(Re)imagining Feminist Solidarities in Academic Spaces

Feminist solidarities[1] bring people together from their positions in oppressive structures as the oppressed. However, this evolution needs to be questioned from an intersectional position where the linear documentation of the politics of solidarity building fails. This article attempts to contextualise feminism(s) in the readings of academia[2] and the transactions of its power(s) from a queer-feminist perspective. It documents sexuality on lines of sexual harassment faced by queer-trans persons and women, and locates trauma in this discourse. It aims to build a locus of storytelling of this trauma beyond whispering and (re)imagines solidarity-building and caretaking in these exchanges.

In the introduction to the book Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, Nancy Bereano writes, 

Lorde, however, had wider vision. She started with the reality of her child’s approaching manhood (‘Our sons will not grow into women’) and then asked what kind of man he would become. She saw clearly that she could both love her son fiercely and let him go. In fact, for their mutual survival, she had no choice but to let him go, to teach him that she ‘did not exist to do his feeling for him’.

This can be extrapolated, although with careful risks, on how queer feminist theorising post List of Sexual Harassment Accused (LoSHA) should focus on letting go of academic hegemony in understanding sexual harassment. “Letting go” is full of its own complex manifestations—academics being trained in the culture of this hegemony may not necessarily grow into being feminist allies, just like Lorde’s son cannot grow up to be a woman. This constraint is performed through a system of bifurcations and role assignments, a deeply intricate political play of power. “Letting go” entails the dismantling of systems that propagate these performances of power. This letting go is not just a mere bid for survival.

On a grand scale, it is how the interrogation of where we locate ourselves as feminists is changing. Because many of us will not grow up into our own allies, we need to carefully consider how we reframe our imaginations that concern our politics—politically, philosophically, and necessarily in praxis. Such an interrogation is further complicated as we try to locate our politics beyond the framework of legal jurisprudence. It is not just a shift of the nature of the process of doing feminist politics but also a shift in intentionality of feminist politics in academic spaces. This, in my opinion, remains one of our primary elegant gains post LoSHA.

 

The Queer Body in Academia

The queer subject and the queer body,[3] out of its many recollections of being in academia, has a primary recollection of being the social “other.” This otherness, a constant articulation of trauma, is also the locus of this queer body finding an alliance in its shared queer consciousness with other queer bodies (Jones and Calfell 2012). This alliance does not come from just “being queer,” but needs a constant interaction with the notion of queerness, self-reflexivity, and communications beyond limits of trauma. The queer body in academia is also the object of violation. It is a social position which is not only an extremely complex intersectional locus, but also a locus that extends beyond its immediate vicinity. 

The queer body, hence, also allows us to question sexuality(ies) as a transaction of power in neo-liberal academia.[4] The cisgender gay man is, in comparison to a Dalit transwoman, a more privileged being. Such intersections in identities complicate how we analyse the agent–patient positioning in tales of sexual harassment. The cisgender gay man however, is a victim of heteronormative patriarchy, and this is not in any way a reduced trauma. The scale of trauma does not necessarily correlate with the scale of privilege and oppression. When all queer bodies are victims, how do we understand victimhood as a unilinear narrative? The construct of a singular victim is probably a fallacy of theorising sexual violation from a position that is almost narcissistic in its approach to marginalisation. In academic spaces dominated by cishet men for a long time, this is absolutely expected and not shocking.

The other long-ignored nuance in understanding the intersections is the lack of visibility of both queerness and sexual violation in the same line, in the same breath. Through an intersectional analysis, this can be understood as the exponential increase in marginalisation as a result of interaction of both, and also as a vicious cycle in itself. If you are queer, and one who states so openly, the academia shall either tokenise you into its capitalist way of transacting academic profit, or oppress you through its cishet–normative structures (or maybe both, since one is intricately bound to the other). A lot of sexual violation is the result of being queer, and the queer body therefore, exercises its own priorities in (in)visibilising its identities. How do we navigate through such discourses where trauma is a trade-off for safety?

Queer-Feminism(s) and its Subversive Roles

Silence, especially that which some of us are forced into by our traumas, is the mortuary of our own selves. It is a weapon in the hands of the oppressor(s) to delete their own anxieties. And in this silence, violence is perpetuated—it crawls under our skin and in time, we make this violence our own, not being able to distinguish it from what is ours. We end up embracing this violence that has been systematically forced upon us, and then we become outsiders to our own resistance (or the desire to resist). This, in my opinion, is something that needs a radical dismantling. 

Lorde, in her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” (presented in 1977 and later published in Sister Outsider) remarks, 

The women who sustained me through that period were Black and white, old and young, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual, and we all shared a war against the tyrannies of silence. They all gave me a strength and concern without which I could not have survived intact. Within those weeks of acute fear came the knowledge—within the war we are all waging with the forces of death, subtle and otherwise, conscious or not—I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.

The tyranny of silence that Lorde refers to is one of the primary agencies of maintaining the power structure of academia—one that keeps the safety of the perpetrators in place with the victims/survivors becoming the subjects of more violence. The silence, now loud enough to be heard, is being transgressed—from the whispers that women and queer-trans persons used to build cautionary verbal “lists,” to Tarana Burke’s #MeToo, Christine C Fair’s article, and Raya Sarkar’s and Deepti Sreeram’s lists.

