At the time, I was part of a women’s group in Chennai: eight of us, mostly Brahmin and Sat Shudra, who had come together after meeting up at the Chennai Book Fair the previous year. Some were students, others lecturers, and yet others, like me, were looking for a job. One or two of us were active in other public forums: in support of the reservation policy, the Tamils’ right to self-determination in Sri Lanka, and in national literacy campaigns.
Into year one, we did not have a name for our group, yet we felt we were one, because we were all angry at routine misogyny—in our homes, on the streets, on our screens—and horrified by the casual manner in which sexual assault was discussed in the media.
I was the self-declared historian of the group. The nerd that I am, I would try and elucidate whatever it was we were talking about, either with references to late colonial Indian history, or texts of the second wave of Anglo-American feminism. None of us were familiar with Indian writings on feminism, except for those that featured in Manushi. We were tantalised by what we had recently learnt: that since the early 1980s there had been efforts to bring out feminist magazines in Tamil Nadu: one of these, Penn Viduthalai (Women’s Liberation), had been produced by a lecturer in a Chennai women’s college. It carried popular and critical articles on women and media, the everyday struggles over water and fuel that working class women faced, or domestic abuse. Another magazine in Trichy, Suttum Vizhi Sudar (A Fiery and Luminous Gaze), combined news on women’s issues from the rest of the country, summaries of Manushi articles, and reports on diverse social struggles in India and Asia at large.
I had just started to read and write on the Tamil non-Brahmin movement, and felt embarrassed by my kin and caste network. I had always been uneasy about matters of caste—my grandmother’s ritualism and orthodoxy that resulted in keeping several people out of our household, particularly the kitchen, had always annoyed my father and me. But apart from fighting with her, we did not do much about it. My father would remark that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was right in its fulminations against Brahminical authority, but never explained why. I did not know where to go, or whom to ask, until a young lecturer from the undergraduate college I studied in, explained why Brahmin orthodoxy was more than regrettable and had to do with a complicated politics of touchability and untouchability, and made for power and entitlement. That was when I realised that I was ‘entitled’ though the full import of this would not strike me until much later.
Later, while doing my graduate studies in another city college, student politics put me in touch with ideas that proclaimed the wrongness of caste, but we were never quite told why it was so, and how might one engage with it.
Reading Periyar and others in his Self-Respect Movement proved catalytic. And I came to argue out the caste question in my home, with my parents, and insisted that they read Periyar. Both my parents eventually did, and my father became a resolute admirer of Periyar’s acerbic wit and intellectual clarity.
None of this helped me prep for the Chinglepet class.
I was unprepared to address a group of women from rural, periurban and small-town Tamil Nadu. Many of them had a few years of experience, mobilising women around health, domestic and sexual violence. I was awkward and not sure whether to deliver a lecture, or start a discussion. I was also self-conscious about ‘doing’ feminist content in Tamil. After a stilted beginning, I relaxed and spoke episodically—stopping to take questions, listen to what the participants had to say, by way of their personal experiences…
Later, LRSA called me several times to speak to diverse groups of women, and on a range of issues. I slowly learned how to do this: at one level, it was no different from lecturing in college, which I had done. But almost all my ‘students’ were older than me and had experienced life in ways that I only knew second-hand. I often felt shy and bewildered. Over time, I was humbled by what I learned: that ‘women’s concerns’ were intermeshed with local politics, caste, faith, and a contentious relationship with the local Collectorate and police station. Many participants wanted to know if they could put to use what they learnt in our sessions. Some thought they could ‘enlighten’ rural women. Others wanted to know, what use were these histories of social reform and law-making, apart from being interesting stories? Sure, neoliberal economics meant hardship for the poor, but that was nothing new—what was more important was to take note of how women’s control over sustainable farming was being wrested from them, how they stood to suffer from the local river dying because of pesticides…
I could not duck these questions or answer them clearly.
But I learned this at least: We could be encyclopaedic, politically correct, urgent, or not; but in the end, we needed to be attentive to how our listeners heard us. And if they wanted to take the discussion in a direction we were not prepared for, we needed to train ourselves so that the next time around, we built in the time and context to explore the ideas put forth. Even if they had nothing to do with the scheduled programme. It was as much a question of us learning and unlearning, as it was of us ‘teaching’.
In the discussions that followed, women picked on what spoke to their concerns, and extended meanings by recalling personal experiences, or what had transpired in their sphere of work. After this, there were break-out sessions in which women created flow charts and mind maps of what they had learned, which they then presented to the larger group.
