Does #MeToo have room for stories other than those of privileged, cisgender(1) women? Shals Mahajan addresses the importance of validating the experiences of the LGBTIKHQA+(2) and other marginalised communities, taking us through the interstitial spaces in India’s patriarchal structure to understand how we can make the movement more inclusive
The Supreme Court judgement on Section 3773 of the IPC is no more than a few months old, but there are already some murmurs of the changes that it has the potential to affect. One of these is the possibility of a queer4 person filing a complaint of sexual harassment against a perpetrator of the same gender without fear of immediate backlash and counter accusations. The NALSA judgement (National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India) of 2014 had already opened this space for trans*5 persons to do the same.
As queer and trans* persons, most of us have lived with the stress of being under constant scrutiny. If you are not ‘out’ about being queer or trans*, and ‘pass6’ as someone normative, there is the fear of ‘being found out’ for who you are. In the case that you are either visibly different, or have acknowledged your difference/identity in a semi-public manner, then you are under further scrutiny and check, lest your behaviour “contaminate” others who are normal.
Being non-normative in terms of gender and sexuality is so akin to deviance and perversion in the minds of most people, that we are seen as violators and predators. So the accusation of paedophilia against gay men, of “lifting” children against hijra7 communities, the image of the much maligned butch lesbian out to destroy “young innocent” girls — these continue to still operate in the minds of people. And if the deviant is a hijra and a sex worker, then she is so brazen and predatory, that even men are not safe!
In such civic conditions, which have not changed at all despite the current optimism that has followed the 377 and NALSA judgements, and there is evidence, in fact, of increasing violence against trans women, what will make it possible for all our voices to be heard, and for us to not continuously be the ones under suspicion? Does the present #MeToo moment have space for a queer or trans* voice?
No sooner had the above been uttered than several questions bubbled to the fore — but isn’t there violence from women towards women and men towards men? Do men not get sexually assaulted? Do hijras not humiliate and assault men in public to extort money from them? Oh, and also, are trans men too not violent towards women?
What possible answer can there be for such questioning, except that, of course, all this and much more does happen. The questioning assumes that “we” do not wish to address these issues or pretend that somehow being queer and trans* makes “us” devoid of all power to the extent that “we” can never be perpetrators of violence.
The thing is that this sort of questioning springs from the same mindset which assumes that speaking of all women as facing gendered violence equally is correct; that there is somehow a universal “community” of women that transcends all locations8 and must, simply via this identity, forge a sisterhood stronger than every other bond. This is the same mindset that is horrified and shocked every time Hindu women are part of large mobs that rape, humiliate and murder Muslim women and men, as happened in Gujarat in 2002. The same mindset that has to be corrected when women too, despite their womanhood, have been part of the violence and oppression of Dalit9 men and women, and children as well. This is precisely the mindset that wants to place one location above all others to claim both powerlessness as well as solidarity.
This is where #SmashBrahminicalPatriarchy comes in. It is no surprise it was on one of the placards at the Delhi Queer Pride Parade. In fact there were also placards with the slogan ‘Smash Brahminical10 Homophobic Transphobic Patriarchy’ just to make things even clearer.
Caste and gender have been deeply intertwined in this Subcontinent; to talk of one without the other is impossible, and both form the warp and weft of sexuality.
Thus the specificities of different locations and their hierarchical nature, which can both privilege and oppress us, are crucial to understanding if #MeToo is to become #WeToo. And part of this is listening to the experiences of those who fall outside the gambit of the familiar and the sororal. It is to amplify voices not just of #PeopleLikeUs but also others who might be facing oppression from these very visible locations/persons. It is not enough to ask whether women too are violent, but to see the multiple ways in which power, authority and legitimacy play into our social and personal interactions. We have to continue to understand what violence looks and feels like from places other than those that we are familiar with and have managed to find articulation for.
