categories.
Instead, feminist maitri demands strong recognition of identities as political and even antagonistic, but never permanent and fixed; mutually shaped through constant engagement, discernment and awareness, rather than the desire to protect central identities. If the spaces of liberal alliance-building require the suspension of mutual differences and tactful exchanges which leaves the different players separated, feminist maitri allows for strong exchanges without either indifference or hostility. This also opens up spaces in which privileged-origin feminists can do their “own work” instead of offering passive assent to, or copying, the strategies or tactics of non-elite feminists and anti-caste and Muslim movements. For this reason, this allows more equal and active engagement between privileged-origin feminists and others, as feminist maitri requires each to do their “own work” –equally rigorously and critically, with full awareness of the inevitability of change and the need for the complexity of analysis – towards the destruction of casteist patriarchy.
My hope is that this will engender non-paranoid readings that balance necessary paranoid readings (to remember Eve Sedgewick). Further, for me, a privileged-origin feminist, this could be a way of moving on from paralysing self-flagellation and guilt, and for all of us Indian feminists of various origins, to move towards Alice Walker’s Womanist advice to love oneself, Regardless.
Dr J. Devika is a historian, social critic, and feminist. She currently teaches and researches at the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum as an Associate Professor and has authored several books, and articles on gender relations in early Kerala society. Image credit: CC by Wikimedia.