Positionality

Sociology. The occupation or adoption of a particular position in relation to others, usually with reference to issues of culture, ethnicity, or gender.

I have been unable to write this story for nearly two years now. I wanted to write it in late 2014 when I was served coffee in a leafy Melbourne suburb by a young woman with ‘Nirbhaya’ tattooed on her arm. When I asked about it she said, ‘I’ve been to India. It means fearless’. I was confused. How does one go to India and come back with the name given to a young woman who was raped and murdered tattooed on one’s arm? The waiter was in Delhi in December 2012 when all of this happened, she told me, and she had been involved with artists who had produced work against domestic violence, ‘which is really bad in India’. I wanted to write about my discomfort with how ‘Nirbhaya’ has travelled. The name has been given to a women’s safety app and a play that premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And as Nirbhaya has travelled she seems to have become both a symbol for a problem understood to be ‘Indian’ and a resource for Western righteousness.

I wanted to write this story again in March 2015. I’ll do it for International Women’s Day I thought. I was in Delhi conducting research for a postdoctoral project that explores the work that young people are doing to promote gender equality in the city. A headline in The Guardian caught my eye: ‘I made a film on rape in India. Men’s brutal attitudes truly shocked me’. The film in question was Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter and it told the story of the gang rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ and the protests that followed. It was about to be launched alongside a global campaign of the same name that would tackle gender inequality and violence against women. The Indian government declared that the film could not be shown in India because it included an interview with the rapist that was too offensive. Indian feminists objected to the film for different reasons. They questioned the protectionist approach implied by the use of the word daughter in the title. We are fighting for freedom they asserted, not protection. And they pointed to the language of civilization used by the filmmaker and her celebrity backers. Meryl Streep said that the film ‘forces a look at the mindset that must be made to know it has no place in the civilized world’. It was not helpful, Indian feminists said, for people in other countries to imagine Indian women and girls to be in need of saving from violence understood to be a product of Indian ‘culture’ or ‘backwardness’. But my friends outside of India did not get this side of the story. They heard that the film had been banned and they celebrated it as an important contribution to the discussion of violence against women.

I wanted to write this story in December 2015. I’ll do it for the third anniversary of the Nirbhaya incident I thought. I wanted to write this story every time I read an article in the international news about violence against women in India. Invariably these articles include reference to Nirbhaya as if to say ‘See. India has a problem’. Arguably this is a feminist win — linking violence against women to a culture of patriarchy rather than explaining it away as the actions of individual social deviants. But it troubles me that such cultural explanations for violence against women seem to be much more readily applied outside of the West. I wanted to write this story every time friends and family expressed concern for my safety when I had another trip to India coming up.

I want to write this story now. I’ll do it for the fourth anniversary of the Nirbhaya incident I’m thinking. I’ve almost finished my postdoctoral research. It is time to say something about what I have found. But once again I cannot. How do I know that when Nirbhaya travels with me she travels well? I tell myself that I don’t study violence against women; I study the work that young people are doing to prevent it. I am here to learn; not to help. But I still don’t know what story I want to tell.

When people ask me what I have found, I tell them that it is a story of diversity. I tell them that the protests of December 2012 and January 2013 were not a women’s movement as such. Women’s organizations were involved, but the overwhelming numbers of people on the streets happened independently of women’s organizations’ initiatives. I tell them that the diversity of the protestors in Delhi — from those calling for harsher penalties for sexual violence to those demanding ‘fearless freedom’ for women and girls — has continued in ongoing efforts to promote gender equality.

I tell them about the NGO set up by two young engineering graduates that aims to promote ‘gender peace’. They don’t identify as feminists, don’t use words like patriarchy and feminism when they provide gender sensitization training to young people, and believe that they are providing the only gender training that does not alienate men. They aim to encourage personal transformation rather than structural change. In the writing of several prominent feminist academics in India, the 1970s and ’80s are looked back upon as a golden age for the women’s movement. There is a sense that feminism has lost its radicalism and become depoliticized as it has become institutionalized in the academy and, particularly, in NGOs. This is also a global story. Social scientists have written at length about how we live today in a post-political and post-feminist age. Much support for such narratives can be found in the work of this NGO.

But when people ask me what I have found, I tell them also about a movement that has been fighting against the sexist rules and fees prevalent in accommodation for women students across Delhi. They petitioned the Delhi Commission for Women demanding that it do more to reduce hostels’ restrictions on the mobility of young women and the moral policing of women students in education institutions. They demanded more and affordable women’s hostels and more and better-functioning Sexual Harassment Complaints Committee Cells in universities and colleges. They wrote in their petition about patriarchal norms and Brahminical notions of the ‘good’ and ‘obedient’ woman. They marched the streets to reclaim public spaces for women and they tell me that everything is political. This not about peace and personal transformation; it is about fighting for institutional and social change.

When I talk to Indian feminists about the events of December 2012 they tell me they still don’t know how to tell that story. They tell me that ‘Nirbhaya’ started a bigger and broader conversation about gender inequality in India, but they are not yet sure whether a bigger conversation is necessarily a better one. They also remind me that there has never been a single Indian women’s movement, that diversity of feminisms and politics is not a uniquely post-Nirbhaya phenomenon. They encourage me not to frame this as a specifically post-Nirbhaya moment. I too don’t know how to tell this story. It is not an easy story of lost radicalism through generational change, of good feminisms and bad feminisms. Perhaps one day I will figure out how to tell this story without Nirbhaya.