Carceral Feminism and the Punitive State: Why I am Not With the Mob — 2


In the 1980s, when the first feminist articulations began to be heard in Kerala, left-leaning feminists often sought to maintain a critical distance from the state, emphasizing its inherently patriarchal nature. This was not surprising as feminists of that generation had radical-Marxist roots or strong connections with it. Radical Marxism in that generation was clearly suspicious of the state – quite unlike the mainstream left.

Elsewhere, I have argued that feminists in Kerala of the 1980s were of distinctly-different political orientations – those who retained radical Marxism’s suspicions of state power and international funding were the ‘political feminists’ while those who took a more reformist line and facilited reduction of feminism into the developmental framework of the CPM-led decentralized governance framework were the ‘developmental feminists.’ Political feminists were convinced of the ubiquity of patriarchy across the state, market, and civil society. They also tried to initiate anti-patriarchal interventions in civil society outside the mainstream left’s reformist and developmental imagination through trying to introduce new worker-centric models of savings and credit groups and mobilizing informal sector women workers, as in SEWA Kerala.

 However, both groups of feminists in Kerala were to gravitate much closer to the mainstream left in the 1990s and after. The post-Beijing turn in Malayali feminism brought many feminists from both streams closer to the government through gender mainstreaming, though the scepticism of the state and international funding lingered on for very long especially among the political feminists.

Nevertheless, it is an unquestionable fact that feminism ‘lost’ its central or major constituency, ‘women’, to the mainstream left around this time: they were shaped into the development civil society that the mainstream left fostered through the state-wide network of women’s self-help groups (called the Kudumbashree now). I still remember how activist feminists used to complain at that time that it was impossible to get a small group of five or six women together to discuss anything in rural areas: the panchayat member would come checking. Or how the self-help groups were undermining the kind of livelihood groups that feminist and women’s rights organizations like SEWA Kerala were trying to form.

The consequence of this loss of constituency was dire – ‘women’ came to be associated with governmentalizing state feminism rather than with independent anti-patriarchal civil social mobilization. Political feminists did not make any significant effort to engage with Kudumbashree women or women leaders in local governance, though they were beginning to form a vast state-centric development civil society . At best, they performed certain roles staying well-within the terms set by the governance agenda of the state – as gender trainers, gender budgeting experts, and so on, or as researchers/action researchers helping to improve such institutions as the Jagratha Samithis or trainings for elected members of the local governments. This inability to create their own critical and anti-patriarchal civil society had a fatal impact on the ability of Kerala’s political feminists to create support structures for survivors of patriarchal violence outside the state and indeed, their capacity and willingness to think of non-carceral solutions for sexual violence. Unable or unwilling to fight a battle to create a broader feminist civil society, Kerala’s feminists turned to a suitably ‘universal’ agenda which seemed elementary and directly convincing — unlike local patriarchy which is harder to fight simply because it is empirical reality, always more complicated and harder to analyze.

Political feminists wary of ‘foreign funding’ (mostly for governance-related projects, at that time) on the one hand, and the state’s effort to ‘trap women in micro-finance’ on the other, did not therefore confront the state head-on about these; nor did they reach out to the Kudumbashree and women in local governments on their own terms of engagement. Instead, their focus was on what emerged as a global, universal agenda — fighting against violence against women, especially sexual violence.

However, as in the global arena in which American white radical feminism underwent liberal interpretation which made possible an alliance with the conservative rightwing over sexual violence, here too, feminist battles over rape, for example, the feminist contestation over rape and sexual violence by powerful politicians in the infamous ‘ice-cream parlour’ case  (which began in the late 1990s) and others – had ambivalent consequences, often strengthening state protectionism and an emphasis on women’s vulnerabilities. Given that feminism in Kerala had no sizeable civil social presence, the call to sharpen the weapons of the state and use them effectively against sexual crime in a way that rarely questioned the super-patriarchal power of the state could only become shriller still. This call, it must be noted, was acceptable to both conservatives and progressives, though for different reasons.

But this faith in the trenchant use of the state’s instruments of violence to protect women against sexual violence became a full-fledged carceral feminism when it came face to face with the sex-worker mobilizations of the early 2000s (that grew out of globally-funded AIDS interventions but became citizenship assertions). Some of the most acrimonious debates between feminists occurred in those days. How I shudder to think how much more rancorous they would have been, had there been social media at that time! On the pages of the Madhyamam Weekly, Islamicists joined hands with carceral feminists to banish the sex worker activist Nalini Jameela and the anti-carceral feminists who stood with her from the very domain of feminism itself. They declared themselves to be the protectors of women who were in battle against ‘sex-traffickers’ and criminals who wanted to ‘turn Kerala into Thailand’. Eerily resembling the present-day attacks of carceral feminists against others, actually.

