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Srila Roy. Changing the Subject: Feminist and Queer Politics in Neoliberal India

Virginie Dutoya
Bibliographical reference

Roy, Srila. 2022. Changing the Subject: Feminist and Queer Politics in Neoliberal India. Durham: Duke University Press.

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1The institutionalization and professionalization of feminism have been hot issues in feminist debates over the last three decades. In particular, anxieties around the “NGOization” of feminism can be found in most feminist spaces, from the Global South to the Global North (Alvarez 1999; Bernal and Grewal 2014; Lang 1997). The shift from what was seen as “activist” feminism and queer politics to so-called “professional” feminism, generally with the support of the state and international organizations, has often been viewed as the co-optation and dilution of feminism. In India, this shift is usually connected to the forced liberalization of the 1990s and the integration of women’s empowerment within state discourses and government practices (Menon 2009).

2In Changing the Subject: Feminist and Queer Politics in Neoliberal India, sociologist Srila Roy proposes taking a fresh look at the issue. True to her title, she wants to “change the subject” by going beyond the co-optation/autonomy binary in order to show how it is constantly interwoven into feminist praxis and theory. Using a Foucaldian perspective, she develops the idea of “queer feminist governmentalities” to refer to “an assemblage of discourses, practices, and techniques aimed at empowering subaltern subjects of the Global South along the axes of gender and sexuality” (p. 5). In particular, she contends that while queer feminist governmentalities are “entangled” in global neoliberalism, they cannot be reduced to it. Moreover, as neoliberalism is centered on the individual, these governmentalities also put the self at the center, thus enabling the emergence of a new feminist and queer self that can also be a resisting subject.

3In this regard, the author pays close attention to the interplay between techniques of governance and techniques of self-making, thus analyzing the way feminist and/or queer subjects are constantly (re)produced. In doing so, Roy resists “the urge” to turn to collective action and instead chooses to stay on the side of the individual as much as possible in order to understand how it is placed at the center of these new feminist governmentalities. Nonetheless, her analysis highlights the important issue of the “changing subject” of feminist and queer politics, meaning the evolution of the constituency for which feminists claim to stand. By looking at how “women” are defined in feminist politics as both those who need to be emancipated and those who work for this cause, Roy participates in one of the most central debates in feminist theory. She aptly brings the South Asian perspective to the forefront by showing the intersection of caste, class, gender, religion, and sexuality within feminist governmentalities.

4One of the book’s strengths is its ability to articulate a strong theoretical framework as well as providing a granular ethnographic survey of two feminist and queer organizations based in West Bengal: Sappho for Equality (SFE) and Janam (the name has been changed). The regional context is significant, as West Bengal—like the rest of India—not only has a history of (post)colonialism, globalization, and liberalization, but also has a strong Marxist tradition, which has deeply influenced the development of the women’s movement.

5The author’s engagement with SFE dates back to 2009, a few years after the organization was founded. Over a long period of time, Roy observed SFE’s work, attended events, and conducted interviews with its members and employees, sometimes returning to the same respondent several times. Similarly, her ethnography of Janam through participant observation is based on several visits in order to observe the organization’s activities and its workers and also to share both work and nonwork moments with them. Both organizations are quite different. SFE is a queer organization based in the metropolis of Kolkata. Originally a self-help group for cisgender lesbian women belonging to the middle class, SFE—like many similar collectives—evolved to become a funded NGO. Janam was created as an NGO, and while it is also based in Kolkata, it operates its microcredit and awareness-raising activities in peri-urban and rural areas and is meant to cater to the needs of “subaltern” women. Both groups belong to the organization Maitree, which is the face of the regional women’s movement. Combining both surveys thus allows the author to develop a strong and nuanced argument about the transformations of the women’s movement in contemporary India and the specific forms it can take. One regret that can be formulated in this respect is that both surveys are presented in different chapters (2 and 3 for SFE, 4 and 5 for Janam) and could be more integrated, despite the obvious dialogue between them.

6After an introduction establishing the theoretical framework, the first chapter reviews the transformations of Indian feminism in the twenty-first century, dwelling on the issues of co-optation and intersection. In particular, Roy proposes to analyze twenty-first-century queer and feminist governmentalities through the concept of “entanglement” in order to capture the intertwined processes involved in the co-optation of feminism and attempts at maintaining political and material autonomy. Chapter 2 deals with queer activism, framing it as a form of governmentality. It highlights how being queer is produced by different practices and discourses that help shape queer behaviors, hence producing new normativities. These new normativities and subjectivities are at the center of chapter 3. In this chapter, Roy analyzes “queer self-fashioning,” the production of queer aesthetics and ways of life, as well as the way queerness does or does not intersect with class and caste. She details how being queer and non-normative does not mean letting go of ideals of social respectability, class, and caste hierarchies. In chapter 4, the author switches to her other case study, Janam, by describing peri-urban and rural life in Bengal. Looking at Janam’s use of microcredit to develop a discourse on women’s rights, women’s education, and its stance against child marriage, Roy shows how a form of feminist governmentality based on the entanglement of neoliberal policies and feminist discourses was developed. The last chapter examines the idea of “subaltern self-government,” analyzing the way Janam’s workers are themselves transformed by their role within the organization, in particular by the fact that they gain some power in relations to other women. The author looks closely at the middle- and lower-class women who work as “peer educators.” They create new practices and discourses in addition to claiming rights (to mobility, family respect, and autonomy) that are neither “liberal” nor “feminist.” Their sartorial choices, social practices (going out with friends), and consumer habits are transformed through complex processes of (self)subjectification. Roy concludes by discussing the dilemma of being a feminist researcher working on a feminist group with the goal of constructing critical knowledge with the actors on the ground, not against them.

