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Interview – Srila Roy

photograph of Prof Srila Roy leaning against a wall with her hands folded

Professor Srila Roy is with the Department of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. She is the Principal Investigator for the Andrew Mellon Foundation’s research project Governing Intimacies, focusing on building new scholarship on gender and sexuality in India and East and South Africa. Srila is the author of Remembering Revolution: Gender, Violence and Subjectivity in India’s Naxalbari Movement (Oxford, 2012), editor of New South Asian Feminisms, (Zed, 2012), co-editor of New Subaltern Politics: Reconceptualising Hegemony and Resistance in Contemporary India (Oxford 2015), and of Intimacy and Injury: In the wake of MeToo in India and South Africa (MUP, 2022). Published this year, Srila’s new book, Changing the Subject: Feminist and Queer Politics in Neoliberal India (Duke University Press, 2022), explores gender and sexual politics, feminism and power, issues of co-opting rights, and the paradoxes that have emerged in the context of neoliberalism.

Shikha Aleya (SA):  Hi Srila, and a big thank you, we value your presence and the insights you bring to this In Plainspeak issue on Queering Sexuality. We’d like to begin this interview with your new book, Changing the Subject. In the introduction to your book, speaking of feminist voices and histories, these questions are posed: “But who is this we? Or, to put it differently, who is the subject of our feminisms?” You point out that “the category of woman has proved even less sustainable in the rest of the world, where gender has continually fractured in intersection with other categories of identity and difference.” How may an individual begin to connect the deeper academic reflection on these categories with one’s own life and context?  

Srila Roy (SR): Thank you for this interview and all these great questions! I appreciate the labour and care that has gone into them. 

In those lines, I am simply reiterating what feminists, especially those outside of the West, have long suggested, namely, that women are not a united group. Women are divided by virtue of their religion, their community affiliations, their class and socio-economic background, race, gender, ability, sexuality and so on. This has complicated efforts to politically organize around women’s interests, as if “woman” is a singular, unified group with the same needs, identities, and interests. As we know, thanks to trans struggles for recognition, “woman” includes those who self-identify as such, even as they may not have been assigned this identity at birth. In other words, binary gender cannot be the grounds for solidarity and mobilizing. Throughout history, we have seen that “woman” do not have the same interests and certainly not feminist ones – women align with right-wing, even patriarchal politics, the outcomes of which are typically anti-women. The issue of difference has also been used to mark the limits of majoritarian feminist voices – for women of colour, for instance, to tell white women that their political platforms do not represent or include them, or for transwomen to ask for forms of protection only offered to cisgender women (“violence against women” automatically excludes trans and non-binary victims of violence). 

In the Indian case, something similar has happened (as documented by feminists like Nivedita Menon). From the 1990s, the Indian women’s movement was accused of masking internal differences in favour of presenting a unified set of interests on behalf of “woman”. Questions of caste, religion and sexuality not only fractured this assumed unity, but also revealed its majoritarian underpinnings – “woman” tended to be upper caste, heteronormative and Hindu. More recently, conflicts around a proposed gender neutral rape law shored up divides amongst cis and trans feminists (I flag these in Chapter 1 of my book)

Many of these academic reflections arise from social movement organizing, like the Indian women’s movement (but also from individual and everyday lives). We see, more and more, how difficult it is for us to come together on common platforms. Indian feminists appear divided along generational but also caste lines. The queer community is also divided along the lines of class and caste (with some right-wing voices emerging). But at the same time, as I show at the end of the book, India has recently seen unexpected vibrant protests, led by Muslim women, for instance. Questions of difference should not be a cause for despair. There are examples from history and our own lives that show how we can connect across difference and stand in solidarity with one another – not as an ally (a millennial term I dislike!) but as comrades. 

SA: You mention ‘space invaders’, in your book and this caught my attention! Who is a space invader? How do space invaders impact queering and sexuality?

SR: The term space invaders is Nirmal Puwar’s, from her book of the same name. Puwar calls women and minorities space invaders, for occupying spaces (like mainstream politics), not traditionally reserved for them; they might not feel entitled to occupy or belong to such spaces, even on entering them. 

I use the term to reveal some of the intersectional dynamics of queer spaces and belonging in urban Indian locales, like Kolkata. I show how lower middle class non-English speaking queer women were often made to feel like they did not belong or that they belonged only tenuously to new spaces for queer political and social community-building, whether online or in the city. Their status as “space invaders” thus reveals these new queer community spaces to be middle class, respectable and thus exclusionary. In the book, I show how a queer feminist organization policed what could and could not be said on its online platform. They allowed the platform to be used for advocacy and political purposes, but not for dating. Those who posted asking for love and partnership faced criticism, and even censorship. It so happened that these “posts” also signaled non-elite class status – they were typically written in Bengali and not in English. They were made to appear as invaders of a space that was created as a safe space for all queers. Beyond my case study, we see “space invaders” marking the limits of queerness, as a radical ideal and call to build community, in India today. Metropolitan middle class English-speaking, upper caste queers render others less visible while also ensuring that new queer spaces and communities are most responsive to their needs and interests.

