Interview with Sohini Chatterjee
BY AMA JOSEPHINE BUDGE
AB: How did you find HYSTERIA?
SC: After I graduated from college and became engaged with digital modes of communication, I started writing for online Indian youth publications – primarily on gender, culture, politics and feminism. It was then that a member of HYSTERIA sent me a friend request on Facebook, most likely after having read one of my articles on feminism. It is through her that I found the collective. She was promoting HYSTERIA on her page and it piqued my curiosity. I wanted to know about the platform and what it stood for. Once I got to know about its commitments and values, I felt this right at home. I took very little time to express my interest in doing editorial work for HYSTERIA and was warmly welcomed.
AB: Why did you assume the role of an editor for HYSTERIA?
SC: When I started writing, which can be a solitary process, I found a friend in reading. I read a lot on what was being written by people of my generation. While I saw some great points of view emerging, which could really be considered the coming of age of our culture of socio-political communication, I often stumbled upon writings which, though well-intentioned, were problematic or un-nuanced in their representation of issues centering on gender. It is this misrepresentation that made me want to have some control over what was being published. I thought doing some editorial work would provide me this liberty and along came HYSTERIA! And I can tell you that I immensely enjoy doing what I do. The work feels meaningful and is therefore rewarding.
AB: Tell us about how you came to Feminism, or how feminism came to you.
Feminism came to me in various ways. I became keenly aware of gender inequality whilst in college. I was reading feminist literature at that point, which further revealed that all was not right. I was 18 and majoring in Political Science. We weren’t taught feminism in a way that I wish we had been. A lot of nuance was left out. I felt I needed to know more, beyond what feminist political theory classes were letting me know. However, it was with the help of a particular professor that I became intimately acquainted with feminism. I used to audit his lectures on Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which he was teaching in a college not very far from mine, to a bunch of postgraduate English literature students. Those classes and the interactions we had thereafter, along with several others, helped me understand the nuances of feminist politics. I was having passionate debates, discussions and conversations about feminism almost on a regular basis, which helped me further evolve my own understanding of feminism. I started identifying as a feminist and have since spent an extraordinary amount of time defending the label against those who accuse feminists of being largely misguided in how they perceive inequalities.
AB: What are the challenges you have faced for identifying as a feminist or as a queer feminist?
SC: It’s quite a challenge to identify as a feminist, especially since it has been given very unsavory connotations here in India, and I know globally. Whenever I have identified as a feminist, I have seen men and women get very defensive and ask for an explanation of what feminism means to me, they demand the assertion that my feminism is not about misandry. If you are a feminist, you will be made to look like an endlessly angry, irrational and a definitive social pariah who is endlessly prejudiced against embodied males and that you cannot help it. Feminists repeatedly have to say, “Please understand, we are not against men!” In a patriarchal society, this is bound to happen. I wrote a few pieces on feminism in a very popular youth forum in India when I had just started writing. While it was heartening to see my content going viral quickly and many thanked me for not mincing my words on gender and sexuality, there were many others who started being abusive. There have always been concerted efforts made to not take the work of feminists seriously, to reduce our opinions to “rants”, to make us look unreasonable, prejudiced and crazy. All this is done to keep us from exposing the violence that patriarchy perpetuates.
Since I’ve faced an extraordinary amount of backlash for talking about identities in a non-feminist, non-queer friendly, non-accommodating space, I’ve become more cautious now. I know how to begin a conversation on feminism and what approach to take when speaking to an ignorant and potentially hostile audience. This is one of the strategies of communication that feminists have to learn with time. It’s a challenge in itself.
AB: Why did you feel the need to be part of a feminist collective like HYSTERIA?
SC: When I started to understand what feminism is and what it means to be a feminist, I also realized my responsibilities associated with the ideology and the label. I felt the need to be part of a collective where I could contribute to the ongoing debates on feminism in a meaningful way.
