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Nivedita Menon, wearing a green turtle-neck sweater, sitting on a chair, smiling.
CategoriesInterviewWomen and Sexuality

Nivedita Menon: On Feminism in the 21st Century

Nivedita Menon is a feminist writer and a political and social activist. She is a professor of political thought at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and writes for newspapers, the Economic and Political Weekly and for Kafila.org. She is also the author of Recovering Subversion: Feminist Politics Beyond the Law (2004) and Seeing Like A Feminist (2012). She is also the editor of Gender and Politics in India (1999) and Sexualities (Women Unlimited, 2008).

In the first part of her interview Nivedita shared her thoughts on feminism, law and subversion. She continues to explore this theme in the second part of this email interview and also speaks about feminism in the 21st century, where gender binaries are strongly questioned.

Shweta Krishnan: How relevant do you think this understanding of subversion is in the face of nationalist politics and religious fundamentalism, and if we do intend to stop using law as a tool for activism, what other channels do we have?

Nivedita Menon: This question seems to me to reflect the paralyzing power of statism and legal discourse to render impossible even the imagining of all other kinds of political action. Of course one is forced to engage with the state and the law to bring to justice criminal communal elements, but far-reaching transformations will be wrought not by that kind of (very necessary) fire-fighting exercise but through a politics on the ground that for example, renders communal politics irrelevant through a discourse of everyday necessities of the poor, as the victory of AAP showed in Delhi. Or, of course rapists and sexual harassers must be punished, but their punishment may be better achieved through the rules and norms evolved by face-to-face communities like universities and workplaces, which are fine-tuned to their specific contexts, rather than a broad law that covers all workplaces. Universities are realizing now how counterproductive the new law on sexual harassment is, because it overrides the subtle and complex sexual harassment policies that they have evolved through widespread discussion among different sections of university communities.

SK: What is the importance of understanding the politics of subversion? Can you give us an example of how it has been used in India in recent times, or perhaps even talk about an instance where it could have been used?

NM: Dalits threatening to convert to Islam/Christianity unless permitted to enter temples, the Pink Chaddi campaign, the Kiss of Love campaign. All of these challenge dominant frameworks of understanding, but not in familiar ‘left’ ways.

SK: In your essay When Pro-Choice is Anti-Women, you write in defence of the film, Kya Kehna. While it does personify the foetus (a stance that can be interpreted as anti-abortion), you defend it for raising important questions about women’s choices. Can you talk a little bit about the way in which we understand ‘choice’ in India? What does it really mean for women to have choices, when it comes to pregnancy, reproduction, marriage or even sexuality?

NM: I have discussed the question of choice above, but with regard to choices regarding pregnancy and reproduction, there is no doubt that motherhood only under particular circumstances is revered; under other circumstances it is reviled. In other words, defending abortion as a ‘choice’ that must be made available to women is a feminist position certainly, but surely not in the abstract. This is clear when we look at feminist positions on sex-selective abortion, but we must also consider the decision not to abort when it is a refusal to conform to patriarchal diktats, as equally a choice that feminists must applaud. In Kya Kehna then, the unmarried woman’s choice to carry her ‘illegitimate’ pregnancy to term, her family’s whole hearted support for her, including treating her pregnancy with the delight that is reserved for the patriarchal family’s ‘own’ offspring (i.e. the daughter-in-law’s child), and finally the birth of a girl child (a bastard girl child!) greeted with love and happiness – all of this was in my opinion, subversive of the patriarchal order. The fact that the film used emotive anti-abortion imagery to convey the character’s decision to carry her pregnancy to term, does not automatically make it an anti-abortion film in general. Anti-abortion was not the theme of the film, its theme was about questioning patriarchal double standards of morality.

SK: In the past few years, several issues like rape, molestations, sex-selection, queer sexualities have been addressed in popular media: TV, films and also on social media. You and others have written your own reflections on blogs like Kafila. How important do you think the media is in addressing patriarchy? Do you think feminists should participate more on social media and in online discussions?

NM: Yes of course feminists should participate even more than they already do in such spaces! It is part of our politics of proliferation of feminist discourses in every space.

SK: What can feminism in the 21st century look like given that the 2-sex binary has been so strongly challenged of late?

NM: We have seen that feminism is not in fact about ‘women’ but about recognizing how modern discourses of gender produce human beings as exclusively ‘men’ or ‘women’. We have also seen that feminism is not even about gender alone, but about understanding how gender is complicated by class (as in the case of domestic servants), by caste and by queer politics (as in the case of gay men, hijras and intersex identities). In other words, feminism requires us to recognize that ‘women’ is neither a stable nor a homogeneous category.