SA: That is so fascinating and visible in conversations and interactions across platforms today. Now, on a different note, you are Principal Investigator for the Andrew Mellon Foundation’s research project Governing Intimacies. Do tell us a bit about this project, your role here, and emerging from this, your experiences and insights around sexuality. 

SR:  Thanks for this question which gives me the opportunity to reflect on some current work. Governing Intimacies is a large-scale, multi-sited research project, which I led at Wits University from 2019-2022 (it ends this year, alas). It was quite a unique initiative – with partners in Uganda and India, it was genuinely transnational, and it foregrounded marginal areas of research in gender and especially, sexuality and queer theory. As a South Asian scholar located in the South African academy, I was excited to lead such a project. But at its end, I am sitting with many thoughts and reflections, some expected and some unexpected. On the face of it, the project was extremely successful – we curated many public-facing events (online during Covid), which were explicitly about making links and connections amongst feminist scholars in and across the Global South. In collaboration with the Gay and Lesbian Archive in Johannesburg (GALA), we also developed an “intimate archive” comprising of LGBT voices from Mozambique.     

But the project also failed to develop long-term meaningful relationships amongst its Indian and Ugandan partners. I was struck by how little the African and Asian counterparts of this project wished to engage each other through the access provided by this project. When it came to sexuality studies, in particular, I saw the dominance of US-centric queer theory amongst scholars. This had the effect of making even more invisible the exciting new work on sexuality and queerness that is emerging from and on the African continent. This experience made me sit back and think about many things – not least, my own presumptions of Afro-Asian solidarity, transnational feminist utopias, and South-South links and commonalities. These reflections constitute the core of a new book I am working on; a set of essays tentatively titled Dissonant Intimacies: Transnational Feminism in the Global South

SA: Yes, be it unintentional or deliberate, this invisibility-making is insidious. Srila, in this article available online, you have written of sexual harassment work in university spaces, the threat of co-option of feminist forces, and the panic that ensues when patriarchy is challenged. How would you expand some of these insights to address the concept of queering sexuality across work spaces? What would it mean to be aware and cautious of institutional responses to individuals who show up in leadership roles that threaten the system? How do we make these spaces really safe, really inclusive, supportive and thriving in their accepting of diversity?

SR: I am surprised and pleased that you read this short piece. It was written under trying circumstances – in a moment of institutional backlash, you could say, when it came to sexual harassment redressal work on campus. I was part of this collective work, and it was clear to me how institutions start to panic and pushback when you get too good at it! In other words, when sexual harassment redressal work starts to shake the patriarchal foundation of an institution, the institution makes clear their limited investment in getting rid of this systemic and entrenched problem. They make you – those trying to transform – the problem, to use Sara Ahmed’s words. They also make clear that their investment in transformation – along the lines of gender but we see similar patterns when it comes to race, caste and sexuality – is one of paying lip-service alone. Universities are far too risk-averse or invested in their reputation to engage in radical transformation. In elite US universities, for instance, professors accused of sexual harassment are often reinstated by management, even after a groundswell of student complaints and protest actions. 

South Africa, as you might know, has some of the highest rates of gender-based violence, and many campus-based struggles have mobilized around this issue. Queer, trans black feminist students – intersectional African feminists, as they call themselves – have been at the forefront of these struggles. They have also expanded understandings of sexual violence, from something men do to women to men’s violation of those they consider inferior or subordinate to them. Cis-women are not the default object of gender-based violence; trans, lesbian and gay people are, in fact, its greatest victims in South Africa. My hope for real transformative change lies in these younger generations who have made clear that they are no longer tolerating the kinds of inequality and hierarchy that have historically shaped institutions like universities. 

SA:  Thank you for sharing those parts of your journey with us, Srila. From the public and institutional, let’s now move to the personal. Please tell us something of your own personal journey, aspects of your life story, that have shaped your approach to the questions you ask in your work, and in your writing.

SR: Thanks, that’s a rich but also difficult question. I grew up in different parts of India but only thought of myself as a migrant when I ultimately left India in 2001, to do my Masters in the UK. I studied philosophy as an undergraduate and was very keen on pursuing it further. But the UK experience weaned me off it quickly. Philosophy was extremely white and extremely male, and I felt entirely out of place. I wasn’t even a space invader! Luckily, my MA was interdisciplinary and I moved on to do a PhD in sociology. I chose for my thesis a significant familial memory – of the Naxalbari andolan of the 1970s. So, while this research was directly informed by my personal journey, it also revealed its complexities. Having grown up outside of Kolkata, I never learnt to read Bengali and had to teach myself, during my PHD, to access crucial archives. 

This project on radical left women led me to some of the interlocutors who constitute the core of my new book – feminist NGO workers and queer activists. While doing this research, which took a decade, I went through some significant life-changes: I moved from the UK to South Africa, when I was pregnant with twins; I changed jobs; I got divorced and ended up an in a co-sharing, co-parenting arrangement (which limits my mobility to this day). I write about this in the preface to Changing the Subject not only to signal how one’s positionality is never a static thing, but also to underscore some of my own ambivalences when it comes to types of (feminist) politics that are premised on getting it right. Like my interlocutors in the book, I don’t believe we, feminists, can ever get it absolutely right, and we should sit with messiness and discomfort rather than try and expunge these from our politics or indeed, from our lives. 

Cover image by Robyn Davie photography