Game Session of ‘Made to Order’ at UWC Mahindra College, Pune

Four students stood in a large multimedia hall with masks tied around them and there were eight more students sitting down on the wooden floor. The walls of the hall were lined up with fans, cuboid black speakers, tube lights and switch boards and neatly hung flags of different countries. The participants were students of the Theatre, Gender, Identity and Film summer program at UWC Mahindra College in Pune, between 14-18 years of age. The participants had been initiated into the conversation about intersecting identities the previous day as part of their course and had pondered over the questions of class, race, gender, privilege and power. At 10 a.m. on a Friday morning, the Made to Order session commenced.

Made to Order is a game developed by Fields of View that looks at the intersections between caste, class and gender. The purpose of the game is to give the player an immersive understanding of the intricacies of these three aspects of one’s identity. The game is set in the garment industry in India. The game was first developed for Gender Bender 2017, a production of Sandbox Collective and Goethe Institut Bangalore. The game draws from real-life qualitative and quantitative data.

The game session involved 15 mins of briefing, 50 mins of game play and another 45 mins of debriefing.

People understand gender better than they understand caste

“My caste is Bestha, so does this apply to me?”asked one of the players. The game involves the players to make certain choices based on the profile that is given to them. These profiles are stated on the profile cards. While four players play the roles of garment factory workers, the others play the role of the upper management. The above-mentioned question is a common occurrence in a game of Made to Order. People more often that not are unaware of which caste is Scheduled and which is not. In the game those who play the role of garment factory workers have to achieve 5 goals. One player who managed to achieve all his 5 goals in the game, expressed happiness over the fact that he had made some good decisions during the game. He also however acknowledged the fact that his profile being that of a male, didn’t involve any of the impediments women had to face. His profile also entitled him to an SC/ST certificate because of which he could get free eye surgery for his parents. Sometimes your caste in the game held you back while sometimes it helped you move ahead.

Where some perceived caste and gender as labels affecting their movement in the game, for one of the players there seemed to be a disconnect between her perception of the profile she was playing and the life of that very person in the profile. While playing the role of a transgender person employed in the factory as a helper, she decided very consciously to apply for vocational training even though it required her to dress up as a man – “I had to get money for gender reaffirmation surgery and that was a lot. So I had to save and I couldn’t achieve a lot of goals because of it. I thought getting more money was more important for me than to dress up as a woman if I ever wanted to achieve that particular goal”. Would someone struggling to express their gender to the world actually go through with such a decision like that? How much would a person compromise in order to make their ends meet? Speaking from their own personal experiences, one of the participants talked about how gender and sexuality are not understood where he comes from and why he needs to hide his sexuality from his own family because of the trouble he might face if he discloses it.

Power as a process and not an event

During the debrief one of the participants said “As a woman I think it’s not just that instance when I feel threatened or violated, but I can do something about it after that instance has passed. And my caste and class support me in that.”For another player the act of making choices was just about survival as he pointed out. He was making the least amount of money as a sanitation worker, that combined with him playing as a woman who belongs to a scheduled caste, made it extremely difficult to achieve anything in the game. In the game the players are required to respond to certain questions and make choices. And the very labels of one’s caste, income and gender tend to weigh in on all these choices throughout.

Does Industry and development go hand in hand?

“We had no consequences whatsoever for ourselves. And there was nothing to stop us from making the choices we made. I think we had a lot of power in the game”.Turning to the participants playing upper management, there was a unanimity in how much power they felt in making the decisions they had to. On being asked about their choices as the management another one said “I made the decision of moving out the factory to a rural place. Because as the employee turnover is high in the city anyway and the workers are more likely to switch jobs in the city, I thought they could easily find a job even if the factory shut down here. Instead we could take it to a rural area and set up there. It would not only generate employment but also develop the area, schools etc would come up.”On questioning further, discussions emerged on whether such development models even function in the real world and how much do industries that are setup in rural parts of the country actually contribute to the education or overall growth of the people in the rural areas.

Claustrophobia and decision making

Some participants pointed out that “the game was mentally exhausting and having to constantly think about the decisions was tiring. I can only imagine having to face that on a day-to-day basis.”One of the girls playing the role of a transgender helper at the factory mentioned how restricted and stuffy the mask and the impediments made her feel in the game. “The impediments felt very real for me. It became more and more difficult to move. I am somewhat claustrophobic, so the masks were also a difficult thing for me.”

