Generational paradigms have come to dominate feminist research and writing in the Anglo-American context. The use and dominance of the ‘wave metaphor’ has been interpreted as setting up the history of feminism’s recent past in terms of an inter-generational family feud. Young women or ‘third wave’ feminists are often positioned in such a narrative as refusing to inherit the legacies of their feminist foremothers in carving out a feminism that is distinct from if not oppositional to ‘second wave feminism’.
It is fair to say that feminist history-writing is indeed periodized in some contexts. In India, for instance, the use of the wave metaphor is not unknown, with some noting a ‘generational gap, if not actual conflict’ among Indian feminists over the issue of whether or not to ally with the state. The generational shift in feminist movements in Bangladesh is strongly linked to the process of NGO-ization which began much earlier than in neighbouring countries. Elsewhere in the region, younger women are overwhelmingly seen as the subjects of a professionalized, NGO-ized feminism, as affirmed in the appellation of a temporary, careerist, “nine-to-five feminism’. Speaking of Sri Lanka, again in a generational mode, the manner in which feminists have shifted from refusing the ideologies of the state and militants to making requests or demands of the state, which are indistinguishable from projects of governance.
Responses such as these are not surprising given the non-funded, non-party, voluntary and autonomous mode in which feminists have traditionally mobilized and politically intervened in these countries. ‘Autonomous politics’ still provide a strong normative idea of what feminist politics ought to look like, against which contemporary manifestations are measured and invariably fall short.
In Bangladesh, for instance, young feminists grew up in a context wherein the development paradigm was already ubiquitous, informing ‘professionalized’ modes of engaging women’s rights as well as adopting more professionalized feminist subjectivities. While such professionalism is the cornerstone of critiques by ‘older feminists’, the pressures of time and money that make remuneration so essential for younger women, mean that such critiques are a critique of metropolitan feminism rooted in ideals of voluntarism (that are inherently gendered). That young, especially urban and middle-class women (as opposed to lower-middle-class women from small towns) are not joining established women’s groups in contemporary Bangladesh does not mean a lack of political will. Other campaigns and movements have been able to channel their support, especially through the political reinvention of cyberspace.
The subject of urban cyberfeminist praxis is not merely young but urban and middle-class, a decidedly unusual creature in the Indian feminist landscape.
Globalization and the different configurations that it made possible, such as the opening up of the media and Internet technologies, have created spaces for young women to politically intervene in ways that might not have been possible for previous generations. New feminist subjectivities are discernible upon such a terrain but not as easily reducible to a ‘co-opted’ neoliberal subject as is generally assumed.
In the South Asian context, a generational paradigm is also inflected with anxieties around class/caste, and an enforced divide between material and cultural concerns. Class politics have always been at the heart of feminist politics in the region, largely ascribable to the leftist heritage of women’s movements in the ‘Third World’. Women’s movements in India and Pakistan have tended to draw their leadership from the ranks of the urban and educated but have privileged the language and aspirations of a socialist feminism in taking as their subject poor rural women. As Mary John has noted of Indian feminism, this was one of the primary ways in which it could establish its legitimacy and Indianness against routine declarations of feminism as elite, Western and therefore irrelevant to the concerns and struggles of the majority.
Unlike middle-class feminists of a previous generation, young Indian women are articulating a feminist politics that is neither defensive about its borrowing from Western feminist repertoires or, indeed, about its middle-class and urban location. Mitra-Kahn points, however, to their reflexivity with respect to ‘multiple markers of privilege’, and activist efforts to transgress a caste/class-infused digital divide. Class-based anxieties continue to haunt urban expressions of young women’s activism, as was witnessed in the reactions to the SlutWalk marches that took place in the Indian metropolises of Delhi and Kolkata during 2011/12. Queer feminist politics in India is equally subject to dismissal on grounds of privilege, elitism and cultural inauthenticity, even as many lesbian support groups are consciously non-elite, even working-class and lower-caste.11
Not all these new forms of feminist mobilization are middle-class, as is often assumed. Debarati Sen tells us of poor Nepali women plantation workers, the backbone of Darjeeling’s economy, who are caught in between a subnationalist struggle pitted against the Indian state and labour activism for rights and protection from the state. The ‘multiple marginalities’ of these women, as well as their political action, belie easy taxonomies of ‘recognition’ and ‘redistribution’ given the imbrication of the material and the affective, the cultural and economic in everyday life.
