by: Ishita Chaudry
Oppression1 is a framework that you are almost compelled to master and engage with, if you are a young woman who enters this complex feminist world of social justice and development. In the context of advocacy and activism, I should put out at the start that I stepped (rather blindly and increasingly fumblingly) into this work from a history of both privilege (I come from the ‘well educated’, patriarchal, ‘empowered’ and socially mobile upper middle-class colonies of South Delhi). The other is of ignorance (my training comprises of a part BA honours nearly-missed graduate degree and that of being a partially-trained musician. I am mostly lost between the piano and mezzo-soprano scales in Opera, Broadway and Jazz and am trained in Hindustani Classical music). Ignorance because growing up, I understood oppression as a structural problem, the consequences of which were suffered by ‘other women’. These women were Dalit, Muslim, living with HIV, poor, disempowered, disenfranchised, – their identities were multiple, their realities incomprehensible, with our worlds far apart. It was hard to relate to a reality you had never lived and I was limited in my willingness to challenge any labels, boundaries or for that matter, comfort zones.
A few years later, I began working in what I was to later learn was the women’s movement, out of the self-righteous thought process that being born into the 10% bracket of ‘access’ in the ‘have’s’, I needed to give back. Despite my current use of language as well as the thinly veiled sarcasm that seems to run through my thoughts, I’m really not aiming at critiquing who I was when I began working together, 10 years ago, or being contemptuous about it. I’m aware that beginning where I did, is possibly neither a point of choosing or opportunity and doesn’t necessarily need to be seen through that lens. The analysis gives me the hindsight to be grateful instead, that warts and all, the multiple fissures that exist within each discourse, of identity, have allowed me to rest, pause and often hide and deal with my increasing discomfort to try and find ‘home’ in this world within worlds, of activism. Also known as citizenship, social change, social justice, these encompass amongst other things, leadership strategies and tools that are both lived experiences and ideologies that we use to challenge hierarchies of power, injustice, access, and oppression. These are challenged to ensure the rights of those who have been excluded, repressed, forgotten, unseen, marginalized, ostracized and wronged.
The volumes of history behind why violations happen, as well as the levels of analysis that one needs to grapple with to build one’s capacities to address, analyze and engage with these issues is difficult, exhilarating, frustrating, wildly helpful and above all, a learning and strategic work-in-progress.
Somewhere, I can see myself through the past ten years, stepping in and out of various leadership styles in my own organization. (Presumably a dominant space where I have power from both the positioning and responsibilities of being ‘Founder and CEO’.) My style of leadership is heavily influenced by my own insecurities as an individual, and learning from negotiating the waters of a much wider set of women’s and young people’s movements. I believe that in varying degrees and spaces and places in my life, I have experienced a few of the frameworks of power, oppression and marginalization in different ways, where I have been both the oppressed as well as the oppressor. It has made me very conscious, in a soul-searching, squirmy, uncomfortable way of my roles in perpetuating and positioning power and privilege. I have also learnt to make the mistake of never generalizing that violence and oppression are just the concerns of tables that directly deal with issues of economics and poverty but are in-built facets of each of the parts in our lives.
My need to be authoritarian, democratic, humble, pompous, difficult, kind, reflective, easygoing, work 20 out of 24 hours in a day or refuse to do anything at all is a direct reflection of how easy and mostly challenging it has been to claim the feminist women’s movement as my own. I’ve seen that one of the ways in which we evaluate our commitment and value to this work is by giving and sacrificing parts of ourselves and our lives to seeing myriad versions of conceptual social justice frameworks realize and translate into ‘real world change’. This translation has an outcome, and these become tools that help women in multiple diverse contexts, challenge systemic injustices in our lives and hopefully, in improving the realities of accessing rights within those very same oppressive systems. The basis of what I understand feminist and women’s movements come from – are in many tapestries of histories and cannot be captured in any one singular thread or weave. Speaking personally, hearing histories of how the labour movement as well as economic and political spaces in India have historically traditionally excluded and oppressed women, building social constructs that make it acceptable to do so, is what affects me deeply. Each time when I hear these incredibly powerful stories of realities that women have lived, struggled with and fought against, there is a deep sense of kinship, a solidarity I can feel that binds itself with the basic tenants of why women’s rights must and should be seen as human rights and why it is so critical for women to take back their power.
Young women today, who find themselves joining and in many cases reinventing and challenging existing norms within feminist spaces, also feel a broader sense of solidarity with how identities are multiple. Feminism is increasingly, for many of us, at times also an oppressive system of how power operates between women who have it, and those who don’t. Not because feminist principles don’t make sense to me, but because to be a feminist in India, is to negotiate the many hierarchies of the women’s movement. It is a Goliath I cannot seem to work around, and it is a complex one for me to process. Complex because it isn’t about the multiple transactions of power between different kinds of women, but because it begs to question fundamentally my own concepts of how I choose to live and exercise and hold my power. Oppression is often a crafty bedfellow. It is increasingly challenging to find the freedom of choice, to not just choose what you want but to also interpret your own context personally, without being judged for it. As well as to ensure that repeating and recycling oppressive styles of leadership and patriarchy is not what I am perpetuating. An analysis of why these moments happen, quietly, subconsciously or with complete clarity, is very often related to how the psychology of oppression seems to work outside feminist and women’s movement spaces. How strange, that within our own comfort spaces, we should internalize the same system and its tools that we claim to fight for our freedom from.
Yet it is hard to criticize anyone, including the strangely coined terminology, a ‘diva2’ for her apparent inability to give me equal decision-making space at a policy table, or in an office meeting. Juxtaposed with situations where I myself am taking decisions on ‘whose time is right’ to attend a national or regional meeting and training. It would be so convenient if the problem of challenging oppression were something that was external, simply outside my own places of dominant positioning, but it isn’t. The practice of holding power, realizing that I am stepping down from it, and then running to claim it again is increasingly when I have backed myself into a corner of insecurity; is becoming the roller coaster that defines the highs and lows of a certain kind of feminist leadership that I find myself falling into.
