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Interview: Nandini Rao

Photo of activist Nandini Rao. She has white hair and is wearing a jacket and scarf.

Feminist, activist, writer, counsellor and trainer, Nandini Rao, focuses on issues of gender-based violence and discrimination, sexuality and disability and on incest and child sexual abuse. She works across socio-cultural environments, rural and urban, engaging people from widely differing backgrounds, knowledge levels and exposure on these subjects. Her experiences and observations of people and perspectives across sectors including NGO, corporate, education, government administration and law enforcement, give her a unique shifting lens of understanding to account for differences and universal truths in the ways in which society approaches these issues. We ask Nandini to speak to us about language and constructions of gender and sexuality.

Shikha Aleya (SA): Nandini, we appreciate your taking time out for this interview, thank you. Please tell us something of the evolution of your own story, how did you decide to become a trainer and worker in the field of gender and sexuality?

Nandini Rao (NR): My academic background is very different from the life journey I am on. I was doing my PhD in French Pedagogy in a small university town in the US, when I became involved as a volunteer in a local organisation doing work on HIV and AIDS. Interacting with diverse people within the organisation increased my understanding about a range of issues like health, sexuality, wellness, disease and the rights of those infected with and affected by (partners, family, friends, loved ones) the virus. There were days I would go in to volunteer and would hear that someone I had been working with on the helpline the week before had passed away because of HIV-related complications. It was a shock to see young people die so suddenly. It shifted my worldview in very intrinsic ways. Academia began to mean less to me, and the training I was receiving to be a trainer and counsellor at the organisation became more important. I quit my PhD and came back to India to start my work here in a new domain. I first worked in Madras with students and then in Bombay, in an organisation working in one of the biggest bastisthere. I used to counsel male drug and alcohol users in a rehab centre run by this organisation and also worked hands-on with women living in the basti.It was there that my focus moved from HIV and AIDS to understanding women’s health and lives. And beyond that, to issues of women’s rights including sexuality.

SA: What is language? Would you say that language reflects a time and space and different contexts?  How does this influence or connect with our understanding of sexuality? For example, Hindi has no word for the construct of ‘gender’. How do you work through discussions of concepts where language is stretched for terminology that may not exist?

NR: Actually, we do use ‘samajik ling’ for gender in Hindi. I love language – sounds, gestures and words sparkling like mountain streams to reach out to the person before you. But words are not the only way to communicate; I realised this while learning (and training in) sign language. How do you train about difficult and sensitive issues when that language may not have a word for it? For example, an English word does not need an equivalent word in another language. We can, as trainers, convey the meaning of what we are saying without the use of an exact equivalent in the ‘recipient’ language. Having said that, for many of us who are part of social movements, words can be deeply political in nature.

For instance, in Hindi, we often use ‘prakritik ling’ for ‘sex’, but research by academics as well as more   recent research by queer rights activists in our own context indicates that sex is not biological, but is in fact, a social construct. What do we do with the old phrase while we try to create new ones? There are often no words – or signs – to express them in that language. For eg., how do you say ‘transgender’ in Telugu? The only word we use is ‘trans’. Or should we just use the English word as more neutral ground?

I faced another dilemma in sign language. I was training a group of hearing impaired women to be gender trainers, so that they could, in turn, conduct workshops for other deaf women. We discussed issues like gender, patriarchy, sexuality and gender-based violence in the context of disability. The sign that participants used for violence against women indicated physical violence. But, as we all know, violence goes way beyond that. How do we convey the broad sweep of violence without restricting it to the aspect that’s most easily understood? Similarly, we had to create a new sign for ‘sexuality’. There is a word for ‘sex’, but sexuality is much broader than that, isn’t it?

The challenge for a feminist trainer like me is to convey the terminology, while keeping the politics intact. It can be quite a task and requires great vigilance especially in less familiar languages where I work with interpreters.

SA: Your work involves engaging with people on strongly held and deeply personal beliefs about themselves, gender, sexuality, relationships, and so on. Please share some observations and experiences on how language and culture have shaped or challenged these engagements for you and those you’ve worked with.

NR: There used to be a world that was much simpler. Where women were women and men were men, everyone knew their place and roles, and no one overstepped their boundaries. And then there was feminism that entered our country (from the West, where else?) and turned everything around on its head. And now, women are moving into numerous spaces (sometimes, with quiet fortitude, sometimes asserting and demanding their rights) and taking over the ‘male space’. And there are some people who refuse to accept the bodies they are born in and are even questioning their own genders, while others want to ‘go with the trend’ and be with a person like herself or himself, rather than with the ‘opposite’ sex. The world has indeed turned topsy-turvy! Why can’t we go back to earlier clear distinctions based on gender and sexuality?

