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Who really owns the feminist spaces in mainland India?

Who really owns the feminist spaces in mainland India?

ruth chawngthu


Ruth Chawngthu

ruth chawngthuComing to Delhi for my undergraduation was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life; I had always felt like a big fish living in a small pond living in Mizoram – one of the least populated states in India. It was my ‘big city dream’, something that would finally catapult me into who I’m REALLY supposed to be. But entering college I experienced prejudices that I had never experienced before. I thought going to a womens’ college would be the most liberating experience ever but it felt like there was always an invisible line drawn between “them” and “us”. “Them” here referring to mainland upper caste brown Indians who could afford to go to Diggin everyday to grab lunch or smoke up, they were considered the cool kids. Not only that this social barrier would also extend into the classroom where some teachers would have biases towards those of us who looked “chinki”.

These marginalisations that I faced during my undergraduation and the sexism I faced, from being stalked to getting grabbed had completely changed my perspectives on life and my views on power dynamics by the time I was in third year. This was the same time I started getting tuned into feminist circles and discourses on and off campus. I started going to protests and meetings. What was really evident in these spaces was the lack of diversity in terms of whose voices gets amplified. I would hardly ever see participation from Northeast students and it’s not because we didn’t care, it was because these spaces were really exclusionary. I also started getting into DBA discourses online and started educating myself. I realised that a lot of the prejudices I faced had much to do with race, gender, caste, as well as class.

I thought for sure I was a communist but then I realised that the communists on campuses really did not understand the nuances of caste issues. I as a tribal student from the Northeast started having an identity crisis where I felt like I did not belong anywhere. Then came graduation and my first job. I worked at a publication called Feminism In India which at the time of my joining was run by all Savarna women. This publication on paper was my dream job but the truth about publications or spaces like these is that though they will try to be as “intersectional” as they want to make themselves seem as, when it comes to power dynamics, they simply do not reflect upon themselves and the hierarchy they are maintaining.

We often talked about DBA issues and a lot of the things that came out of their mouths would make me uncomfortable, one instance that I can’t forget was a moment in which the boss “J” said (referring to DBA, marginalised feminists) “..they never call each other out” among many others. This to me was so problematic but I felt so uncomfortable, I just stayed silent. I also had severe bulimia during this time due to which I would not eat anything at the office and whenever I did eat something they would make a huge deal out of it. They also used to call me a robot due to my lack of eating and possibly lack of emotions that I showed. I told them early on that I had mental illness and then once I had a very intense breakdown at the office. On this day, I went to the other room to give myself some space. I remember clearly on this day that someone was at the door and I couldn’t open because I was crying and “J” made this annoyed sigh and opened the door. This made me feel like a liability. I would also like to add that whenever I would have a breakdown or some kind of episode at the office, “J” would minimise my experience by saying “I have anxiety too”.

Finally on the day of the scrapping of Section 377, I had finally realised that I was unnecessarily overstressing myself with the job and my responsibilities at Nazariya LGBT. The job was just exacerbating my pre-existing mental illness so I finally decided to quit after a short period of 3 months. After quitting, I had realised that my colleague who joined at the same time for a similar job profile was paid 5000 more than I was. Upon confronting them, “A” and “J” dismissed my texts and emails. Throughout my time there I felt like a footsoldier to these Savarna feminists for whom I was holding the mic stand where they spread their “desi feminism”. For them, it’s not about passing the mic, it’s simply about tokenism. It’s about them giving us crumbs from their loaf of bread.

The reason I brought out this example is because this is similar to what is happening in the mainland feminist circles. Savarna women engulf the feminist movement starting from the campus space to feminist organisations and publications. We do not see representation in WDCs or Gender Sensitisation Cells and positions in colleges like DU. The torch bearing campus feminist movement – Pinjra Tod is also majorly Savarna and there’s a reason for this – these spaces were never designed for us. Yes, maybe they’ll take 3 or 4 of us to be their poster persons for “intersectionality” but they’ll just leave it at that. They will not make the extra effort to be more inclusive. Like the way my ex-boss used to minimise my mental illness by bringing up her own at the same moment, Savarna feminists diminish DBA and other marginalized feminist issues by making it seem as if their issue is the most important and needs utmost attention right now.

What is the language of their politics? Where do they go after the protests? Can we afford to be arrested? Do we have the privilege of calling our papas? Their refusal to introspect is causing divide within the movement and as long as they ignore voices from the margins and keep on trying to exploit patriarchy for the sake of exploiting patriarchy, there will be no progress in the Indian feminist movement.



Ruth is a Founder and Head of Operations at Nazariya: A Grassroots LGBT-Straight Alliance. She doesn’t wanna be your inspiration porn.