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Interview: Chayanika Shah

Picture of Chayanika Shah

Chayanika Shah is a feminist and queer rights activist, who has been involved with the women’s movements in India for many years. She is an optimist activist at heart, a physicist by training and a teacher by choice. She has campaigned, researched, taught and written on politics of population control, communalism, feminist studies of science, and sexuality. She has been an active member of two autonomous voluntary collectives in Mumbai – Forum Against Oppression of Women and LABIA – A Queer Feminist LBT Collective. Her co-authored books include, ‘No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy’, ‘Bharat Ki Chaap’ (a companion book for the documentary of the same name), and ‘We and Our Fertility: The Politics of Technological Intervention’. In the course of this interview with Shikha Aleya, Chayanika points out, “While decisions around gender and sexuality are very private and apparently made by each person for themselves, the material connections of community and family make this choice very contextual, and contingent on the whole social structure. So a personal choice is never an individual matter and when and if these choices are made, they are made against the whole weight of the complex hierarchical social system.”

Shikha Aleya (SA): Chayanika, thank you for the time and energy you are putting into this interview. To begin, please give us your perspective on the concept of class, and how class manifests in India. Are there country and environment specific aspects that are important for understanding how class influences our experience of sexuality and gender rights?

Chayanika Shah (CS): In the Indian context, one of the things that underlines the experience of class is caste. The graded hierarchy of caste is also the graded hierarchy of labour and access to resources, thus making the connection of both caste and class complex and inter-connected. Since in the caste system, professions get fixed by birth, access to resources also becomes more limited than by the class division of ownership and private property. Added to this is the fact that for very long India has been an agricultural, self-sufficient rural economy maintained by the hegemonic acceptance of these graded hierarchies. This is probably why Dr Ambedkar laid such stress on education and migration to urban areas. It was a way to combat caste by breaking the caste-based dependence and control on resources and an access to a different form of economy which in its imagination at least was not embedded in caste.

The nature of familial occupation means that cis women’s contribution to the economy and resource generation and maintenance is completely undermined. Their labour is not valued and often they are kept deprived of required skills and training through complicated traditional and community practices. Along with this is of course the direct control on their reproductive and care labour, which is unpaid and unrecognised, under the language of familial love, duty, and responsibility. In reality this means a complete dependence on the family and lack of power to make any decisions.

The patrilineal, patrilocal, and patriarchal system of the family is critical in such a society. This system allows men full access to skills and resources and makes all others like women, children, and others needing care, dependent on a family acquired through either birth or marriage. Cis heterosexual marriage in the right class, caste, and religious combinations is almost compulsory for this intricate system to work. As is the expectation of monogamy and chastity from bodies that can bear children, aka the bodies and lives of cis women.

Through the last century and more, we have seen increasing industrialisation and urbanisation and an altered reality for many who have migrated. The independent nation has also sought to dismantle this social reality through a constitution premised on principles of equality and justice, and with a belief in individual liberty. But the shadow of caste has stayed over access to knowledge, resources, and skills even in the most industrialised of cities and the most modern industry.

The socialist principles of the newly independent nation have presently given way to a neo-liberal economy and we find today that the class differences have grown even wider and have affected the minority communities and the marginalised castes the most. The control of and dependence on family and community, with increasing poverty and reducing social security, seem to be getting even stronger. All this means that familial regulations on individual decisions around gender expression/identity and sexuality abound.

SA: While on the subject of regulations on individual decisions, in an earlier article on community and sexuality, you have briefly mentioned class, as one of the factors defining the rules in a hierarchical social structure. Drawing from your work and experiences, what are some of the interconnections you see between class and community? How do these interconnections impact sexuality and rights?

CS: There is a directly proportional relationship between marginalisation and dependence of the individual on the family and of the family on the community. A marginalised group is dependent on strength and support of the community for its material and resource needs but also for any kind of social capital that it may claim. It is these community networks that help individuals find work and shelter when they migrate to urban areas. And it is these networks that are extended for all other emergencies, especially when citizenship rights are curtailed through shrinking social security.

When this is the case, any kind of breach of community restrictions is penalised and punished through ex-communication. And what could be a breach greater than the assertion of autonomous choices by people, especially around gender and sexuality? When any individual chooses to go against the norm in matters of gender and sexuality, the first threat is of losing familial and thereby community contacts and social capital. Those with less access definitely have more to lose in losing the support of the community.

Besides this, marginalisation around caste, class and religion, which is shared familially and communally,  builds a different sense of community – that of a collective struggle against larger social powers and structures. A loss of this community then also makes the vulnerability more acute. At times community solidarity amongst these marginalised sections allows for acceptance of difference as well. At the same time if the attack on the individual becomes an attack on the whole community, then the individual themselves give in. A lot of cases of inter-caste and inter-religious relationships have shown us how complex this whole process is.

Only the more privileged can afford the luxury of not needing the material benefits of the presence of a community. They may have acquired the training and education needed to be materially independent and they may find it easier to access citizenship rights from the State, thus making them free of the direct control of the community. At times they also have the individual capacity to keep their personal lives out of the gaze of the public thereby protecting their privacy. In a sense their loss of social and economic capital is sometimes balanced by other privileges they can access.

