Fighting the good fight: My journey as a feminist researcher

“The heart of justice is truth telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be. More than ever before we, as a society, need to renew a commitment to truth telling.”

bell hooks

This month of March is quite significant for many of us in CBPS.  We are gearing up to celebrate our 25th anniversary in a conference titled Institutions and Public Policy in a week’s time and we are also celebrating International Women’s Day today. In preparing for our conference, we have been doing a lot of introspection and reflection on what it means for us to be where we are: an independent research organization located in Bangalore. For me personally, the past few months have been a journey of self-reflection on the work that I have done as a feminist in CBPS.

My journey as a feminist, as with most feminists, started as a ‘light bulb’ moment – an instinctive and intuitive understanding of feminist lessons that helped coalesce all the vague feelings, thoughts, and concepts into a collective understanding of the world. I often refer to it as my feminist lens – a seeing and un-seeing of things, relationships, structures, ideas ‘at a slant’ so that the rules of our gendered lives become clearer. But keeping the lens on is harder than realizing that one has it. Over the years, I found myself losing this lens in many situations and especially in my younger days, I realized that it requires a tremendous commitment to keep it on. If acquiring the feminist lens was turning on of a light bulb, then I had to climb a steep and slippery ladder over and over again to continue to keep it on. After a while, the journey is made easier through sheer familiarity, but it is still not an easy one to take.

But why is this lens so easy to lose?

The answer to this question is simple, but not easy. Structures such as class, race, gender, religion often b(l)ind us in subject positions so that our worldviews are formed, structured, codified and fossilised, sometimes without our knowledge. The manner in which our social privileges and positions are hidden from us ensures that we do not always have a clear view of the way in which we are reproducing and reinforcing powerful oppressive relations all around us. Because we all function seamlessly within it, we do not always see the manner in which this normalcy creates disruptions, pain and oppression in other people’s lives who are not similarly privileged. Because our social lives are wrought with these invisible social rules and norms, a newly acquired lens can be lost in the normalcy of living one’s lives, in the normalcy of interaction, conversation, and relationships.

This fight to keep the lens on is made harder also because we are not functioning in our social system based on a singular identity (a woman) or system (patriarchal). We are engaged in social systems that are intersectional in nature, which means we are trying to work simultaneously against rules related to family, religion, gender, age, marital status, language – all of which function together, understood implicitly and articulated rarely. The invisibility of these social rules and norms implies that in order to fight it, one has to actually see it, feel it, and hold onto it constantly. I have to be committed to constantly examine my actions, my habits, my modes of thinking in order to understand why I do the things that I do. Self-reflexivity, self-reflectivity, self-supervision, self-analysis, self-critique are wonderful words, but they are so easy to side-step because the social norms that we grew up with are so comfortable, familiar, and safe.

But why make such an effort? Why try at all?

Different feminists might have different answers for this, but for me, the reason I continue to fight to keep my feminist lens on is this: once you gain a perspective, once you gain a glimpse into another way of seeing the world, you don’t want to let go. The work that we do has helped me see the social world we live in a decidedly different way through this lens, and I am all the more richer for it.

When I first started on my journey as a feminist, I started to look beyond a person’s individual action or behaviour to make connections to the larger social structure, norms, and narratives. As I started to deepen this work, I also started to look at the reasons why these rules and norms exist, what purpose they serve, and how individuals use them. The more I looked, the more I realized that despite my initial understanding (frankly, cynicism), the manner in which we engage with social rules is endlessly fascinating and educational- whether we resist, acquiesce, and reinforce social rules and norms, we do so in profound and creative ways. I have been able to find moments of joy, of empathy, clarity, and acceptance of human behaviour in the darkest of stories – stories tinged with rejection, violence, and pain.

But these lessons do not come easy – they are neither comfortable nor comforting. In fact, having the feminist lens is rarely easy – if we are to examine the world at a slant, then we have to constantly engage with an eye that questions, that looks within, that looks beyond and tries to see what is not easily visible. This means we have to be constantly vigilant; and to be constantly vigilant is also to be constantly fatigued. But for me, this is a price worth paying. For me, the feminist work that we do means asking the questions and living with the uncomfortable answers (especially those asked of our own subject positions).

As a feminist, this looking inward and outward is even more important because the most famous slogan associated with the feminist movement – the personal is political – is not an empty one. I know and understand that all of my actions – especially those in the service of knowledge production – have the potential of reinforcing and reifying cultural tropes. I also am keenly aware that the knowledge, the awareness, the anger, the outrage, and the solidarity that I feel is not mine alone. My colleagues feel it, my fellow feminists feel it – those who understand the importance of this day feel it too.

In some ways, then the 25th anniversary celebrations and those that are happening today, is also a way for us to acknowledge and honour those who came before us. Because the tools that we have, the knowledge that we have, and the hope that we have, owes a great deal to them. It is through them that our lives are made easier for us. While I am grateful, I also know that now we have the responsibility to ensure that our visions – whether that is of a just world or an egalitarian one – are realized. I know that when I start to doubt, to feel despair, to feel disheartened, all I have to do is take the good old lens out, clean it up and put them on again – to see the world anew again, to fight the good fight again.

[Disclaimer: Views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CBPS]

Niveditha Menon
Deputy Director and Senior Research Advisor, CBPS


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