Just as an ethnonationalist discourse uses images of women as good workers to fuel its political ambitions, women appropriate the politics of recognition for the ‘redistribution of power and resources within the plantation hierarchy’. A subnationalist movement that responds to some but not all of women’s needs (and silences others) is thereby reinvented in women’s activism, engendering in them new capacities.
Such feminist and sexual politics are also not straightforwardly ‘new’. While sex workers’ movements in India are a recent visible entrant on the feminist scene, they reiterate established modes of engaging issues of rights and making political demands via the law. The ‘young’ feminist subjectivities are products of multiple forces, just as the forms of activism they are involved in creatively reconfigure existing tropes and orientations of feminist struggles in the region.
The South Asian perspective also acts as a check on tendencies towards oversimplification and generalization. It complicates, for instance, the dominant tropes of women’s movements in the region as being always and only elite and upper-caste by unpacking the intersections of gender, caste and class in feminist mobilizations around nationalism, development, sexuality, religion and violence. The politicization if not racialization of religion in the diaspora that lead Dhaliwal and Patel to reassert feminism’s secular credentials undermines easy ideas of South Asia as ridden with religious crisis in opposition to a secular and stable West.
Specific political fields have informed particular processes of ‘NGO-ization’ with distinct, at times unintended, effects in ways that recent theorizations of neoliberal development that inevitably see it as a tool of domination might benefit from considering. In an instance of the many similarities uncovered in feminist activism in the region, the essays point to the productive and not merely repressive capacity of local development organizations as they draw on the multiple legacies and languages of women’s movements in different locales. The feminist past is itself rendered heterogeneous, mired in histories of colonialism, nationalism, nation-building and development, which make any proclamations of autonomy and authenticity difficult. Feminist assessments of loss and achievement in the present have equally to be cognizant of such a hybrid history that informs the manner in which feminist ideas have travelled and come to be varyingly institutionalized or marginalized.
In analysing the traffic of ideas and the production of subjectivities in South Asia, we see the inadequacy of existing conceptual tools and the need for a new lexicon.
Analytic distinctions between institutionalized and non-institutionalized and civil and political spaces are also not sufficient for the hybrid manifestations of feminist activism in the present. Works located elsewhere, such as in Europe and Latin America, have already made significant headway in bridging these analytic divides. They also reflect the two distinct bodies of scholarship that the essays as well as this introduction draw on and speak to – namely, political theory and development studies.
With respect to political theory, commentators argue against the problematic delineation of the idea of political ‘radicality’ within certain assumed spaces and subjects. Dean (2009) proposes a reinvigorating of the signifier ‘radical’ by associating it with a host of political practices not ordinarily viewed as such in being defined as moderate, conservative and/or co-opted. An emphasis on the performative and political force of radicality is also implicit in recent (feminist) ethnographies of developmental programmes. These map the production of unruly, politicized, even feminist subjects and not simply docile governmentalized ones in developmental spaces. Together, they suggest the inadequacy of theorizing political subjectivity and agency as occurring entirely outside the structures of power, be they formations of the state, capital or development. Harris (2004) notes how young women activists in the contemporary West seek new kinds of political engagement and affective communities even as these remain embedded within – and not outside or transgressive of – particular regimes of power.
Instead of seeking to recover or reclaim a truly transformatory feminist politics we might turn to the kind of future or idea of the future that these discursive and affective economies open up for post-colonial and transnational feminism today. What emerges, however, is not a utopian future but a very concrete space for feminist political engagement, embroiled in the messiness of the (neo)liberalizing imperatives of the state, rights discourses, religious and secular spaces, nationalisms and developmentalism, conflict and peace. It is our hope that the new empirical developments in feminist activism that they map and the new theoretical challenges that these pose will prompt a rethinking and re-evaluation of established understandings of feminist politics, its spaces and subjects, at a moment of transformation, if not of crisis, in contemporary South Asia.
This is an extract from New South Asian Feminisms edited by Srila Roy.