Written by Radhika Govinda
This blog post is about the agentic and sexually confident ‘bad girls’ of post-liberalisation India, ushered in with the ‘new economies of desire’: the cell-phone revolution, the Internet, and the consumer revolution, of which the nightclubs, pubs and multiplexes are emblematic (Nigam and Menon 2007). The girls are defying normative gender beliefs everywhere – online and offline, on campus, off-campus, on buses, in trains. Through activist campaigns, they claim the answer to the public safety dilemma is not to cage women but to enable them to freely and fearlessly access and occupy public spaces. In a blog-a-thon to mark 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, these ‘bad girls’ and their activist campaigns deserve a place of prominence. They compel us to ask whether we are seeing a renewal of feminist politics in India, at a time when much of the scholarship on Indian feminism is still lamenting the ‘ageing’ and fragmentation of the women’s movement (Menon 2004; Roy 2011) and sections of the international media are portraying Indian women in disturbingly neo-colonial and non-agentic ways (e.g. Purves 2012).
To address this question, I take a closer look at key protests and campaigns in 21st century India, the most prominent of which were the anti-rape protests triggered by the brutal gang-rape of a young woman in a moving bus in December 2012 in Delhi. Whilst mainstream feminist women’s groups were an important presence at the protests, neither the protests nor the protestors’ demands were led by an organised action on their part. Instead, social media enabled vast numbers of ordinary people to conduct these protests as a decentralised, leaderless movement, so much so that they were hailed as India’s Arab Spring and as marking the rise of ‘public feminism’ (Kurian 2017).
Whilst these protests were the first time there was such a massive outpouring of people online and in the streets against sexual violence, online spaces were used for non-mainstream activism on this issue, years prior. The Pink Chaddi campaign, for instance, was launched online in protest against Hindu nationalist outfit Sri Ram Sene’s attack on women at a pub in Mangalore in January 2009. The women were accused of desecrating ‘Indian culture’ by wearing Western clothes and consuming alcohol (Susan 2009). Subsequently, the Sene pledged to disrupt Valentine’s Day celebrations. The Pink Chaddi campaign enlisted 50,000 online members in a matter of days and coordinated a national collection of 2500 chaddis (underwear) which were delivered to the Sene headquarters on Valentine’s Day! This campaign was defiantly sexualised and in sharp contrast to the mainstream women’s movement, which had carefully avoided ‘expressions of sexuality as affirmative and pleasurable’, and had advocated on sexual violence primarily by seeking legislative and legal recourse to ‘protect’ women (Gupta 2016, Kapur 2015).
Campaigns since the 2012 anti-rape protests too deserve discussion. In particular, Pinjra Tod, which emerged in 2015 with hostel women protesting sexist curfews, was similar in mode of resistance and discursive register to earlier campaigns like Pink Chaddi whilst also being iterative in that it tried to address the criticisms made about the earlier campaigns’ and mainstream women’s movement’s own lack of inclusivity. Pinjra Tod has, over the years, challenged the authority of not only women’s hostels but also parents, caste-based village courts and Hindu nationalist outfits.
In today’s context, no discussion on Indian feminism is complete without addressing the List posted on Facebook by Raya Sarkar on 24 October 2017. Coming in the wake of the #MeToo movement globally, the List went viral. Within hours of it being published, 14 Delhi-based feminists issued a Statement, asking for it to be withdrawn and urging the List makers to avail of due process instead of ‘naming and shaming’ the accused. Let me be clear: my aim is not to take sides here but to argue that even though the List was not as carefully planned and executed as the other campaigns, it was similar in its DIY grammar – in not wanting to wait for the state and the mainstream women’s movement to take action. Through its use of the Internet and social media, the campaign exposed to the public eye the problem of sexual harassment. In doing so, it also exposed longstanding fissures within Indian feminism along generational, caste and class lines.
Taken together, with their call for freely and fearlessly performing their sexuality and accessing and occupying public spaces, the younger generation of feminists or the so-called ‘bad girls’ of post-liberalisation India and their campaigns have introduced new modes, sites and content of Indian feminism. Whilst none of these can be naively and uncritically celebrated, they must not be summarily dismissed as ‘coopted’ by neoliberalism (Roy 2015). It is time to acknowledge what they have to offer – a renewal of feminist politics, however messy, impure and incomplete it might be.
Dr. Radhika Govinda is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, UK. She has a keen interest in identity politics, intersectionality, and gender and development, and is the UK Lead on an ongoing North-South, UGC-UKIERI-funded research and teaching collaboration, Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives: Questions of Identity, Pedagogy, and Violence in India and the UK.