We wound up the session, thanked each other for their time and participation and left for the day to do other things. I saw those four students leave, the participants who played the roles of the workers, with smiles on their faces like the rest of their classmates. And here I was packing their very masks with labels defining the caste, gender and income stuck on them repeatedly. Those masks had managed to make them feel suffocated in this air-conditioned hall. The impediments had restricted their movement so much that even a 10 feet distance had become a struggle to tread. The questions and decisions in the game had drained them enough for that hour if not the rest of the day.

But I guess that’s how it is in real life, for some the claustrophobia lasts an hour and for some it is their lifetime.

 

 

 

Who needs philosophy?

Definitely not folks who work with technology. Most definitely not engineers. I was one of those people, an engineer. (There is a certificate somewhere that attests to that.) Philosophy for me was about looking out into the distance and thinking about whether I was really thinking or dreaming or existing in some sort of fugue state induced by the Mumbai heat searing metal compartments of local trains. The word ‘Philosophy’ conjured images of busts of men whose names were as strange as the non-spelling of ‘Irinjalakuda’ is to the English language. Even though I went through Sophie’s World, it seemed her world was never mine to hold and understand.

Around six years ago, I read a paper, and something shifted. It was called ‘Classes versus Prototypes: Some philosophical and historical observations’ by Antero Taivalsaari[1]. The paper spoke about Plato and object oriented programming in the same breath. I knew about object oriented programming but I didn’t understand its relationship with Plato.

I encountered object oriented programming in a book by Timothy Budd and was smitten by it. Budd’s book is innocuously (and sincerely) titled ‘An introduction to Object Oriented Programming’. It does not have the identity of the murderer tucked away in the last page, but I read it as though such a revelation was sure to come.

Budd starts about how people who are new to object oriented programming understand it better than those who have worked on procedural programming. Procedural programming models the world as a set of steps, a process or a procedure. In other words, you instruct the computer to perform actions by coding these actions as a series of procedures. On the other hand, object oriented programming was about seeing the world anew, as a set of objects that belonged to certain categories and the relationship between them. You change the world by performing different operations on these objects. Budd argued that it is easier for someone who has not thought of manipulating the world in terms of procedures to start conceptualising it in terms of categories, objects that belonged to those categories, and the relationship between them. An untutored mind could adopt to this new way of seeing rather than the one that was already moulded and ossified. As a regular student, keen to see the world in radical new ways, I was eager to reshape my mind, and read the whole book in one go.

I never realised until I read Taivalsaari’s paper that what had gotten me excited about Budd’s book and object oriented programming in the first place was the philosophy behind it, which is to see the world as a set of objects that are related to each other. What I didn’t understand back then was that philosophy was about a way of seeing the world in order to understand it, and every discipline, including computer science rests on philosophy.

Every discipline tries to understand the world, and therefore, every discipline has a certain philosophical foundation that tells you how that discipline perceives the world. Plato and Aristotle thought that the world has a certain fixed ‘order’, and we discovered that ‘order’ as we understood the world. For a long time most disciplines in the Western canon adopted this approach to looking at the world, and computer science was no different:

What Plato and Aristotle thought:

“… categories were thought to be well understood and unproblematic. They were assumed to be abstract containers, with things either inside or outside the category. Things were assumed to be in the same category if and only if they had certain properties in common. And the properties they had in common were taken as defining the category.[2]

Relationship between Aristotle’s model of the world and object oriented programming:

“His [Aristotle’s] classifications were based on the same idea that underlies object-oriented programming today. A group of objects belongs to the same category if the objects have the same properties. Thus, categories of objects are defined by common properties that a group of objects (the extension of the category) share.[3]

For a second, think about the consequences of adopting Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophical position for different disciplines:

  1. There is one ‘ideal’ world out there
  2. All of us ‘discover’ this world when we understand it

Image 1 – Is there an ‘ideal world’ we all discover? Or the world we perceive is the world we know?

