The rise of India’s young woman

J Devika | Updated on January 16, 2020 Published on January 14, 2020

Hear, hear: Students at a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Kochi   -  pti

Her only identity is that she is the voice of dissent against violence and fascism

Many academics in Kerala are slipping into depression this New Year, but I am elated by the rise of young women, of different faiths, class and caste all over the country, against a Hindutva regime. For me, their valiant action is the ultimate affirmation for the life of struggle that I have led, as a feminist and as an intellectual.

Too often, those of us who preach and practise critical thinking in classrooms tend to lapse into conformity and silence in the public sphere and at home. This is so outside India’s academic metropolises: It is not easy to lead a life of intellectual and political honesty anyway, and outside spaces such as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) or University of Hyderabad, it is far more difficult, especially for women. The kind of democratisation of academic space that these academic metropolises have witnessed has not happened everywhere. Students remain in thrall of not just the administration but also of the faculty and their own movements and unions; teachers may give lessons on critical thinking and social theory that contests dominant liberal frameworks, but this does not translate into an easing of the power dynamics that separate students and teachers.

But it is not just the internal hierarchies of academic spaces that promote hypocritical behaviour; the history of teaching as a gainful activity for women here is important too. Women have been encouraged to take to teaching as a ‘feminine’ profession, which allows them to balance work and home. Teaching, even in university departments and at higher levels, remains such an occupation for the gender. Thus I was deeply saddened, but not surprised that at a protest organised by the Kerala University Teachers’ Association against the violence unleashed by masked miscreants at JNU, not a single woman teacher said anything openly to condemn the rampant attack in which women students and teachers were grievously wounded. Not even after multiple requests to address the gathering. These are people who contribute nothing to women’s common weal but would eagerly lap up the gain secured through the sweat and tears of others.

There is only one kind of women worse than the type mentioned above. Those are the supporters of Hindutva who revel in the violence wreaked by thugs and the police and blame the victims, especially the women. Interestingly, many in this group, some active on social media, are frenemies of feminism — wanting almost the same things as feminists, including education, healthcare, high-paying, respectable employment, protection against sexual harassment at workplace and against domestic violence, the freedom to think, engage in literary creation, write autobiographies, travel, live a single life, secure a living space of their own, which have all, in history, been won by advocates of women’s rights who pushed against the dead weight of ‘tradition’ and misogynistic conservatism. Yet, for the supporters of Hindutva-inflected Nazism, the idea of education is limited to the acquisition of marketable skills and the uncritical absorption of Hindutva understandings of culture and nationalism. Far from acknowledging their debt to feminism, they trash it — using terms originally created as insults to feminists. One such word is the controversial ‘feminichi’. Many have found this abusive because it alludes to the slur koothichi — which literally means a female performer, but is understood as ‘slut’. However, many feminists in Kerala have reclaimed it, proclaiming that it could well allude to ammachi, or mother, too.

Irrespective of whether ‘feminichi’ alludes to ammachi or koothichi, the female supporter of Hindutva violence is below either — for they both refer to social roles that nurture or pleasure; bigots bring nothing but destruction.

I am relieved and energised by the prospect that both these can be safely dumped in the waste-bins of history. My Woman of the Year is Surya Rajappan, the young lawyer who challenged Union home minister Amit Shah at New Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar area, during his first door-to-door campaign to spread awareness about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. I admire her not just because she is articulate and courageous. The protest that she and her flatmate engaged in was spontaneous. While they fought to overcome fear, they were confident of being on the right side of justice. Rajappan looks like a person capable of smashing all glass ceilings and could well aspire for corporate heights, but she chooses otherwise. She says she has little experience in making posters or shouting slogans; she probably is not protected by a political party. She also admits that she has the protection of socio-economic privilege. What is beautiful today is that many young women are ready to use it for this place we all love — India.


J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

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Published on January 14, 2020
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