These are some of the observations that I come across in my various ‘encounters’ (pun fully intended). This is the starting point to talk about how there are people who feel like an ‘other’ to begin with, sometimes, with no vocabulary to even describe what they feel like. This feeling of alienation could be based on any of the debilitating hierarchies that breed in society including religion, caste, class, gender, disability and sexuality.

Ironically, at this juncture in the life of our nation, in many instances, I hear people across the urban-rural divide talk about how victimised they feel despite having power and privileges. Personally, I seethe when I hear them carping about ‘losing out’ to the ‘other’; as a trainer, I try to reason and convince. On a good day, when I can laugh about it, I call it the victimhood of the majority. The most distressing part of these debates is the often-overpowering sense of entitlement that they feel about their place in society. These people could be anyone anywhere, from the state, the administration, the police ranks, communities or students.

SA: In a 2012 article online, you mention a young woman being pressurised to marry her brother-in-law. She successfully resisted this, with the support of the organisation, FAT, where she was pursuing a course in technology. Would you say technology is a language that presents new possibilities to challenge the unequal language of unjust traditions?

NR: Absolutely. Technology has the potential to be a real leveller. When a young woman living in a bastican think of standing up to her conservative family and talk about her need for education before marriage, it’s a huge step forward for her dreams. Her tech training could have been one of the reasons why she saw something different for herself; in any case, it gives new possibilities for her to consider. They may not work out sometimes, but at least, technology has allowed her to dream.

We don’t have to go very far back in herstory to see how the #MeToo moment changed the language of sexual assault and sexual harassment. It moved between online and offline spaces, revealing, sharing and ultimately, demanding justice for past and current crimes. #MeToo was a way to bring discussions of inequalities into the public domain. It sent out a message to patriarchy in no uncertain terms that it did not have the power to make women (the main complainants here) feel guilt, embarrassment or shame about the harassment they faced at any stage of their lives. Patriarchy’s weapon of sexual violence was subverted by women themselves with clever use of the medium. At the same time, technology also helps erase unnatural divisions of those with privilege (and the power to wield these tools) and those more marginalised who claim the right of ownership too. Empowered voices in online spaces can hopefully help change the dynamics of oppressive hierarchies such as (among others) caste and class in offline spaces too. This is what we can hope for and continue to fight for, in our endless struggles for justice and equality.

Having said this, it is important to note that technology and online spaces are also masculinist spaces that can turn ugly and unsafe at any moment. All users then, would need to use it with care and caution to avoid potential dangers. But then again, how safe are women and in girls in any space for that matter? So, while we enjoy the great outdoors (for example), we also need to learn to protect ourselves from its pitfalls. Similarly, with technology. We need to learn to subvert it to challenge unjust traditions.

SA: If language influences our connection and relationship with ourselves, other people, and with the wider world around us, does it extend beyond us, to nature and to other living creatures? Are there any universal truths about language that have emerged for you?

NR: The only universal truth is that there are no universal truths 🙂

Music as language. Notes strung together like pearls, sometimes soothing sometimes raucous, depending on my mood at that moment! I am part of a collective that sings songs that convey strength, rage, joy and ultimately, hope. We also create and sing about the current times with humour and irony. But the singing is still a political battle cry for change.

Having said that, give me the natural world any day to the human world that turns uglier every day. The language of the mountains, for example. Something so mighty, and much more powerful than us. The sense of calm one feels while standing on top of a mountain, listening to it breathe. The greens of trees and the browns of mud and slush and the pristine white of high altitude snow, all merging together to create a not necessarily picturesque, but always, a mighty whole. Ever insolent, humans think we can ‘conquer’ mountains, but of course, they occupied us long before we even thought of it.

These are murky times we live in where misogyny and casteism live cheek-by-jowl with communalism, homophobia and transphobia, where toxic capitalism tries to sell us unreal dreams in the name of development. Where the privileged feel victimised by the marginalised. I’m dumbfounded at the depth of anger and hatred being whipped up about the ‘other’. We seem to be constantly searching for the shadows behind the light.

I look towards birds and animals and their idiom to bring me back from this brink, as it were. Their language helps bring some sanity for me in the gathering darkness. The language they use is so much more powerful because in the end, it is not made of words.

Cover Image: Nandini Rao

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