But, if you think that the world is not fixed, and the world is what we perceive, what we make of it, you adopt a different philosophy, a different way of looking at the world. A lot of disciplines, including computer science, started grappling with this different way of seeing the world, a way of seeing that was rooted in being human. By virtue of the bodies we inhabit, we understand the world a certain way. We perceive the world a certain way because we as humans are made a certain way; our bodies influence our cognition: if we adopt such a philosophical position, then we understand cognition as ‘embodied’. This in turn means that there is no ‘ideal’ world out there for all of us to perceive the same way, but the perceptions differ based on the vessel doing the perception. And as there are many kinds of human beings, there are different ways in which this classification can be done, this understanding can happen.

Consequences of adopting an ‘embodied’ understanding of cognition, and therefore a different philosophical position for different disciplines:

  1. Each of us understands the world in our own way, and that understanding is shaped by our bodies
  2. There is no ‘ideal’ world for us to understand, but there are ‘interpretations’

It is a dramatic shift in thinking about the world, a fundamental philosophical shift. It means moving away from thinking there is one world we all are trying to understand, to thinking about everyone’s perception as a valid interpretation of the world.

Different disciplines from economics, cognitive science, linguistics, computer science, psychology – all of them grappled with this philosophical shift. And in a series of blogposts, I hope to explore this shift, and what it means for research and practice. (There will be politics too – after all, what doesn’t have politics?)

[1] Taivalsaari, A. (1996). Classes vs. Prototypes Some Philosophical and Historical Observations. Journal of Object-Oriented Programming10(7), 44-50.

[2] Lakoff, G. (2008). Women, fire, and dangerous things. University of Chicago press.

[3] Taivalsaari, A. (1996). Classes vs. Prototypes Some Philosophical and Historical Observations. Journal of Object-Oriented Programming10(7), 44-50.

Dissident data – The Subject Matter(s) – Part 1

Quick note from FoV:

Fields of View is thrilled to host ‘Dissident Data’ a new blog series by Dr. Niveditha Menon, who is a senior research advisor at the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. Here is the Part 1 of the second post. You can read the first post here

When I was in the field collecting data for my dissertation on domestic violence, my advisor, Mike, recommended that I write about my experiences every day. I was not very disciplined, so I would only do them every week. These were not technically field notes, but my own reflections on what I was experiencing when I was in the field. I decided to make them into letters that I sent every week to people who were interested in hearing from me. This is an entry:

I know I have glorified the process of data collection in previous letters. But it can be really hard… I sometimes get so angry I don’t know what to do with myself. The anger is fine.  But after a while, I feel myself getting a little cynical about the lives of the women I encounter. I remember feeling shocked at my own reaction in one interview when one woman (whose husband was not beating her) said that she was very happy with her husband. A voice in me said – yeah well, how long is that going to last? I realized immediately that I can’t think about the world that way, or I am not going to be a very happy person.  

I recently interviewed a woman whose story made me mad during the interview. I wanted to shout, scream, do something for this woman and do something to her mother-in-law. Usually, this anger hits me after I have finished with the interview and usually, I try and control myself when I am interviewing. But during this interview, I felt like screaming obscenities at the world and I don’t even know any good ones. Well, it passes. It always does.

What I didn’t realise then and am able to see so clearly now is that it doesn’t always pass. It stays, much longer than it should. These emotions of anger and helplessness were the first formative lessons in data collection that I learnt in the field, and in various forms, they have stayed with me ever since. These are the stories and lessons that I still go back to when I have to understand anything about oppression or violence, and about how the world is not tilted along the right axis for many people.

I brought these feelings to bear, to some degree, in my writing. When I wrote my case notes, I would bring a mental picture of the women I had been interviewing. By concentrating on her face, I would try to remember what she said and how she said it. Sometimes, this made the writing process very hard, because I would remember their faces flicker with emotions that I couldn’t even begin to name. I would remember the shuttering down of something dark and lightening up of something joyful. Somewhere in the middle was a story that I probably did not do justice to. And that feeling of impotence has survived all these years . . . that I could listen more, that if I could talk more, that if could do more, then it would all be better.

I remember thinking (with all of my feelings of inadequacy, cynicism, and anger) that the research that I was doing could not even begin to address the level of structural inequalities that I was seeing and recording. No amount of empathetic writing or theoretical understanding could take away the pain and hurt that the women I was interviewing were experiencing. It started to feel as though all of research is pointless, and the role of the researcher, even more so.

