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Jonathan: Challenges to social change in India and why western feminism is partly to blame

April 22, 2011

The program is now over, the final photographs taken, and the first batch of MSID students have left Jaipur for Mumbai on a southern extravaganza.  In just a few hours, I too will leave Jaipur, but for Delhi instead, where I will spend a few days until my flight on 25 April 2011 to Darjeeling, the tea capital of India in the shadow of the Himalaya. As we all begin our departures, some for America, some for new iterations of Hindustan, we have been focused on assessing the wild adventure we have just partaken in.  To be frank, I am not ready for the semester to end.  My last week in Railmagra was one of the most important to me in my whole time in India.  I became comfortable, confident, ever more able to address the needs and issues I was confronted with.  I finished writing the curriculum, but the adventure was far from over.  There remains much work to be done: translation, implementation, ownership.  More than that, it felt disingenuous to leave the experience after so little time: one month is not enough for community change.

I have grappled with a lot in the last few days, questions of privilege, identity, and culture. Asking myself the question: Why does it always seem to be a ‘culture’ vs. ‘justice’ debate?  What does that mean and how can I responsibly address it?  At its core, the curriculum, Power and Effort!, is about justice.  But to have the dialogue, it challenges the Indian NGO structure to do something it struggles with: actually act on its radical belief structure and develop a truly Indian dialog.

Rajasthan is a deeply conservative state, and India a conservative country.  The basic reality is that its insistence on the family as Center predicates a social structure which cannot challenge itself.  Consider the following script:

Me: What are your feelings on caste?

Them: It is a social evil, I do not believe in it.

Me: Will you marry outside your caste?

Them: Of course not!  It is my culture!  I would be lost without my caste.

Me: Do you have inter-caste friendships?

Them: No, my family will not allow it.

Me: Would you consider a friendship?

Them: No, my family will not allow it.

And thus, caste is replicated, strengthened, and enforced.  Until young people confront their families, demand relationships, and flaut the oppressive social norming, than true change cannot occur.  It is not that they are offended by the caste structure — I am sure they are — rather it is that they are unwilling to stand up against other social structures of social control and demand change.  Saying you believe in justice does not make the world just.  In fact, I believe it is a form of violence against the marginalized community one claims to stand in solidarity with.

I, of course, saw this pattern replicated time and time again in the village while working.  A professional commitment to ending early marriage, dowry, or arranged marriage, yet a lack of follow through to confront these issues.  I saw trained “Gender Educators” and HIV advocates merely replicated oppressive structures in their own families.  They could talk for hours about the abolition of arranged marriage, but they could be actively arranging one for their son or daughter, or be entering one themselves.  They could extoll about the ways that domestic violence against women is intimately linked to alcohol abuse, but not say a thing when their older brother drunkenly beats his wife every night.  Everyone was arrested by a profound inability to take a true stance.  As someone who has sacrificed much not only to be who I am, but also for the work I believe in, I cannot excuse these action: Saying you believe in justice does not make the world just.  Standing up to injustice even if you compromise your own social stability is the only way to create change.  It is the only way change has been made.

It is not as if people are not doing this.  I have met countless Indians who have dedicated their life to flouting the norm for the betterment of society.  Who have chosen to reject injustice and have taken the plunge.  Many have lost the safety and security that going with the flow allows, but they recognize the need to do so.  This phenomenon is not unique to India: spend time in a social work classroom and you too will see those who are willing to enter into Justice on a professional level, but not a personal one.  And thus, the question becomes, what to do about all of this?

It is my core belief that the problem does not only rest in the inability or the unwillingness of NGO workers to stand up for what they believe in.  Rather, I think it is directly related to the way conversation around gender justice developed here.  In short, and with few frills, I think that the gender discourse is too western.  It is not Indian enough for the average Indian, or even the activist community, to feel a connection to.  Instead, it uses a western conceptualization which developed in the classrooms of American Women Studies programs of a different era.  Many are familiar with the stories of western feminists telling those in the developing world, “I am here to save you!”  They rode in on large white stallions and instead began to alienate the very communities they sought to ‘help.’  The attitude gave little attention to local culture, local structures, to justice.  It was a damaging experiment, and I believe one of great lasting effects.

Today, transnational feminism and post-modern ideologies have begun to address this, but the reality remains, the Indian dialog is not Indian enough.  It is easy for many to extoll the values of, but difficult for it to be practiced by even the NGO worker.  This is not because any of core beliefs or claims made my the current conceptualization of Gender Justice are necessarily wrong, but rather because it did not develop here.  Rather it transplanted the vocabulary on the west into the culture of the sub-continent.  It is the vocabulary, not the message, which is flawed.  Until Indians can feel that their social movements are true to them, then no change can occur.  Saying you believe in justice does not make the world just.  Standing up to injustice even if you compromise your own social stability is the only way to create change.  It is the only way change has been made.  Developing a dialog is a process of empowerment, of ownership, and of capacity building.  It is the first step in the process.

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