However, after a short lively spell, anti-carceral feminism around sex worker mobilization  fizzled out too soon and has lingered marginally in resistant cultural spaces – including Patabhedam that Chandran is part of – and in anti-patriarchal language, contributing, for example, the term laingika-thozilaali (sex worker). This anti-carceral feminism often viewed itself in binary terms with carceral feminism – no wonder that it could not highlight the need for ‘sensual intelligence’ – understood as  not just the acceptance and awareness of the body, but the ability to gauge the power dynamics of a sexual situation and find intelligent, non-carceral, self-affirming responses to it, that would have advanced sexual communication in civil society, and equality and mutual respect in intimate relationships.

In the second decade of the present century and after, the state in Kerala has been steadily shedding features of the welfare state and acquiring those of the punitive state as political society grows closer and closer to newer forms of predatory capital. By now, the prominent left parties have abandoned all distance to the capitalist neoliberal state – it is as if the longstanding debate in the Marxist tradition around the need to dismantle the capitalist state and rebuild it on socialist lines has completely vanished in the mainstream left. Indeed, the ‘logic of statist authority’ and the ‘logic of horizontal commonality’ merging in the idea of ‘public service’ (Etienne Balibar’s coinages, in another context, that of state services in times of health crises and emergencies), seems to have completely fused in the figure of Pinarayi Vijayan who now represents the state, almost. The state in Kerala is now steadily transforming itself into a punitive state – the number of UAPA cases registered in Kerala in 2014-20, 193, is definitely towards the higher end even though it is much lower than areas which experience insurgency.  it demands the restoration of UAPA charges against an alleged Maoist; it is no free-speech paradise for sure.

However, feminism, in this decade, grew even more as a discursive presence, for several reasons.  A whole generation of highly-individuated college-going women who could not but question the patriarchal contradictions that structured their lives were now active and vocal. Their exposure to higher education and to the world in general had increased manifold by now. If feminism has gained velocity and intensity as a discourse, it is because members of this generation demand it as a tool of self-fashioning. Feminist individuals and circles were now all the more urban and concentrated more and more around cultural and educational institutions where feminism was a strong discursive presence. This did not however, mean that feminism as a collective politics now gained favour with the mainstream left.

Besides, the great strides achieved by the feminist thrust in Malayalam literature; the need for self-affirmative ideologies experienced by the highly-individuated generation of college-going women of the present; the entry of women into virtually every sphere of life here as their emergence as substantial achievers, and so on, have essentially unfolded outside mainstream feminism. Women achievers in Kerala may adhere to some form of liberal-feminist self-affirmation, but that these women can well-be cultural right-wingers was quite conspicuous in the interventions of such women who spearheaded the ReadytoWait campaign to defend ‘aachaaram’ during the agitation against the SC judgment about the Sabarimala temple.

Also, by the second decade of the present century, this discourse was fully pluralized — even though new complex feminist identities, especially Islamicist feminists, struggled to be recognized. Dalit, Islamicist, and queer feminists confronted mainstream feminism; this definitely impacted struggles, often weakening them considerably when ‘reparative readings’ were simply not forthcoming.But even as mainstream feminism and other positions within feminisms critical of it, such as the dalit feminist position (whose constituency too, has been largely with the dominant left since the 1950s at least), struggle to find common ground, the radical-feminist-inspired understanding of sexual violation and the idea that it can be dealt with only by refurbished state power, so central to global governance feminism, is a comforting site for temporary convergence.

In this decade, whenever feminists attempted to challenge the terms of state-protectionist feminism, the mainstream left turned against them – for example, in the Kiss of Love protests of 2014. However, the presence of feminist individuals in left cultural circles was useful to retain a whiff of oppositional and critical charge in a broader context in which the larger policies and politics of the mainstream left moved sharply rightward. That the mainstream left no longer needs feminists as a group has been more than evident in many recent events – from their disinterest in protecting them during the right-wing attack on feminists around the SC judgment on Sabarimala, to the plight of the Women in Cinema Collective. In the Sabarimala controversy which was clearly focused on women’s status as full citizens and believers, feminists or even women’s organizations were rarely consulted by the ruling left government on even minor decisons; while ‘women activists’ were blamed as a group for supporting women of menstruating ages who sought to make the pilgrimage, the left government did work with two ‘women activists’ to break the right-wing protest – no contradiction was perceived between these. Far from appearing oppositional and a force in their own right, the mainstream feminists in general now appear all the more as a visible but minor force, at best placated with limited resources distributed usually in highly-individualising fashion, never larger enough to build their own spaces or initiatives outside the state.

Similar processes of governmentalizing, takeover, and the privileging of a few individual voices palatable to the mainstream ruling left are afoot in queer activism as well, but it is still too early to tell.

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