At the time, the very wise Mike told me – I can’t dwell on what isn’t, or I can never do anything with what is. I must admit, I didn’t quite understand it at the time. I was so lost in my own self-flagellation and my own navel-gazing that I didn’t get it. It was only years since that I understood that he was trying to tell me (at least) two things. First, the pain and anger I was feeling was an abstract one. It was on behalf of someone else and something else. It cannot be made mine, even if I tried. So, it had to be channelled into a more productive arena; it can be channelled into more empathy, for instance. Second, the feelings of frustration and impotence that I was experiencing are not the same as being self-reflective. These feelings of impotent guilt cannot (or perhaps, should not) be used to punish myself. It has to be channelled outward into asking questions of possibilities – What can be done? How do I do what I do best to make it better? How do I contribute? What can I change?

Over the years since that advice was given to me, what I have learnt is that these emotions that we take to and take from the field act as anchors. They make us empathetic, they make us accountable, and they make us human. Our knowledge of the complexities behind simple statements (of fact) comes from these complicated feelings we have towards and about those who have shared their lives (and data) with us. Any knowledge (or data) that we have derived from these interactions are, thus, almost always tinged with this emotional content. And this is really what I remember when I remember the lessons that I have learned in the field. So, no, these complicated feelings do not always pass. Perhaps, they shouldn’t.

Game Session of ‘Made to Order’ at City Scripts, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore

 

Date: 17th February 2018

Duration: 75 minutes

Number of Participants: 14

 

Introduction to the Game

‘Made to Order’ is a physical, multiplayer game that can also accommodate spectators developed by Fields of View to explore the intersecting dimensions of caste, class and gender, and how intricately they are bound. The game was first developed for Gender Bender 2017, a production Sandbox Collective and Goethe Institut Bangalore. The game involves participants playing different roles set in the garment industry, drawing from real-life qualitative and quantitative data.

 

 

Overview of the Session

A modified version of the game was conducted at IIHS as part of City Scripts, an urban writings festival. In this version, the garment workers were divided as employees of two competing garment factories, who were represented by their upper managements.

The participants were conversant with English and in the age group 25-45. Some of them were working in research institutions, including IIHS. The game session lasted for 75 minutes, including 15 minutes of briefing and 60 minutes of gameplay. Four participants played the role of workers in two garment factories, while nine of them formed the upper management of those two factories. The remaining participants formed the spectators. Each worker, keeping in mind their gender, caste and class, had to make decisions based on different situations through the game.

 

Observations of Gameplay

  1. Three of the workers spent money on achieving at least two of their goals. One of them chose not to fulfil any. None of the workers interacted with each other during the game.
  2. During questions put to the upper management, they discussed with one another and gave unanimous decisions each time. When both groups had to decide on measures to improve their bid, they were competitive and mindful of the other group’s choices. There was no interaction across the groups.
  3. There were few comments during the game and they were limited to providing reasons for the choices made, such as “Even though it is costly, I will take the private transport service because I need more time to help my husband and children” and “I have to constantly keep shifting houses so there is no reason for me to get it repaired”.
  4. Questions raised were mostly clarificatory in nature and included “My caste is ‘Holeya’. Does it fall under the list of Scheduled Castes?”; “Can I reduce costs by buying a cycle to travel to work instead of subscribing to a private van service?”; “I know that there is little chance of being selected since I am a woman, but can I still apply for the vocational training programme?”; and “Can we choose the same measures to improve our bid as the other factory?”.

 

 

Reflections

  1. In previous sessions of the game, many participants who played the characters of the workers were visibly involved with their characters, reading their profiles slowly, pausing to think before deciding on their choices, and providing reasons on each occasion. In this session, the choice of decisions was much quicker and often without stating any reasons. One of the workers read out the narrative of all their choices rapidly and without pause, as though they were in a hurry to finish reading regardless of the content.
  2. The upper managements, when presented with a choice to either not pay workers’ wages for a certain period or to cut them from thereon, picked the latter each time. However, when they had to compete with the other factory to improve their bid, they chose to implement measures, such as contracting out employment, that could lead to a loss of wages entirely.
  3. A participant playing the role of a female sanitation worker whose husband had passed away a few years ago, stated that the question of her pregnancy was not applicable to her. We had not considered or observed this outcome – of limiting the possibility of pregnancy within wedlock – in previous sessions of the game.

These old bones will never lie. Will they?

