Gender and sexual rights have greater legitimacy than ever before. Feminism no longer occupies a marginal position in popular discourse or common sense. And yet the contradictions of the feminist project have also never been more apparent. Many describe the current conjuncture as one in which gender and sexual rights have become co-opted by conservative or downright non-progressive ends and service these as opposed to liberatory or transformative ones.
In the specific case of India, the 1990s was a key moment in which global debates around co-option were heard and felt. This period marked India’s entry into globalisation through the opening of an otherwise protected national economy and the adoption of neoliberal reforms. Economic liberalisation not only had far-reaching political and social effects – by advancing privatisation and creating new patterns of wealth and inequality – but it also reconfigured the terrain of social movements and of social development.
Feminists were directly implicated in the expansion of state logic and governance, on the one hand, and in the proliferation of global development and humanitarian agendas, on the other. Feminist-inspired state institutions and reformed laws emerged just as new organisational forms—NGOs—came into play. Whereas in the 1970s, the Indian women’s movement was associated with non-funded and non-party “autonomous” feminist formations—which, though small, gave to it public visibility and a legacy—it came to be dominated (or “co-opted”) by more professionalised and externally funded organisations from the 1990s.
But the implications of India’s liberalisation were paradoxical—it not only signalled the co-option and depoliticisation of feminist struggles but also amplified their visibility and vitalisation in unexpected ways. The 1990s coincided with the global fight against HIV/AIDS, catalysing movement organising around sexuality, whether on behalf of sex workers or an LGBT community advocating for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The eventual repeal of India’s anti-sodomy law, in 2018, can be traced to this moment. Even as lesbians were less visible than gay men and sex workers when it came to HIV/AIDs, the 1990s enabled emergent forms of lesbian activism to finally come into their own. So, when it came to the politics of sexuality, the implications of processes like “NGOisation”, transnationalism and neoliberalisation were more ambiguous than co-option fears allowed.
My latest book Changing the Subject: Feminist and Queer Politics in Neoliberal India delves into arguments around co-option to offer a different way to think of feminism’s entanglement in power, especially in a conjuncture shaped by global neoliberalism. First, unlike arguments around co-option that tend to divide feminist struggles into being free and being co-opted, feminism, I suggest, is always already co-opted, and never outside of power. The book theorises feminism as governmentality, as opposed to being informed by (neoliberal) acts and techniques of government. Second, feminism constitutes the conditions for the making of selves. It acts as a technology of the self (the flip side of governmentality or the government of the other). My book shows how feminism affords the tools to craft a new kind of self and way of life and suggests that it is perhaps to the scale of the self that we ought to turn in order to sense its radical potential.
Finally, the specificities of feminist organising and self-making in the Global South are not reducible to global neoliberal logics alone. Here I push against overestimations of the impact of neoliberalism by tracing shifts in the logics and techniques of governing gendered, racialised and sexualised subjects in the Global South, as well as the complex lineages of feminist thought and practice in the specific context of postcolonial India. These together constitute a history of contemporary queer and non-queer Indian feminisms.
My ethnographic site of West Bengal lends itself easily to a study of mixed genealogies, from the local Left to participatory development practice to sexual rights discourses. The book draws on a decade-long ethnography of two organisations located here—a sexual rights (primarily urban) organisation and a rural microfinance institution that advocates for women’s rights and empowerment. Their interventions sought to transform the self through specific forms of labour performed by the self and were emblematic of millennial development, on the one hand, and neoliberal feminism, on the other.
The first two chapters of the book make a case for turning from co-option to entanglement. Entanglement offers a way of grappling head-on with the contradictions and tensions of the moment while reminding us that feminism’s proximity to power is not newly experienced in the Global South. So, rather than neoliberal co-option, I argue that feminism in India has always been entangled in power relations, both historic and ongoing.
The chapters that follow present the ethnography which constitutes the core of the book. I start with the organisation, Sappho For Equality (SFE), which began as a support group for lesbian women in the late 1990s. Since then, it has seen a rapid rise, becoming an established NGO on sexual and more recently, transgender rights. The evolution of this organisation marks many wider developments, such as the turn from actual spaces of support to virtual ones; new modalities of intervention (reliant on new logics of funding); and the expansion of sexual rights organising in the city. The conditions that institutionalised and expanded activism—globalisation, new digital technologies and the urban neoliberal economy—created new regimes of normalisation and regulation, and ones in which older forms of hierarchies and exclusion endured.
As a foil to this story of queer activism as queer governmentality, I present, in Chapter 3, queerness as a way of making life and the self in Kolkata. A moment of unprecedented queer activism and visibility produced new possibilities for queer people in the city. Younger members of SFE—both cisgender and transgender—were some of the first to live openly, out of the closet. Who chose to come out of the closet and under what conditions revealed sharply intersectional questions. In the case of one SFE activist, for instance, it was easier to come out as gay than as dalit. Stories of the closet show how queerness might reinforce class and caste privilege, even as it disrupts gender and sexual hierarchies.
From queer governmentality, the book turns to feminist governmentality, informed by multiple genealogies, including: regional feminisms, the developmentalist state, the local Left, and global efforts to render neoliberal development commensurate with women’s rights. In the case of the organisation I call Janam, neoliberal assumptions around women’s financial empowerment (through microfinance) were incommensurate with feminist aspirations to uphold women’s rights. The objects of their development interventions—poor rural lower caste women—brought these incommensurable agendas to a head; they constituted the limits of feminist governmentality and even propelled it to failure.
Janam exemplifies another trend in international development which is to use community women as the agent and not merely beneficiary of development. Rural women were recruited from the community to conscientise other women on rights and empowerment. It is fair to say that it was these women, who were considered volunteers and not employees of the organisation, who also stood most empowered, in contrast to the wider community of women. “Empowerment” translated into a previously unavailable individualism and new forms of intersubjectivity, conjugality, consumption, care, joy and even fun. Their narratives enabled a central claim of this book: that development and activist spaces proved far more productive for individuals to work on, care for, and transform themselves than to empower others.
In the book’s Conclusion, I reflect on the purpose of feminist critique and offer a different orientation. I offer a more expansive role for the critic, as one who practices critique as a form of letting go, to care for the self and the world. Indeed, India offers many moments to let go and to begin anew, when it comes to radical social transformation, and I briefly turn to some recent protests against the authoritarian politics of the Modi government. These are merely some of the diverse, incomplete, and fundamentally contradictory ways in which feminist subjects are made and are making themselves in times of upheaval and crisis. This is also where the work of feminist academics and activists might begin: in assumptions of impurity, messiness, and entanglement rather than in purity, cleanliness, and freedom.
For feminists in India and elsewhere, this might mean staying with the uncertainty and ambivalence of projects of self- and world-making, rather than accepting the closure of co-option as a way of maintaining our own attachments to proper feminist subjects and desirable feminist futures.
The set image is from Sappho for Equality