While I kept with this routine, I also played with it, broke its sequencing and, along with the women, evolved a model of teaching-learning that has sustained me over the decades. (More on this later.) And in this, I was vastly helped by my engagement with the wide spectrum of the Indian women’s movements.
By the early 1990s, our women’s group in the city had a work agenda—domestic violence—and this gave us a grounding in steady and often frustrating work with shelter homes, family courts, caste panchayats.
Many of us in the group were also part of an all-Tamil Nadu initiative called Tamil Women’s Coordination Committee: around 40 strong-minded and active women—some of whom ran magazines, helped form village sangams—were affiliated with particular movements, including the far Left, and with an emergent Dalit assertion. A few of us were also in touch with women’s groups and movements across the country, and involved in some of the key debates of the 1990s—amendments to the rape law, legislating against domestic violence, campaigns against amniocentesis and contraceptives imposed on women as well as anti-communal work. We met once in three months, where we shared our travails, spoke of what we had read or learned, reflected on shared dilemmas.
Two of us were Brahmins, the rest were from Bahujan and Dalit communities. And this being the Mandal and Masjid decade, we constantly talked gender, caste and faith. We learned where to insist on solidarity and sisterhood. We learned what made it imperative for Dalit and Muslim women to form distinctive groups and networks. All of this fed into my teaching—as did my research on the Tamil Self-Respect Movement and Periyar’s thought world, which led me to engage with anti-caste and non-Brahmin groups and campaigns, and not only as a researcher. I found myself participating avidly in discussions, protests… Eventually I’d co-author a book on Periyar, his movement, and their antecedents.
Such discussions made it evident that while we might be able to grasp analytically and politically the way caste and gender issues are layered onto each other, this did not mean that we had at hand a politics that addressed this from a feminist perspective.
Dalit assertion and Ambedkarite politics offered an option, but while some amongst us supported particular Dalit parties and groups, we did not yet understand that we had something to learn, in a feminist sense, from this politics. Likewise, while we interacted with Dalit women and the newly formed Dalit women’s networks (this was in the mid-1990s), we related to them, in an additive sort of way: there were women’s groups, and then there were Dalit women’s groups. Thus, there were crucial gaps in our understanding.
Meanwhile, in my classes, I pulled Tamil anti-caste histories into discussions, especially how Periyar argued for ending the caste order as well as masculinist patriarchy. But while we could relate to his views on sexuality, chastity, conjugality and reproduction and make them our own, we did not quite understand, except in a logical sense, what we needed to do to fight caste. From the late 1990s, I had taken to reading Dr Ambedkar’s writings systematically, but was yet to take full measure of all that I was learning.
Over time, it became evident to me how graded inequality was kept in place through a reproduction of the caste family, and that feminist politics had to reckon with taking on a reality that both contained as well as protected women, which was a cause of their hurt, and also choiceless refuge.
1994. My teaching acquired a certain coherence when a Madurai-based resource centre for women, Ekta, invited me to do a series of lectures/classes on a range of subjects: the history of women’s movements and struggles; neoliberalism and its impact on women’s lives, women and media. I worked with a dynamic team of women and with an intensely engaged group of listeners and learners. Most of the subjects I covered were split into three or four sessions, spread over seven or eight months. And while this made for a shifting group of students, at least a third stayed through the entire process. It proved invaluable.
This new context for teaching-learning was exciting because the sessions were not one-off and we spent time on knotty issues.
Now, students got into the habit of following up on our discussions with ‘field work’. This led them to contrast what they learned in our study sessions with what they had observed and heard in the field. They pointed to where concepts proved useful, and where they were not. Women’s experiences, students noted, were not all the same: while some things were similar across social contexts, there were also important disjunctions, to do with caste and community. So, for example, terms such as ‘Third World debt’ or ‘feminisation of poverty’ had to be pegged onto particularities, of time and place, and not used in a generalised sense.
In these extended study sessions, a distinctive form of knowledge emerged. Women from labouring worlds reflected on what they had seen, heard and learned. Anchored in their social and cultural worlds, but not restricted to these, this was knowledge we do not usually account for, or consider significant.
The group comprised women from across the Muslim-majority districts of the state, and had been formed to address the vexed practice of local mosque committees adjudicating on women’s issues without their participation. I was familiar with the Women’s Jamaat on account of my close friendship with its founder, Sharifa Khanum, who was part of the Tamil Nadu Committee. I found myself giving talks on Islamic feminisms to the group.