Imagine you are standing at the excavated gravesite of an ancient warrior. The grave is filled with spears, bows, and other weapons, proud possessions of the warrior and the skeletal remains. Close your eyes and imagine this Viking warrior.

Now tell me – did you think of a man or a woman?

Till about a few decades ago, if you had asked most archaeologists, they would have said, mmm, a man. For the hunter-gatherer is a man, the woman stays at home, gives birth, minds the chickens, and does other things that history isn’t particularly concerned with. Not only those archaeologists’ point of view is patriarchal, but they also did not have access to the secrets bones can tell, if only you know what to look for.

On the other hand, if you are trained in understanding bones and are critical of making unsubstantiated assumptions about gender, then you may look at the grave, examine the skeleton, and surmise on the basis of available evidence that it could be a woman. Akshay Sarathi, a graduate student of anthropology (archaeology) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of those who is trained in and practises this new way of seeing. In his talk ‘Archaeology of gender’ organized by the Center for Budget and Policy Studies (CBPS) on Tuesday September 01, 2015, he spoke about new methods of decoding fragments from the past and the dangers of preconceived assumptions and gender biases colouring many a finding.

Citing different examples, Sarathi explained the difficulties in assigning gender and gender-based reasoning purely on archaeological evidence. For instance, if there is a site that shows shell-fish catching in a historic era, do we assume that men did the fishing? Or women? If there are three skeletons, where the man’s hand is on the woman’s groin, what do you make of it? Your guess is as good as mine, he said.

On the other hand, there are instances where there are texts and other sources that provide insights on the basis of which interpretations can be made. He cited the example of the Ishtar, who he described as a ‘transgressive’ goddess. There are multiple copies of a text that has survived, of Ishtar’s journey to hell and back. Such textual sources and other material help in interpreting available archaeological evidence, but it isn’t always the case that you would find such supporting evidence for theories.

Queen_of_the_Night_(Babylon) (1)

(By Hispalois (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sarathi spoke about how the study of bones gives additional insights, previously not accessible to archaeologists who were not trained in that area. He cited the example of a mass burial of women, considered to be ‘virgin sacrifices’, but on examining the bones, you find that all the women show signs of having given birth, a pitting observed in their pelvic bones, which would have had to bear the stress of childbirth, debunking the ‘virgin’ theory.

But it is not that you can exactly tell whether the person was a male or a female by studying the bones, because that understanding is supported by statistics, available data, and interpretations, all of which can only provide a tentative understanding in many cases.

Sarathi’s talk touched upon that tentativeness in understanding history, which is usually obfuscated in certain ‘definitive’ versions of history. There is a pressure to sound certain, even if the evidence available can only give you a tentative hold on possible interpretations. Self-reflexivity was another theme, being able to critically examine your own biases and prejudices constantly, something everyone, be it in the sciences or social sciences, needs to practice. The tentativeness and self-reflexivity go hand in hand.

I was struck by how similar the situation is in the media, be it news media or popular media. There is a pressure to sound certain, provide ‘definitive’ accounts, and trade in certitudes, even though you know you only have a tentative understanding. Self-reflexivity is mandatory, but it is hard to put into practice. Where does this pressure for sounding certain come from? Is it because it is easier to work with simple narratives, rather than ones filled with ifs and buts? Or is it because a simple narrative is the one most suited for maximum control?

Overall, the talk was funny, thought-provoking, and accessible, even to someone with no formal training in either archaeology or gender. Now am off to figure out how I can get my hands on ‘Breaking and Entering the Ecosystem – gender, class, and faction steal the show’ by Elizabeth Brumifel, something Sarathi said was a must-read to understand this new way of seeing, even though, he sighed, the author has a few archaic ideas about women and weaving.

Keeping the Feminist Lens “On”

“. . . in many ways is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one. . .”  

C. Wright Mills

 

Feminists often describe their intuitive and instinctive understanding of feminist lessons as a ‘light bulb going off’ in their heads. It is as if all the vague feelings, thoughts, and concepts they have been dealing with suddenly get crystallized into a theory and a collective understanding of the world around them. We learn to see things, relationships, and the world differently, or “at a slant”, as a friend would say.  But what has been true in my experience and a few others that I have spoken to is that once the light bulb comes on, it doesn’t always stay on.  We quickly learnt that this new perspective –this new lens – was all too easy to lose. To keep it on, constantly, was going to require a tremendous commitment on our part. We have to climb the steep ladder to reach the bulb for it to be turned on, again and again. And after a while, it gets easier to make the journey, but you do have to make the effort every time.