But there is another reason behind my association with HYSTERIA today. While I was becoming familiar with feminism, I also learnt to accept my identity as a queer woman. Feminism helped me embrace this aspect of my identity. There is an amazing queer women’s community in Kolkata and I wanted to be a part of that space but my association with them was limited as I was not out at the time. I would attend their workshops, seminars, film festivals but as an outsider. The queer feminist community in Kolkata comprises of some very brave, creative, endlessly inspiring women of substance who I knew would understand me better than my closest friends could. But I couldn’t bring myself to come out then and yet I constantly felt the need of a space of queer feminist solidarity. Then I found HYSTERIA and felt hugely compensated.
HYSTERIA is really more me than anything else I’ve come across, certainly when compared with other ‘pseudo-safe-spaces.’ It has given me a safe space to understand feminisms, to understand queer feminisms, and to understand how important queer feminisms are, how they can enrich your life and thought.
AB: Are you out now?
SC: I am now out to people I am close to and who I feel deserve my truth. Being ‘out’ is a process; you have to come out over and over and over, again and again to different people throughout your life. Now I am more comfortable to be open about who I am. I’m not going to be a person who is very lonely in carrying a secret, who can’t speak out about what they believe in and about who they are. I’m not going to do that again to myself.
AB: How much are your feminist and queer identities connected?
SC: I think that in order for feminism to address all inequalities, it also needs to address queer inequalities. Feminism has to be intersectional in order to be inclusive. If feminism is not addressing how people of certain sexual orientations are targeted, then that feminism has a heteronormative agenda. If I am not talking about queer feminist identities within a feminist discourse, then I don’t think I can call myself a feminist, because then I am being exclusionary. I would shy away from talking about equality for anyone except embodied heterosexual males or females. I’m not going to talk about people constituted by their non-normative desires, which would deny their claim to equal rights. If feminism claims to be about equality, it should address these concerns, making its claim of equal rights more wholesome. If not, it cannot be the feminism I stand for.
I’ll tell you something very interesting: when I came to graduate school, I knew that I was going to bring my feminist self with me. I wasn’t going to leave it behind in Kolkata. I met a lot of people from very different cultures because this is a place with many students from South Asian countries other than India. I’ve initiated conversations about feminism with those who are relatively unexposed to feminism. Once the subject of LGBT activism had come up, it was the year that a flash mob had happened in Delhi which was arranged by queer activists. So this woman – educated, middle-class and religious – asks me, “Are you a lesbian?” I refused to give her any insight into what my sexual orientation is because you can have a conversation about queer rights without saying, ‘Well, I’m a lesbian and that’s why I’m talking about this’. But the problem is if you’re talking about a queer feminist issue, everyone wants to know your stake in the matter. “Who are you?” They ask. It’s not enough to say that you are a feminist and hence the claims you make for equality in terms of civil rights for queer people are legitimate. It’s only if you are queer that people are willing to understand where you are coming from but the demand may still not be legitimate in popular parlance. But this is problematic. Feminism is an umbrella term addressing injustices meted out to queer communities across the world. Saying you are a feminist should imply that you are queer inclusive. However, since what passed for a long time as mainstream feminism did not, and still sometimes does not include queer people’s concerns, feminism seems to have assumed a heterosexual orientation of its own. So it needs to be made very clear that feminists are one with queer people, they stand for people of all genders and sexual orientations across the spectrum.
AB: HYSTERIA identifies as a “radical” collective, how does that translate in your geographical and societal locations?
SC: Demand is rising in India for a 33% reservation for women in the parliament since a decade now [also known as quotas or positive discrimination]. But there are right-wingers all across the country pushing against that. It’s a battle that needs to be fought. This reservation is a radical feminist claim in the Indian context since for the first time feminists want to make women’s political representation compulsory to solve the problem of women’s underrepresentation in the legislative bodies. I think this is a radical demand. Women need to represent themselves and nobody can deny them this right. Here, equality is being brought about through equity. Such nuance in feminist politics is praiseworthy.