I was heard out with grave interest and enthusiasm and the women’s responses were startling: they taught me a great deal about how piety and the Holy Quran anchored their understanding of abuse, sexuality, ideal and functional conjugality. They were convinced that their understanding of justice, within the family and community, was endorsed by scripture, and that it was possible to achieve it. Often, of course, this good faith was tested: like caste panchayats, mosque committees heeded power and authority linked to particular families and men, and many on the committees were dismissive of women’s claims that they knew what the Holy Quran had to say by way of women’s rights. But the Women’s Jamaat responded creatively. With regard to an instance of dowry-related abuse, they printed posters, with relevant verse from the Holy Quran and some of the Hadiths that proclaimed the practice of dowry to be haram, and stuck these on street walls that surrounded a particular mosque. This embarrassed the committee and they had to hear the women out.
Yet there was a poignancy to all of this: women’s groups in the state, Bahujan and Dalit, remained, by and large, aloof from the Jamaat. While many in these groups admitted that there was a ‘Muslim women’s question’, they did not think this was something that could be connected or was already connected to how they ‘did’ gender justice. They assumed that their cause was ‘secular’, whereas Muslim women were yet to get there: in the rare meetings where there were exchanges on the relationship between faith and gender justice, it was made clear that Muslim women had placed themselves outside the pale of ‘progressive’ feminist politics, and sympathy did not translate into respectful listening.
I was wary of Tamil nationalism, given its masculine panache. I made clear that I understood our shared history to be one of interconnections, between geographies, cultures, languages, and also as one riven by caste tensions and hierarchy, and underscored by the caste-gender relationship. Not everyone appeared to think my mode of thinking of the Tamil past useful, or desirable, but given that we had lively discussions and arguments, I thought I had persuaded them to read history in terms of the Tamil country’s relationship to the Deccan on the one hand, and the oceanic worlds of South East Asia on the other; and also to view a shared ‘Tamilness’ as problematic, given that Dalits and women were never equal and valued members of this putative Tamil universe.
I had to reckon with an unexpected factor. My students comprised political activists, journalists, writers, employees in the IT sector, and the latter were the ones most invested in Tamilness. I came to understand why. Many of them were first-generation graduates who were away from home and in a work setting that seemed forbiddingly global. To want to know about the past stemmed from a desire to feel anchored. They were uneasy with the easy cosmopolitanism that the IT industry exuded, and its marked caste and class character. But they did not clearly wish to come across as parochial. Their interest in history had to do with wanting to express an expansive sense of self, and Tamilness, as literary and cultural experience appeared to offer secular ways of being global. While I was not entirely convinced that this was possible, given the fact that this sense of secular belonging often tipped into nationalist pride, I could not ignore the argument, and my critique of Tamilness acquired a reflective character that it did not possess earlier.
I think the patience that I brought to this teaching of Tamil History had a lot to do with what I had learned from my earlier teaching sessions:
However, this was not easy. For, unlike women who could express and wrest out of experiences, understanding and analysis, men referenced broad categories to do with caste, class, nation, culture, belonging—without locating them within specific contexts. Their learning expectations hinged on a notion of knowledge as critique and did not pivot so much around lived life, so to speak. In my work with the Chennai Political School, often I literally had to ‘read’ off what they said to grasp what was not being said, but remained implicit in their expressions. And much of this had to do with what they had endured, either individually, or because of their caste and community locations.
Only later on, when, along with others, I had started an initiative called ‘Let’s Read Ambedkar’, did I have the occasional male participant reference his life and experiences. Sometimes this was in the form of a terse comment. A highly respected Dalit activist from a remote coastal village, in his 70s, noted with sorrow that he felt cheated because the Left movement, of which he had been a part, had not engaged with Ambedkar’s thought, and he had therefore not quite read his work systematically. A young man noted that if it were not for his Class 8 teacher who persuaded him to look for Ambedkar’s writings in the district library, he would have felt deprived of a world of ideas. No progressive politics, including that of Periyar and the Left, could be complete if it was not aligned to, even if critically, with Ambedkar’s ideas, particularly with regard to his understanding of untouchability, he felt.
Unlike women’s recall of experiences, these ways of linking what they had heard to their lives were momentary, but those moments taught me something new. They helped me understand not only the philosophical and political importance of Ambedkar’s thought world, but its pedagogical significance as well. The manner in which he drew concepts out of experience spoke to how caste gets ‘done’ in an everyday sense. Take the idea of graded inequality. An abstract term, it nevertheless communicates the distinctive nature of caste oppression, answering to our granular experiences of discrimination. Or consider the manner in which he speaks of the ‘iron curtain’ that separates the so-called untouchable worlds from those of others, including the Adivasis: spatially, every Dalit knows of such a curtain, but it had never before been granted analytical significance. For students this was important, for it brought in rich understanding to supplement anger and anguish.