 

 

But why is this lens so easy to lose?

 

The answer to this question is simple. Structures such as class, race, gender, religion b(l)ind us in some unique positions. It is from these (subject) positions that our worldviews are formed, structured, codified, and fossilised. We do not always understand our social privileges and positions ‘objectively’ because the world that we understand is translated and navigated from these subject positions. In simpler terms, we cannot be outside of ourselves to understand our relations with the world, as the world is interacting and reacting to the relations that we have formed with the world. It is a continuously reinforced relationship and it is one that we form and are formed by. And this reinforcement is a very powerful one.

 

We all function within it, and it is extremely difficult to see in the normal interaction of life. It is only visible at the breaks and at disruptions of social mores and social relationships. Consequently, it is surprisingly easy to illustrate. Next time, you are talking to someone from the opposite gender, stand 5 cm closer than you normally do. Watch the person’s reaction – if they move, move with them. And if they don’t react, move closer (Caveat: please do this with someone you are comfortable with!). You’ll notice that there is an unwritten code that we all follow on the proper distance that an individual stands apart from another, and while it varies dramatically by culture, all societies have them – a ‘proper’ distance. Likewise, our social lives are wrought with invisible social rules and norms that are so pervasive and hidden that only the violation of them makes them visible. So, a newly acquired lens can often be lost in the normalcy of living one’s life, in the normalcy of interaction, conversations, and relationships that do not necessarily reinforce, engage with and to some extent, even accept this new knowledge or perspective.

 

Also, interaction with social systems is rarely based on a singular identity or system. For example, in any social situation that concerns the family, the gender AND age of the person matter. In fact, age coupled with gender coupled with marital status coupled with family and caste customs etc etc. – otherwise known as intersectionality of identities and systems – can often create myriad rules that are understood implicitly, but rarely articulated.  For example, young Indian women, interacting with their families, rarely raise their voice against elders in the family, and are rarely taken seriously, even if they do. It might be true for young men as well, but men can get away with violations of this code much more easily than women can. So, if you are aware of these social rules that silence women systematically, and you are tired of the silence, will you take the risk of going against everything you have been taught, and still speak up – perhaps, loudly or rudely – against those whom you have been taught to respect your whole life? This is an individual question, and each of us must answer it, and therein lies our own commitment to the form of feminism we have to practice. The truth of the matter is that in order to put this new knowledge into actual practice, we are not necessarily fighting with strangers, with ‘society’, or even with our families. We are fighting with our own selves – our value systems, our core beliefs, our understanding of the world that feels very ingrained (and therefore, ‘natural’).

 

The internal struggle is also made tougher by the problem of visibility. In order to fight it constantly, one has to actually see it, feel it, and hold onto it.  We have to keep examining our actions, our habits, our modes of thinking to understand why they work the way they do. And self-reflexivity, self-reflectivity, self-supervision, self-analysis, self-critique – all of these are so easy to ignore, because the social norms that we grew up with are so comfortable, familiar, and safe. For example, why do we think that a clean house is a reflection of ourselves? Why do we think about career moves that account for future families? Why do we keep quiet when we are truly truly angry? The answers are not always palatable, and we don’t always change our behavior in accordance to our changing thought process. But that struggle has been and is constant.

 

 

But why make such an effort? Why try at all?

 

I can speak for only myself, here.  Feminists have different reasons to make the commitment, and this might be one of the reasons why feminism tends to be deeply personal. We have our own specific reason of why we are committed, and what shape that commitment takes. For me, the reason why I fight to keep the feminist lens on is: once you gain a perspective . . . once you gain a glimpse into another way of seeing the world, you don’t want to let go. My experience of the world has been richer for it, and it has helped me to see the social world in a decidedly different way.

 

For one thing, it has made me more empathetic.  I slowly realized that having another lens allowed me a way to understand other people’s worlds. When you start to understand the effect of social rules and norms on yourself and on social groups, you start to look beyond a person’s individual action or behavior to make connections to the larger social structure, norms, and narratives. So, instead of merely disengaging or resisting social rules and norms, I started to look for reasons why these rules and norms exist, what purpose they serve, and how individuals use them. The more I looked, the more I realized that despite my initial understanding (frankly, cynicism), individuals do use their agency (loosely translated as ‘will’) to engage with these social rules and norms. While a lot of us don’t always know the manner in which social rules act upon us, we also resist, acquiesce, and reinforce them in many interesting ways.