So I guess you are asking, if we “deconstruct” the category of women, then how are we to do feminist politics? Well, first of all, the continued invocation of “women” and “gender” both by feminists as well as by official and state discourse all over the world is impossible to miss. The power and tenacity of the belief in the pre-given “naturalness” of such identities is enormous, as well as of the confidence that the law is external to these, a passive tool that can be mobilised to act upon them in various ways. It seems worthwhile to reiterate therefore, that it is imperative now for us to recognize that the political task is not that of simply recovering meaning from a field of pre-existing meanings. In other words, the identities on which social movements base themselves do not represent some positive essence – there are no pre-existing “women”, “dalits”, “sexual minorities” out there; these identities are precariously constituted by the political act of hegemonising meaning. We constitute identities – including our own – in and through our political practice.

A very well known term used by Gayatri Spivak in this context is “strategic essentialism” but I am uncomfortable with the vanguardist implications of this way of posing the response, the implication appearing to be that we can use the category of “woman” knowing full well that it does not “really” exist, in order to address and mobilise others who believe in its existence. Judith Butler talks of “using the term even as one is used and positioned by it.” This suggests a single moment in which we simultaneously deconstruct and invoke identity. I suggest instead, that if we shift our focus to the duality inherent in terms naming identity, we might answer the question (“how to deconstruct while invoking”) somewhat differently. That is, when we remind ourselves that “identity” is two opposing moments – both that which is produced by discourses of power as well as that which is to be the subject of our emancipatory politics, we remember also that deconstruction-and-invocation is not a single move – we have a dual agenda.

When the agenda is to contest the naturalising of identities produced by legal codes, then we must engage in “deconstruction” – a continuous process of exposure, putting at risk our own sense of self, and pushing the limits of what both we and they (whom we address as our constituency) can take.

When the agenda is that of radical politics, that is, the mobilising of identity for a politics of subversion, then we “invoke” – that is, we address both ourselves and others as “women”, as that already given identity, while retaining a sense that at some point we will touch the porosity of the boundaries of that identity. Here the most crucial recognition is that what we invoke is an actually experienced identity – we do in fact, exist as “women”. The identity of “woman” is historically contingent, but it is persistent and it is certainly not “unreal.” At different moments in our political practice, then, we must at some times “invoke” and at other times, “deconstruct” the category of women.

It seems to me that this foregrounding of a dual agenda might enable us to escape the implied neutral point “feminists” might be assumed to occupy vis-a-vis “women”.

This kind of politics does not give up on notions of equality, justice and emancipation. However, these values can no longer be considered to be self-evident, they become deeply contested. Nor do I suggest we can no longer ever talk of Woman as the subject of feminist politics, but rather, point to the continuously open-ended nature of the project of constituting the feminist subject. By this I mean that the subject of feminist politics has to be brought into being by political practice. In other words, there are not pre-existing ‘women’ who may be Hindu or Muslim, upper-caste or Dalit, white or black – rather, there are ‘people’ who may respond to different kinds of political challenges as ‘Dalit’ or ‘Muslim’, or as ‘women’. The success of feminism lies precisely in its capacity to motivate ‘people’ to affirm themselves as feminists in different kinds of contexts.

But equally importantly, sometimes a feminist will have to recognize that the defining factor at work in a particular situation may be race or caste, not gender; just as conversely, a Dalit activist or Marxist will have to recognize the defining feature in some situation as gender, not caste or class. All radical political activists and theorists then, necessarily also must be feminists.

SK: To what extent do you identify as a teacher?

NM: I must say that being a teacher is my primary identity, the one I am most proud of, the one that I find most exhillarating. I have taught since 1987, in an undergraduate women’s college, Lady Shri Ram, in the post-graduate department of Political Science at Delhi University and at JNU since 2008. My energy levels go up exponentially the moment I enter a classroom, however depressed or exhausted I might otherwise be. More importantly, it is so exciting to be in the spaces in which some of the most creative forms of politics are being generated, the ways in which ordinary young people everywhere are challenging notions of caste and community identity that are meant to stand as obstructions to love and desire. Teaching in a university is to be in a uniquely privileged position – being in the vortex of change and challenge and questioning.


Article written by:

Shweta's life is a little bit like a patchwork quilt. She started her career as a medical doctor, and then worked as a medical writer, producing multimedia content on sexual and reproductive health for several NGOs. Currently, she is a student of sociocultural anthropology, discovering the pleasures of being entangled with transnational and queer feminist scholarship and activism. She is grateful to the many people she has met in her life—family, friends, co-workers and mentors—who constantly push her to made her political views more and more nuanced. She hopes her writing reflects her openness to new modes of engaging with the world, and her curiosity about life. She writes about gender and sexuality both from her personal experiences, and from the academic interest she takes in the subtle textures of human experiences. She has called many places home in her life. Currently, she resides in Washington DC, USA and Chennai, India.