Day Fourteen |Gender-based violence: a glimpse of feminist dilemmas in the academy

Cat Wayland, Kamya Choudhary and Radhika Govinda

Feminist cartoon day 14

Artwork by Samia Singh and used with permission and produced as part of the Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives Project, a collaboration between Ambedkar University and the University of Edinburgh

The above image is a preview of a (web)comic focused on feminist struggles in the academy, that is currently under development. The (web)comic features 24 pages of beautiful original artwork by illustrators Samia Singh based in Punjab, India, and Shazleen Khan, in London, UK. It is based on roundtable conversations and panel discussions that took place at Ambedkar University Delhi, India in December 2017 and at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland in February 2018 as part of the ongoing Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives Project

Some of the most poignant ideas and issues that emerged during the roundtable conversations and panel discussions pertained to sexual violence and sexual harassment of women, and how these are managed in the institutional space of universities. Feminist academics and activists speaking at these fora observed how commonplace sexual harassment and violence were, to the point that they could say with considerable confidence that there wouldn’t be a single woman who hadn’t experienced some form of sexual harassment or violence!

They noted that there were no doubt differences in the form and intensity of harassment and/or violence experienced; that this was informed by the intersectionality of race, caste, class, sexual orientation and so on; and that this could occur at the university and other places of work, or on the streets, or in more intimate spaces. Participants shared their experiences of sexual harassment, and even rape. These were moments for pause and reflection, for expressions of solidarity and support. 

There were other moments when participants expressed frustration and dismay at the ‘loving (and oft knowing) ignorance’ displayed by their colleagues, friends and family members about the everyday nature of sexual harassment and violence – the kind of ignorance which they processed through humour and irony. For instance, one speaker observed that they had been advocating for many years for these issues to be taken seriously but it wasn’t until the #MeToo movement emerged that more people started to take notice:

‘For the first time people who didn’t really know about it before are suddenly like, “oh is that what happens to women? Do you really have to assess your risk about when is it that you go home?” People are now listening in a way that they haven’t before and we said “[but] we’ve been trying to tell you this for years!”

Our intention is to capture these and more difficult moments and ideas on the pages of our (web)comic.

In honour of the 16 Days of Activism Against GBV, we wanted to showcase a panel from our (web)comic, which seeks to depict some of the dilemmas, challenges and contradictions that feminist academics are themselves confronted with when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment and violence in university spaces. Specifically, it engages with the notion that universities’ institutional responses to violence and harassment can often replicate and perpetuate paternalistic and patriarchal norms around women’s ‘safety’, in spite of also being spaces in which women can access emancipatory feminist education.

All-women colleges are considered one important way in which women from diverse backgrounds can access higher education in India. Some of these institutions pioneer rights-based and feminist consciousness-building, yet we are then left with the paradox whereby measures designed to mitigate the risk of sexual violence, such as housing in all-women’s hostels, end up enforcing new restrictions or replicating old patriarchal social norms.

There is a clear tension between the impulse to create safe and empowering spaces for women and the consequences of this strategy, which require instructions to create ‘rules’ that mimic familial patterns of control such as strict curfews, dress codes, visitation limitations, policing interactions, and so on. These rules end up treating women as ‘precious birds’ that need to be kept under lock and key. The displacement of patriarchal authority from the ‘threat’ of men on the outside to the paternal hand of the higher educational institution places feminist academics working in these institutions in a uniquely challenging and frustrating situation.

In August 2015, students came out to protest the imposition of curfews and other sexist rules on college-going women at Delhi’s Jamia University. They were soon joined by students in other Universities in Delhi and elsewhere in India. They called themselves the Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage) campaign. In less than a year, it had successfully pressured the Delhi Commission for Women into challenging discriminatory practices against college-going women at Delhi’s 23 registered universities. Over the years, Pinjra Tod has continued to mobilise and act both online and offline. It has broadened the ambit of its demands from ‘breaking the hostel locks’ to claiming women’s right to freely and fearlessly occupy and even take risks in public spaces. 

Campaigns like Pinjra Tod and #MeToo demonstrate that it is not only important for feminists in the academy to address issues of sexual harassment and violence but how we choose to address these issues is equally significant. Through the pages of our (web)comic, our aim is to not only debunk the myths of who is a feminist academic or ‘why doing gender studies is not a waste of time’ but to also offer a peak into the everyday struggles, dilemmas and contradictions that feminists face when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment and violence and the spaces we are able to create for resistance and change in the academy. 

As a conceptual tool, the comic is rooted in core academic literature and scholarly debates, but exists in a more accessible format that will make it easier to understand and for academic and non-academic audiences alike to engage with the highlights from the project events. This is in sync with the feminist and decolonial ideas we are working with to create more democratic and decentralised forms of knowledge creation. Illustrations from both artists, Samia Singh and Shazleen Khan, will reflect their respective styles and the cover illustration will be a collaborative piece that the two shall develop together. 

Being part of the conception and creation of this unique artwork has made us reflect on our own respective privileges and marginality, and recognising the powerful opportunity we have at our hands to contribute in destabilising knowledge production on feminism and GBV has been a real joy! We hope we have been able to share a glimpse of that in this blogpost. The creation and development of the (web)comic is supported by a Student Experience Grant and genderED. We invite you to look up a web version of the full comic, which will be up in the new year on the Gender Politics at Edinburgh blog.

Cat Wayland (@cat_wayland) is a PhD student in political theory at the University of Edinburgh, working on methodology, intersectionality and the politics of knowledge production. 

Kamya Choudhary (@KamyaChoudhary) is a PhD researcher in International Development at the University of Edinburgh, her research focuses on the impacts and the sustainability of renewable energy applications within agriculture in rural India. 

Dr Radhika Govinda (@GovindaRadhika) 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.