 

Of course, this sounds a little bit like a rainbows, sparklers, and unicorns kind of world. . .but this empathy, this new understanding, and (to some extent) acceptance of human behavior is not an easy thing to do either. C Wright Mills when he talked about the sociological imagination described it as a magnificent lesson and a terrible one. In his famous piece on sociological imagination, he extorted those of us who wanted to enter the field of sociology to possess a level of gumption, because the lessons you learn in sociology (and to the extent that it is relevant to feminism) are not comfortable or comforting. It requires a critical inner eye that questions, that looks within, that looks beyond, and asks the hard questions. And that requires the inner eye to be constantly active, and to be constantly active is to be constantly fatigued.

 

For me, feminism means asking the questions AND living with the uncomfortable answers. It requires knowing why women never ever question why cleaning is always their responsibility. It requires knowing and understanding why a woman police officer who is a terror in her workplace comes home to be beaten by her husband. It requires understanding the social mechanisms by which a successful woman in a male-dominated field has to play by the man’s rules and be called a ‘bitch’ for her efforts. It requires patience to understand why men feel alienated in a world that they benefit hugely by. As a feminist, this looking inward and outward is even more important because the most famous slogan associated with the feminist movement – the personal is political – is not an empty statement. I know and understand that our individual actions are important and essential – because they reinforce and reify the cultural and social tropes. So, if we are to be committed, we have to be committed in our personal lives as well.

 

As a feminist, it takes something out of me to watch and live in a world that treats women (and men) in the manner that we do, but I also know I cannot fight everything all the time. So, I draw boundaries, make realistic decisions, let go of some battles and choose my own personal battles to fight. This doesn’t mean I do not sympathise, empathise, and extend solidarity with other feminist causes. It just means that I create spaces of advocacy and action in my own life that I deem are most important to me, and trust that there are enough of us who will do the same. Of course, not every feminist make these compromises, and life can be hard for them. And I owe these feminists a great deal . . . because I know through them, life is made easier for me. They are fighting the battles that I am not. And that knowledge – that I am living in a world of my choosing because someone else is not – can feel both safe and uncomfortable. And when I start to feel very safe, and when I start to cruise through my life without discomfort  – that’s when I know  it’s time to take the good old lens out, clean them up and put them back on – to see the world anew, again.

 

Solidarity and the Harvard Controversy

One of my cherished experiences of graduate school was finding a whole community of feminists to engage with. I remember being very excited about my feminist theory class, and finding that not only do these women understand my language, they can enrich it in so many different ways. None of my co-students were in sociology – they were in English Lit, Philosophy, Education, Political Science , Geography, Psychology, and so many others. None of us shared any interdisciplinary lens, and yet, by grappling with the most difficult of texts, we were able to construct our own language to talk to each other. We learned much about the theories of solidarity and the hard-won practice of it that winter.

 

As I moved through the different courses, I soon realized that this was not really an isolated incident – that themes of solidarity and difference are prominent not just in our personal/political relationships with each other, but also in the theoretical debates about the fundamentals of feminism. How do we recognize difference? How do we form relationships of solidarity with other feminists who are fundamentally different from ourselves? What of one’s privilege and power? How do we speak and represent another? These are still very important questions we are dealing with, as evidenced by the recent Harvard debates that exploded on Kafila (here, and here).

 

A friend wanted to know why there was such vitriol against an obviously well-intentioned move to understand problems – to build solidarity. And I remember writing to her and a few others about a few things that seemed self-evident to me, that according to another friend, ought to be made more explicit. I am reproducing the letter, with a few modifications:

 

I think the major problem about the statement that was released by the Harvard, at least for me, stemmed from two different sources. I’ll try to be brief about both of them.