It is interesting to note that all these persons have been attacking the culture of silence as the root of perpetrating violence. This not only brings forth narratives of “casualities”, but also makes warriors out of victims/survivors who have had to remain bound by their own silence. This silence, of course, is a trade-off for being safe. Among other things, this culture of silence needs to be attacked. I must also specify here that victims/surivivors are not to be blamed for being silent; the attack on this silence should be on the social forces that enforce this silence.

Burke, with her #MeToo campaign, also does something which needs more words. She takes away the standalone “me” and relocates it into “me too,” thereby beginning a chain of not just proclamation, but also reclamation. Solidarities emerge the moment women identify with the same position of being harassed. Here, Burke constructs a social feminist mind, which exists in its solidarities and revolutions more than it exists in itself.

Similarly, beyond the debate that concerns the ethics of the lists, the lists become powerful moments of subverting the nature of silence and transgressions that are aggressive in nature, very much in sync with the aggression that is perhaps necessary for the radical dismantling. The lack of this aggression is a result of the systematic disarmament of women and queer-trans persons and inevitably, this systematic disarmament prevents the resistance against this culture of silence.

A lot of queer persons who face sexual harassment in academia face violence from people in different positions on the scale of power. They are often fellow students, and we need to deconstruct, therefore, the current discourse that has led us to a chock-a-bloc narrative where teachers have been placed in a position different from the students. I say this with some reflexivity—of course teachers are at a higher power position and get away with sexual harassment more easily.

Nevertheless, the current politics should not just limit itself to tackling this power difference, but should go beyond it in understanding complex interactions in this dynamic interpositioning of power. What about queer-trans teachers who are regularly sexually harassed by cishet students and teachers alike? Here, the positions of power are beyond simple equations. The teacher may be better equipped to deal with it, but the transaction of trauma may not follow the same linearity. In another interesting nuance to the debate, it becomes extremely essential to understand harassment as intolerable: a person with the baggage of trauma does not get legitimised into battling the trauma by further sexual harassment. This negotiation, for a long time now, has marred the narratives and perpetrated silence by using pity as a weapon. As Banerjea (2017) says, 

Our feminist politics in general and queer feminist politics in particular have taught us that the attempt to acknowledge the “other” in ways that neither subsume the “other” through terms that are produced by the “I,” nor make the “other” abject, is an extremely difficult and challenging exercise.

Queer-feminism(s) here has a huge responsibility in demanding more than negotiating; queer-feminist voices cannot make unwarranted claims to this silence but should dismantle the silence altogether. 

 

(Re)building Kinships and Solidarities: Beyond the Outsider[5] 

Banerjea (2017) also goes on to say, 

An ordinary ethics of care in academic sites can begin by accepting the impossibilities of addressing habitually encountered gendered power (of which sexual harassment is a part), unless we prepare ourselves to acknowledge and be attentive to the limit-experiences and the polyvalences of power.

Given that our outsiders inhabit us (and therefore constrain us), it is important to engage with the experiences and disjunctions of this outsider while building solidarities and kinships. These not only allow us to “accept” the impossibilities that Banerjea talks of, but also reimagine the way we can undo those impossibilities (some of which Banerjea refers to in her article). Here, by kinships, I talk of a feminist outreach including (but not limited to) love and care; a collectivisation to create a system of support and belonging.

The ambivalent possibilities need to be explored with the background of oppression and through solidarities that are not limited to mere engagement, but a further participation in what results from these engagements. While the trauma that is a result of oppression can never be erased, it shall be within our reach to transact the trauma beyond how it affects us. Understanding the effects of trauma as it affects identities rather than agencies can be one way of reimagining the kinship-building processes that sustain feminist culturing and critiquing. These need to be built on the systems of trust, but they need not necessarily culminate into the culture of cautionary action. Feminist kinships and solidarities are neither momentary nor fragile, and should not be treated so.

 

New Beginnings from the Lists

The lists are neither sanctified nor hardwired. The list is just where the documentation and probable (re)ignition of the debates surrounding sexual harassment in academia has begun. The list is not an unmalleable entity. It has social ownership rather than individual, and the debate should not strangulate itself by becoming static at that point. Here, I put my hopes on a radical engagement with institutions that are already in place—sometimes moving beyond them, but also ensuring that they evolve in the process. The institutions may be Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) and Gender Sensitisation Committees against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), or even legal–juridical institutions, but what I propose is that the methodology of enquiries on sexual harassment in academia cannot be static and wholly dependent on either these institutions or on the list. 

I do not claim for a middle ground or an interaction between the two here. I speak from the position where both need to be acknowledged and referred to, but should also be moved beyond their immediate effects and reimagined. This reimagination is unsettling in its very form, just like the list was when it was created. This unsettling can be small entries into rigorous queer-feminist action. I would like to leave this theorisation at this incompleteness—I am trying to engage more rigorously with the ideas of reimagining myself so as to add more concretely to what I raise here. This, I suggest, can be one position from where further development of the concepts I raise can happen.

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