Where did I begin? 10 years ago, in a small garage with loving orange paint, a motley group of fifty plus young people who would crowd source through my mother’s dining table and father’s kitchen. We began walking each other through the various micro and macro issues that confused us, fired us up and made us want to know more about. Whilst we haven’t lost much (insert: gratefully!) of that old world charm, as we never should because that’s our DNA, USP of frankly, what makes the madness of this work bearable, we have become more aware. Of what’s around us, who isn’t at the table in our work and our contexts have therefore, begun changing. In this changing, this politicization, this speaking out – you can almost see a mirror of how systems of oppression have been internalized, and externalized in an extremely uncomfortable set of personal realizations. The first is that the claiming the identity of any kind of activism and working in solidarity with any movement should not make you feel like you have been co-opted. Working in the feminist women’s movement at some points, has made me feel like I have let myself be co-opted into submitting to a set of rigid interpretations of a label, and feeling the pressure that I need to prove myself worthy of that claim and that seat. I have learnt to create and recreate these values unfortunately, and am regularly reminding myself to unlearn these as strategies of working with young people and strengthening youth movements.
A simple example for me, is how when we begin breaking down the doors that contain young people who are working largely with each other, to include and forge new relationships by working broader adult movements. You realize that part of what a young person learns in this process, is not just the opportunity of meeting ‘the real world of their work’, a term I find both difficult and deeply problematic, but that in these introductions, many of us inherit and internalize a set of behaviours, words, ideas and actions of ‘how things should be done’ that are more prescriptive than political. You understand that there is an order that already exists and somewhere, learn what to say where, how to say it, what not to say and when. Every movement has its own language, this one has multiple – fractured yet solid, contentious yet universal and it is challenging not losing yourself in it, both the originality, innovativeness and diversity of your context. The second, refers to the elephant in the room in most conversations, that of identity politics. Challenging violence against women, often becomes more of a challenge of fighting either for violence against women or gender-based violence and the polarity of choice begins to erase your own identity. Why should I choose sides and how does that make any sense to or benefit anyone? How do you balance, for example the histories of what women have built with getting governments to recognize that anything short of empowering a woman herself in her own society to stand up to violence will never be passable as a way to address violence against women. Juxtaposed with the fact that partnerships for many young people to address and challenge structural violence today, is not based any longer on whether they self-identify as women. Suddenly, the deeply political waters of choosing between the terms ‘violence against women’ or ‘gender-based violence’ feels less like speaking out against violence and more like a tightrope. How do you remove the conceptual fence and increase broader participation at the table from working within the women’s movement instead of having to hop in and outside of it? I understand that these issues are not simplistic, part of what I find myself trying to challenge, is how to work through them.
Do I claim the freedom I want to express myself instead of just waiting for others to give it to me? That’s not even the stage or question I’m at, it is more a chance to step out of yourself for once, to look back at where you are standing, the identity shoes you have picked up, what they mean to you and whether they help you fight for what you believe in and make you feel like you can truly, with the realistic shackles of experience, age and power, you can express yourself. Sharing power, and the ability to be empowered enough to share that power, consistently, is a goal I’d like to be able to achieve at some point. I really only learned to meet the women’s movement in my own country in non-traditional spaces that exist outside of it. From building my own capacities to sharing our stories, our analysis and finally meeting women at the UN, international conferences and regional partner meetings – the truth is that the majority of the ‘movement’ I meet is always outside of my own country as well.
And that is something that makes me think. Because this is not how I met or continue to meet the diversities of young people in the work that we do, those have been organic relationships, inspiring explorations and difficult negotiations at local, state or country level. In both cases, I am often equally unprepared, unaware, nervous and truly believe that the only way you can build legitimacy and acceptance in these different movements is by just focusing on doing the work that got you in this field in the first place. Focus in doing it ethically, doing it well, forgetting about legitimacy and letting time and fate handle it the way they see fit. To keep your eye on this, and not get lost, in the who-says-what-and-when, is sometimes really tough. It stops me from sharing power, many times, rooted in the deep need to self approval that conflicts yet again with the desire to truly independently empower the teams I work with.
Who is the ‘our’ and the ‘most young women’ and the ‘we’ that I am referring to? Certainly not a homogeneous constituency of young anything, just the broader solidarity I have with younger feminists and women who I see go through similar struggles. The toughest battle is always waged within; barely noticeable on the surface of the best of days between the humdrum breakneck speed of my things-to-do list, driven by my very real desire to retain my heart and soul in giving myself the freedom to discover whom I am and what my feminism continues to evolve into. Framed by my basic instinct in not wanting to give away parts of myself to the sacrifice of movement politics, because that is not how I want to be political and the genuine belief, that there has to be a better way of finding my feet in these waters, and if not, then perhaps I’ll just swim on and do my own thing anyway.
August 2012, New Delhi
*Ishita Chaudhry is an Ashoka Fellow, Founder and CEO of The YP Foundation in India and a founding member of RESURJ.
1 “Within the women’s movement there have been divergent understandings of patriarchal oppression and its outcomes and, therefore, also varied strategies to combat it.” Chapter Four, Mapping the Women’s Movement in India, Source: http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/2722/13/13_chapter%204.pdf
2 A well known, loving nomenclature within the women’s movement for powerful women’s rights activists and advocates whose voices and words hold considerable decision-making capabilities and influence. Specific to regions, countries and contexts, these are women whose years of experience and expertise give them high authority across their subject and movement contexts.