 

The first is the Northern white privilege, that goes unnoticed, unacknowledged and is largely invisible to the North and South audiences . The thing that pisses us ( those of us who think of ourselves as the Southern feminists) no end is not only the manner in which White Northern feminists take over, but the fact that they rarely acknowledge the historical privileges that their voices have. When they are brought to the table, they are automatically heard. Their voices are always considered more ‘evolved’, more articulated, and often more authoritative. And feminists have been crying themselves hoarse for eons about why this practice, this pattern has to be deconstructed, how this has to be dismantled, and how these processes have to be dealt with more sensitivity by feminists themselves. I think, given this long history of engaging with power even within our own circles, we feel frustrated when someone, especially if they are feminist , comes along and ignores all of this. It feels like a slap in the face of all that effort we have made to understand, deconstruct, and deal with our privileged positions.

 

The second is the importance of self-reflexivity in feminism. It is perhaps the cornerstone of most feminist philosophical thought. We are taught that our views are the product of where we stand, with respect to the intersection of various multiple identities. So, if I am a Hindu non-Brahmin Middle-class Woman, then I must acknowledge the various biases, privileges, blind spots and opinions that come with that position. So, we are trained to engage with these positions and statements tentatively. We are not ‘holders’ of truth, we are not ‘definers’ of fact . We are trying to view the world from our own warped positions, feminism is the lens we view this world from, and that is our perspective. Our conclusions, when we draw them, have to have this element of self-critical engagement, and more importantly, self-reflexivity. It has often descended into excessive navel gazing. But the reason we do this as a method, as a practice is because we are aware how invisible privileges hurt all of us – we have to be aware of our ‘subject positions’ to understand the ‘dimension’ of truth that we are examining. And that ridiculous paragraph in the Harvard blog had nothing of this nuanced idea of solidarity. It is so self-congratulatory in its tone about the linkages of different forms of violence. . as if they are the first to have ever come up with the idea. I think it can piss off anybody, as far as I can tell.

 

I think what happened was because these debates are so internal in the feminist community that it can often go unvoiced in the diatribe against the Harvard post. I think it is important to voice why we are pissed off, not just for us, but also for the students of the Harvard community. They need to understand that because they are at the table, they automatically, by the power bestowed upon them, exclude others on that table. They have to ensure that those voices are heard, and that that system of exclusion is highlighted.

 

So, I get the vitriol, I get the sarcasm, and I get the anger. It comes from an old wound, yes. . .but it also comes from the disappointment of having to suffer a new one, once again.

 

Feminism and Me – Introductory Note on the Series

A friend of mine, Vinay, told me the other day that I might be a fake Mallu or a fake Gult, but I am a true blue Feminist. For people who work and live with me, being a feminist is one of my primary identities. Most people have come to know, perhaps a little painfully, that I don’t let things go, especially when it comes to gender, sexism, patriarchy, harassment etc.  I can be the quintessential rabid feminist, and most of the time, I am proud of it. A lot of people have asked and will continue to ask of feminists: why are we so angry? My friend, Priyanka, said it best: Because we have reason to be.

 

An often-quoted fact about feminism that gets a lot of publicity, but very little understanding is that feminism as an ideology and practice is very diverse. We can have radical feminists, liberal feminists, ecofeminists, third-world feminists – we come in all shapes and sizes, and it is difficult to say that there is one feminism, and one type of feminist. People often state it, but rarely examine the implications of it. The most obvious consequence of this form of diversity is that if we take a bunch of feminists together, and put them in a room – we will hate abortion, we don’t mind abortion, we want to ban prostitution, we think prostitution should be made legal, we think porn is exploitative, we think porn can be made for women, we hate capital punishment, we want rapists to be hung . . . and it can go on and on. We are a lot of things, and we believe in a lot of things. And one of the most common things that we believe in is that we ought to have our own opinions on what feminism means to us. For us, one of the fundamental tenets of feminist thought is – we define it, we recreate it, we make meaning of it in our own lives. All of us who identify as feminist define, learn, re-learn, understand, disagree, grapple with the overarching principles, ideologies, and the grand narratives of feminism, and we use this engagement to examine the world around us.

 

So, this series – Feminism and me – is really about my personal and professional journey of what feminism means to me. It will be my attempt to articulate why I identify with feminism, not just as an ideology, but also as a lens, as a methodology, as a tool to understand social life, social problems, and the social world. In doing so, I want to be clear that I cannot speak for feminism, or feminists in general. I can only speak of my experiences with feminist thought, action, pedagogy, and methodology. So, this series will be primarily about my experiences as a feminist in social research.