7This book is an important read not only for those interested in the women’s movement in India, but also for those wanting to participate in the discussions around queer feminist practices and theory in the twenty-first century. Indeed, Roy delivers both a dense ethnography of the women’s movement in West Bengal, focusing on individual logics rather than organizational ones, and a sophisticated (and mostly convincing) theoretical framework.

8One of the book’s strongest concepts is its use of the notion of “queer entanglement” to describe the intertwining of autonomy and co-optation. This is not a new idea and is to some extent quite close to the idea of “messy hybridity” developed by Amanda Gilbertson (2018) within the context of Delhi. In a way, the concepts of “entanglement” and “hybridity” express researchers’ frustration vis-à-vis discourses on neoliberalization and NGOization as well as the difficulty of truly moving beyond the opposition between pure (grassroots, voluntary) feminism and (paid, neoliberal, and internationally-funded) NGO work. In this respect, Roy rather aptly shows that these feminist organizations (whether queer or not) form a strong socializing environment in which individuals acquire dispositions and disciplines in addition to entering new subjectivities that cannot be reduced to neoliberalism or NGOization. Indeed, the queer and feminist governmentalities she studies are, by nature, subject producing. Janam and SFE provide services (counseling, training, income generation) and also use techniques and tools (awareness raising, self-help, etc.) that seek to transform individuals, who are in turn expected to “work on themselves.”

9While the adjective “neoliberal” is often overused to describe contemporary phenomena, Roy’s decision to remain mostly at the level of the individual justify the neoliberal framework. Indeed, the author focuses on the liberal attention to self-development and self-transformation that can be observed at the level of SFE queer activists and Janam’s peer educators. The flip side of this choice is that elements on material and practical issues are occasionally lacking. For instance, while “international funding” is often mentioned, it would be interesting to have more concrete elements about these organizations’ budget in terms of income and expenditures. Knowing the source of the money and how is it spent would help the reader locate these processes of subjectification within the material structures that sustain them.

10Another extremely important aspect of the book is Roy’s ability to constantly reflect on her own position and use it to better understand the stakes of each situation. In particular, the conclusion is an important text for those conducting feminist research on feminism and who are concerned that their writings might hurt their respondents. Roy’s proposal to see “critique as care” is particularly appealing here, although probably difficult to implement. However, by discussing the various stages of her own reflection (on anonymity, sharing her writings with the organizations, etc.), Roy adds new elements to the discussion.

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Bibliography

Alvarez, Sonia E. 1999. “Advocating feminism: The Latin American Feminist NGO ‘Boom’.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 1(2):181–209. doi: 10.1080/146167499359880.

Bernal, Victoria, and Inderpal Grewal. 2014. “The NGO Form Feminist Struggles, States, and Neoliberalism.” Pp. 1–18 in Theorizing NGOs: States, Feminisms, and Neoliberalism, edited by V. Bernal et I. Grewal. Durham: Duke University Press.

Gilbertson, Amanda. 2018. “Between inclusivity and feminist purism: Young gender justice workers in post-Nirbhaya Delhi.” Women’s Studies International Forum 67(May 2017):1–9. doi: 10.1016/j.wsif.2017.12.003.

Lang, Sabine. 1997. “The NGOization of Feminism: Institutionalization and Institution Building within the German Women’s Movements.” Pp. 101–20 in Transitions, Environments, Translations: Feminisms in International Politics, edited by J. W. Scott, C. Kaplan, and D. Keates. New York: Routledge.

Menon, Nivedita. 2009. “Sexuality, Caste, Governmentality: Contests over ‘Gender’ in India.” Feminist Review (91):94112. doi: 10.1057/fr.2008.46.

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References

Electronic reference

Virginie Dutoya, Srila Roy. Changing the Subject: Feminist and Queer Politics in Neoliberal IndiaSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 31 | 2023, Online since 08 January 2024, connection on 19 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/8989; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/vk39

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About the author

Virginie Dutoya

CESAH (CNRS-EHESS)

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Copyright

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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