As I write this piece, a trans woman from Hyderabad, Chandramukhi Muvvala, who is contesting the upcoming Telangana assembly elections as a Bahujan Left Front11 (BLF) candidate, has just been ‘found’ after having gone missing for over 36 hours. The story behind her disappearance is yet to become clear and seems motivated by her strong candidacy and outspokenness on the rights of marginalised persons in her work and in her just-begun election campaign.
On the face of it, one might wonder, what this has to do with sexual harassment or the #MeToo movement. But when one recalls that Chandramukhi and other trans women have also been at the forefront of campaigns condemning violence against trans women, hijras and sex workers and have recently also joined other women from different marginalised locations to put forth demands to the state for the rights of all women, then these connects do not seem tenuous.
Trans women, especially hijras, and those in sex work, have often faced the brunt of Brahminical patriarchy because of their visibility, presence in public spaces and open transgression of norms of traditional morality. Hijras occupy a highly marginalised space in society and their visibility in public spaces is marked much more than most other queer and trans* persons. So is it for sex workers. For them, goons on the street and the police are the worst, but so are the “respectable” middle and upper classes and dominant caste persons who want to keep “their” streets, parks and neighbourhoods “clean” from their very presence.
Unorganised workers, whether sex workers, vegetable sellers, domestic workers, those in construction or others, face insidious and widespread sexual violence and harassment in their workplaces from the men that they interact with due to their work. When public spaces, for example, street corners and parks are not just common civic spaces, but workspaces, then how do we understand sexual harassment at the workplace.
Each social interaction is mediated by not just location vis-à-vis that particular transaction, say seller and buyer, but also by gender, class, caste, ability, social status and other markers. So the harassment in these situations too has to be understood within all these intersecting structures.
If these questions do not become part of the multiple conversations around #MeToo, it will remain exclusive to only some realities. If an understanding of power mediated not just by gender but other social and cultural locations too is not part of understanding how sexual violence works, then only the voice of those who are privileged in all other locations will be heard. And this is definitely not how many of us see this moment in time and history and in our lives.
Cisgender/cis1: denoting or relating to a person who exclusively identifies with the sex assigned at birth. The term cisgender is not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, hormonal make-up, physical anatomy, or how one is perceived in daily life.
LGBTIKHQA+2: acronyms/alphabet soups of identities are created as more get added with time and articulation. These include but are not limited to: Queer, Questioning, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Hijra, Kothi, Genderqueer, Asexual, Non-binary and many more.
Section 3773: the section of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that criminalised homosexuality. On 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India struck down the 19th-century law.
queer4: a term for people of marginalised gender identities and sexual orientations who are not cisgender and/or heterosexual. It has a complicated history as a reclaimed slur.
Transgender (trans)5: in this piece, the author uses it as an encompassing term for those whose gender identities do not align or exclusively align with their sex assigned at birth. It is not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, hormonal make-up, physical anatomy, or how one is perceived in daily life. (Some also use an asterisk — trans* — to indicate that the umbrella term is continuously growing.)
pass6: to be able to be read and recognised by other persons in the gender you wish to be recognised.
hijra7: along with Aravanis/kinnars/Thirunangai, hijras and many others are sociocultural identities that have existed in different ways in the Subcontinent. Most of them are transgender persons assigned male at birth who usually express feminine characteristics, may or may not have surgeries, but usually live with others like themselves forming community households.
locations8: ergo social location; the groups people belong to because of their place or position in history and society. All people have a social location that is defined by their gender, caste, race, social class, age, ability, religion, sexual orientation, and geographic location.
Dalit9: in Sanskrit, the word means ‘oppressed’ or ‘downtrodden’. In Marathi, the language in which the word was first used for social and political mobilisation by the ‘untouchable’ communities, it means ‘broken’ or ‘broken to pieces’.
Brahminical10: perspectives that draw from practices and belief systems of those at the top of the caste hierarchy of the Hindus.
Bahujan Left Front11: a coalition led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
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