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.

 

 

 

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.