Essentially what I am saying is that while decisions around gender and sexuality are very private and  apparently made by each person for themselves, the material connections of community and family make this choice very contextual, and contingent on the whole social structure. So a personal choice is never an individual matter and when and if these choices are made, they are made against the whole weight of the complex hierarchical social system.

SA: That’s important to remember. In the article, Chronicles of a Queer Relationship with Science, you have written: “just merely drawing in women or any of the others from the margins of society, who have also been excluded from this enterprise for so long, does not make them succeed and stay or contribute to a different science. Something fundamental has to shift about how we understand and teach and talk about science for that to happen”.  Looking back at your own work and your choices, as a feminist, queer activist, as a person who opted to study physics, please share your observations of the influence of class on life choices.

CS: Privilege of class is a big factor in being able to make choices in one’s life. First of all not having the compulsion to earn because there are others dependent on you is a big load off all those who wish to make different choices. The nature of education, the kind of exposure one can get, the institutions that one can manage to access, almost all of it is linked to class and other privileges. Essentially financial autonomy is something that some of us can access more easily. At the same time, however, class can also be the reason why one conforms more. There is a lot more to lose in terms of immediate comforts and privileges. As I mentioned earlier there could be families that could disinherit, and withdraw access to resources and that could be perceived as a loss. Success in the chosen profession then becomes a crucial factor for acceptance and reconciliation and so once again autonomy gets compromised.

For those of us who are outsiders in the professions and fields that we choose, the minority position also demands that we succeed in the ways in which the system defines success. Defining success is also after all a matter of privilege. Any out of the box ideas and thoughts are difficult to suggest and implement, because this requires a confidence that outliers may not have and an acceptance from those that fit in, which may also not be extended. For example, a critique of science done from the lens of gender, race, or caste, can of course be made by those coming from those margins but may equally not be accepted because “personal subjectivity” and “incompetence” are seen as reasons for not taking these seriously.

The well-trodden path is most visible and laid out before everyone. Those who do not wish to walk there but choose others instead, have to be very sure of their beliefs. The different paths can be about the choices made by someone in their personal life or of redefining parameters of success in disciplines or even exploring new paths within a particular field. The fact of the matter is that each aspect of one’s life nurtures the other. So possibly breaking out of conformity in one area, opens a person out in other spheres of life as well. In not creating space for these newer ways of thinking and doing, the professions actually lose out!

SA: In continuation of this theme, what is it that is required at a systemic level, out of education and academic institutions that could foster the creation of safe and inclusive spaces? That could encourage out of the box thought and action that challenges norms specific to where a person is located across different identities?

CS: Education has always been contested terrain. While on the one hand granting access to education to all people is an important aspect of inclusion within education, there are two almost contesting trends in what will be considered aims of education. One is to help those marginalised in society to gain the skills of the mainstream and succeed in education and hence society at large. The other is the more transformative element – to equip learners to be able to critique the system including its knowledge base.

With growing privatisation and transmission of skills in the name of education, what we are seeing is an erosion of the second aspect, especially in public education. The upper-end education accessible only to those who have the privilege of class is where innovations happen and there is encouragement for out of the box thought. In that sense there are no simple solutions other than a full revamp.

And yet we have all known that in spite of the system there are small steps and measures taken by thinking teachers and concerned schools and educators that have made a world of difference to many of us. An active and engaged acceptance of the diversity of all kinds in our institutions, diversity in expression, desire, likes, abilities, possibilities, can fundamentally alter the experience of learning.

And then there is one thought that comes very much from queer theory itself.[1] Being queer is fundamentally about failure, about not being successful in what the world wants you to be. And acceptance of this in gender and sexuality identity and expression, also demands that failure be considered an important enabler for learning instead of continuing to have success as the usual measure. Maybe that would make co-operation and real acceptance of diversity the cornerstone of our systems of education as against the current trends of cut-throat competition that measuring success demands.

SA: Failure as an enabler for learning, is an important point to reflect on. Thank you for your thoughts and insights. A last question! In the current socio-political environment in India, how has social media impacted our approach to issues of class, within the framework of rights, justice and equality?

CS: This is a difficult one for me to answer. As soon as I start to say that the media is finally controlled by the corporates and the State through them and so has its limitations for language of rights and justice, I remember the National Network of Sex Workers whose meeting I recently attended. They are managing to communicate with each other across the breadth of the country and through a web of eight different languages to build a coalition and a political organisation for change using this very same media and its power to allow communication even when people do not know how to read or write. Dedicated translators and audio messages allow them to discuss and plan their struggles.

Reminding us yet again that while technology may be made and introduced with a certain politics, it is the political will and belief in equality, rights, and justice that help use it to our advantage, whatever its original intention may be! And this new technology can be accused of many things but if there was something that was becoming affordable for more people in this country accelerating towards the widest rift ever along lines of class, it is this technology that allows access to social media!


[1]    Jack Halberstam expands on this in “The Queer Art of Failure”. Duke University Press (2011).

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