Feminist solidarity in neoliberal times
Another International Women's Day has come and gone. This year, my Facebook feed was jammed with passionate debates on the merits of the BBC documentary India's Daughter. I found the emerging fault-lines fascinating for their reprising of issues that have long haunted postcolonial feminisms in other places and contexts. Who can speak for (Indian/Bangladeshi/ "native"/Muslim) women? Does location or race matter in the making of a feminist intervention? How do we distinguish knee-jerk nativism and cultural nationalism from legitimate critiques of colonial and imperialist framings? Most significant for me: where do analyses of contemporary neoliberal capitalism fit in? I do not engage with the contents and storyline of the documentary but reflect on a set of concerns and anxieties generated by (the prospect of) its circulation.
Race and the Politics of Location
Predictably enough, Indian cultural nationalists are furious that a 'white' woman had the temerity to make a documentary on rape in their country. BJP functionaries, beholden to Hindu cultural nationalism, have derided the filmmaker for undermining India's reputation on the global stage and stymying tourism to boot. These nativist responses are easy to dismiss but they do not displace questions of location, voice, and privilege.
First, some obvious points. If feminists were to concede that no 'outsider' could ever capture the complexity of individual women's lives, then all women would be reduced to speaking for themselves. This is an absurd proposition. Not to mention that the outsider/insider dichotomy is deeply problematic. Or that being a woman doesn't automatically enable privileged insight into other woman's lived realities.
It's worth pointing out, however, that enduring structures of (neo)colonialism mediate the general relationship between Euro-American women and those in the global South. What prompts the desire to go elsewhere and 'help' women in other places? The belief that 'they' are more oppressed and need more help than women at 'home'? That may not have been this particular filmmaker's motive but it is common enough and carries traces of a missionary impulse. (I am reminded here of Zia Haider Rahman's novel In the Light of What We Know in which he captures with humor and insight the sense of entitlement of a certain class of cosmopolitan global citizens who show up in unfamiliar places and feel equipped to 'fix' development problems). In this instance, 'white privilege,' was certainly at work, as evidenced by the filmmaker's extraordinary access to under trial prisoners and prison officials.
I want to make clear that my argument is not about individuals and their personal biases: my point is to draw attention to the highly unequal structures of privilege and entitlement that cut across race and reinforce certain kinds of hierarchy. Indeed, the politics of location exceeds geography and color of skin. It is intimately linked to our ideologies. Our political locations shape our ways of seeing – an Orientalist reading of poor Indian/Bangladeshi/'native'/Muslim men as essentially uncivilised and in need of corrective instruction from above – is hardly exclusive to a certain category of Euro-Americans. Much of the urban middle class/upper castes in South Asia subscribe to differing versions of an Orientalist script, one that is often reproduced in mainstream development policies. An Us versus Them geographic binary merely allows us to ignore our own complicity in global structures of power.
Entangled Contexts and the Dangers of Erasure
Questions of power – geopolitical, national, historical, structural and symbolic -- keep falling through the cracks inmost debates on censorship. We forget that the lines between "hate speech" and "free speech" are profoundly political and always unstable. Politics, not ethics, drives decisions to ban or protect speech. Demands for censorship invariably feed into such politics so that whether or not the documentary should be banned is the wrong question to ask. Surely the more urgent task is to uncover the interests and stakes in demanding or resisting censorship, and the political maneuverings that privilege one set of "truths" over another.
The controversy over India's Daughter (a curiously paternalistic title for an avowedly feminist intervention) is a reminder that when presented in a decontextualised, stand alone manner, analyses of sexual violence hide as much as they reveal. In an important essay, Priyamvada Gopal observes that such violence is
intimately connected to other systems of privilege, exploitation and inequality, including, in the Indian context, caste oppression, religious chauvinism, resource appropriation (including that of mineral-rich land from indigenous tribal communities by multinational corporations) and the vicious economic inequalities fostered by an unfettered capitalist prosperity that has yet to bring basic shelter and nourishment to millions (The Guardian, my emphasis).
Given the hegemony of neoliberal development paradigms in shaping the 'women's question,' this may be the right moment to rethink what constitutes the problem of gendered violence in Bangladesh. Intersectional analyses that take on board inequality and dispossession do not find a place in mainstream analyses of gendered and sexualised violence. How are resource appropriation (think Eco parks, open-pit coalmining, extractive shrimp farming, and land-grabbing in the CHT) as well as rising economic inequality (with its attendant "class rage") connected to the forms of sexual/gendered violence that occur routinely in urban and rural areas? Why do we not raise these issues as feminist questions? Why is class constantly displaced as a diagnostic of power? This is done most frequently through reified notions of patriarchal cultural norms, as though culture were static and entirely separate from political economy.
It is easy to speak of a generic and generalised phenomenon of violence against women, and so to be 'in solidarity' with women from other communities, classes and castes. But women's bodies are not interchangeable, even when inscribed with similar sexual violence, for the modes and reasons of inscription are context specific.
Even as I write these words, another reminder of the extraordinary complexity and layered meanings of sexual violence appears on my screen. The horrific lynching of a rape suspect by a mixed 'mob' of men and women in Northeast India was produced by coming together of acute xenophobia, state inaction, vigilante justice, and Islamophobia. A gendered ideology of protection nests at the heart of this production of violence as spectacle.
The writer is a Professor of Anthropology at Brac University. She is currently writing a book entitled Elusive Solidarities: Gender, Islam and Transnational Feminism at Work.