If you’re talking about radicalism in Indian feminism, you have to remember that women here, like everywhere in the world, are not a homogenous group. But that heterogeneity here is far more gaping. There are several categorizations of caste, class, education, religion and sexuality that divide them. Another example of radicalism would be when bigoted feminists demanded the implementation of Uniform Civil Code to remove religious private laws that are traditionally known to discriminate against women. But when feminists were talking about it, the right-wing, who believe that India should not be multicultural or multi-religious but should rather homogenize laws for the sake of national integration, followed suit in order to impose a homogenized idea of nationalism from above in gross neglect of India’s multicultural fabric. So the feminists were pushing for equal rights for women and that all women should not have to face trouble for the laws made by their religious identification, and the right-wingers were trying to homogenize the religious legal and societal cultures. It was a very mature moment in Indian feminism when feminists realised that their movement was being hijacked by the right-wing for its antagonistic homogenizing agenda. It was then dropped – the feminists didn’t want to be a part of it. I think it was at that time that Indian feminism became truly intersectional. I think feminism, in order to be radical, has to make itself intersectional – especially in the South Asian context, which has myriad locational specificities of its own that affect women in different ways. And a lot of debate on intersectional feminism is now happening in India which is a radical development in and of itself.
AB: And what about your personal relationship to the term radical feminist?
SC: I have had to give many elaborate explanations on what feminism is and what my feminism means to me, and whether or not I hate men, or will discriminate against men because I am a feminist. People often insist that you give up on calling yourself a feminist and instead say that you are for gender equality. The F word is considered nasty! So in this social-cultural milieu just identifying against all odds is a radical act. And more and more, people are starting to partake in this radical act, especially young people, and it is heartening to see that there’s a generation which understands what feminism stands for. They could not be manipulated into thinking that feminism is a hate filled ideology.
But of course, radicalism does not stop there –just identifying as one does not make you one. You have to constantly reassert your identity. I call myself radical because I choose to live life on my own terms, manipulating the structural constraints to my advantage. My inability to conform makes me radical. I have been radical in being able to accept myself and choosing to believe that I am fine no matter how far ‘behind’ I may be by artificial social standards. I am radical in being able to use the written word to prepare our world for a feminist revolution. I am radical because I do not buy into easy, comfortable patriarchal bargains. I am radical because I do not think being radical is being arrogant, disrespectful or disorienting – making you lose sight of your cause. Rather radicalism helps you stick to your motivations, your goals and not give up on them. My radicalism is manifested through my radical commitment to the feminist ideology.
Knowledge capital does not automatically help someone become a feminist when they have grown up in a culture where patriarchy has given them their language and voice. I think, personally, I have a lot of work to do in getting people to understand that radical feminism is not as radical as patriarchy can be. It’s the only way out poor women and non-conforming women have – radicalism is the only way to fight. It’s a tough road ahead, but radicalism is the challenge to oneself to overcome fear of adversity.
AB: What is the thing you are most excited about that is developing in the Indian feminist discourses that you inhabit and contribute to?
SC: A good thing that is happening in this age of new media is a really sincere effort to demystify sex and everything related to it. Young people are coming about, enthusiastically joining debates about gender, sex and sexuality – something quite unheard of in the past eras. I have written more than a dozen articles on these issues myself. As a result of this, feminist activism of students has become very powerful in India. There are several feminist societies and LGBT groups that are emerging across university campuses, generating awareness among the youth around issues of significance. Feminist critique is being slowly but surely pushed into the mainstream of political activism. And I think that’s a great development.
As I was telling you before, a lot of what I wrote was being received well. Women were writing they “loved me” and it was so heartwarming. This was unthinkable a few decades before. Feminists would likely have been shunned for saying what I say today. I think we are slowly maturing. We have started seeing wisdom in feminist claims. And women are starting to realize that nobody cares about them more than feminists.
AB: Thanks for talking to us!
SC: I am so glad that we had this chat. There’s so much mystery among HYSTERIA members as to who we really are since we have not had much time to get to know each other as people beyond the roles we perform for HYSTERIA or our professional achievements, especially those of us who are the only collective members in our cities. Getting to know interactions can help us further strengthen our very own transnational feminist solidarity project. Also, our personal accounts can be sourced to find strengths and learn from weaknesses. Possibilities of empathy, friendship and understanding are all beautiful consequences of this. So thank you for creating such possibilities.