Co-authored by Aditi Premkumar
Earlier this May, many of us woke up to buzzing notifications on our social media apps when the Bois Locker Room exposé came to light. The screenshots of those conversations reminded us of the unforgiving sexist mindset that women in India are subject to on a daily basis. The incident was an important precursor to several online discussions that followed over the next few weeks—of rage, helplessness, introspection and hope.
In all the clamour and noise after, we could not help but notice the deafening silence of marginalised women. Were educational spaces any safer for them? How is it any different to be a Dalit/Bahujan/Muslim woman calling out sexism online? Where can we find their stories? Well, the answer is everywhere. If you haven’t heard them, you conveniently haven’t paid attention. We must be weary of the false sense of achievement that the conversation around Bois Locker Room has created and listen harder.
The first red flag was that none of the women we spoke to felt the discussion after the incident resonated with historically oppressed communities. Aami*, a 19-year-old from the vannan caste, says, “I felt like this blew up only because it happened in an elite school in South Delhi and the girls there were affected. It was only about the girls who posted the pictures, girls who are on these platforms and guys who are on these platforms and have access to this kind of technology and can take these kinds of pictures.”
Amrutha*, a Dalit woman, felt that the restriction to online activism shaped the kinds of conversations that took place. Marginalised women did not get any attention because social media is confined to the elite. Nandhiga, a member of the Nadar community, points out that speaking up itself is something that’s harder for women from these communities. She says, “Even if we have access to this kind of technology, it takes a lot of courage and push for someone to speak up. People from lower castes lack it. Be it on social media or answering a question in a class, there has been a tendency for us to stay quiet. There is the inbuilt fear of being made fun of for the lower caste position and it’s even more difficult for a woman.”
Bhagyashri notes that the #notallmen rhetoric featured irrespective of caste boundaries in her social media circles, “Even in posts I saw written by Dalit men, they made it seem like it was a test of ‘honourability’ between Dalit and Savarna men, when that is far from the case. Women bear the consequences of patriarchal violence irrespective of caste or class, and the overall discussion didn’t reflect that.”
Since the bois locker room chats cannot be viewed as isolated incidents from misogynistic social structures that enabled them, we asked our interviewees how their identities were perceived growing up. Right from a young age, Aami and Amrutha had been taught to hide their caste status; they were taught that it was something that would bring them shame because of their embedded inferiority. They face a set of cultural barriers that haunts them throughout their lives. Nandhiga describes how the smallest of things as a child made her feel different, “I remember being made fun of for the lunches I brought and the way it was packed. As my classmates brought sandwiches and rolls, I took ragi, semiya dishes in steel boxes. I was also always the darkest person in the room and I was made fun of for it a lot.”
Young and impressionable in a college environment, Taslima* felt conflicted on several accounts about her religious identity. Even in the the most ‘elite’ and ‘liberal’ of institutions in the country, the label of a Muslim student gave her friends the impression of being ‘conservative’and ‘unappraochable.’ She constantly felt the pressure to defend her identities, even while she, like the rest of us, was in the messy process of figuring it out. “As I am still exploring, reading, learning, unlearning it becomes difficult for me explain it in black and white, to people, about how can I be both a practicing Muslim as well as a feminist,” she says.
Yet another barrier that continues to haunt them is the unfortunate emphasis on English. “I could read and speak English because my parents were educated while my own first cousins do not even know how to write a proper sentence in English. The economic conditions made it very difficult to access educational institutions,” notes Amrutha. Nandhiga confesses that from a young age she always felt like an outsider. “Everyone around me could speak English very fluently because most of them spoke the language at home while it was not the case for me. I was happy being the average kid because I could not imagine myself being the topper,” she admits. Bhagyashri rightly points out that a language cannot be the sole determinant of the quality of one’s ideas. “People are often quick to dismiss our silence for a lack of awareness or intellect. We are equally competent, if not more!” she remarks.
Also read: Fatness, Womanhood And The Bois Locker Room
As new entrants into university, there was the added problem of popular culture references exclusively made to Hollywood content when they attempted to make friends . “I haven’t had public speaking experience or proficiency in English which is necessary to be a part of these spaces. I found it difficult to ‘blend’ in when I first came to college. Many people from backward communities find it difficult. I often felt excluded because of this. All of these contribute to the belief that my opinions do not need to be heard,” says Aami. This is something most of the interviewees agreed with. They were also made to feel like they were less ‘meritorious’ because they got in through reservations. “You’re made to feel unwelcome, like you don’t belong and you’re not smart enough. People have told me that I was blocking the channel for more deserving people,” Amrutha observes.
Make no mistake that these complexes go beyond institutions and translate to online mediums as well, as in the case of bois locker room. Bhagyashri is well aware that her caste identity follows her on social media too (pun intended). She says, “In an online space, caste isn’t suddenly invisible. People can figure out one’s political ideology and identity by noticing their names, or the kind of content they post, (for instance I post a lot about Ambedkar) and thus we become more visible than ever.”
When she posts pictures, she explains that her bodily expression is a reclamation of her agency as a Dalit woman, and should not be viewed only in terms of style, but as a political statement. “I feel more bold and beautiful when I experiment with fashion, which slams the door in front of the patriarchal idea of a woman, especially a Dalit woman dressing up for herself and not for society.” While our respondents are hopeful of the empowering role social media plays in counteracting the oppressive ‘savarna male gaze’, they are also fearful of the normalisation of hateful propaganda against their communities on the internet.
Taslima notes the blatant rise in popularity of Islamophobic and sexist content on meme pages and WhatsApp forwards she encounters ever so often, “I have become very conscious of what to post off late.” This self-policing of expression online was a common reaction among most interviewees, stemming from a fear of targeted backlash.
“I posted a story about how we failed Asifa as a ‘civilized society.’ One of my male schoolmates went on to say that I posted that just because Asifa was Muslim. And asked me where I was when the Nirbhaya incident happened. I (unfortunately and unwillingly) had to justify that I was the only student from our school to join the candle march for Nirbhaya. This incident shows that major problematic issues are sidelined by problematising unnecessary things. And the privilege allows them to do so,” Taslima recalls.
Calling out these instances like that of the bois locker room is particularly challenging because they’re asked to “take a joke” or worse, held accountable for their entire community’s perception. Aami says, “I don’t do it every time because I feel like I’m talking to a wall and I don’t have the energy. Sometimes I feel like my opinions don’t matter and I shouldn’t be talking about it.” Nandhiga further acknowledges that it is generally hard for women to raise their voice and are doubly jeopardised when they’re from a marginalised background.
“Be it social media or real life, speaking up is not something we are comfortable with. Let’s take the example of sexual harassment in the workplace. In general, women don’t talk about it because they fear that they’ll be looked at differently or labelled. For marginalised communities, this tag will also be there. And that tag is something people of the community do not want. When they talk about sexual harassment, the tag of being a woman from that community will make people look at them differently. So, they don’t talk about it much,” she explains.
If there’s anything these interviews have proved to us, it is that our educational and online platforms are far from inclusive of marginalised opinions,bodies and identities. There have been a range of complex ideas and viewpoints floating around, but that clearly does not mean it’s a win for feminism. It’s a mere step in the right direction. We need to consciously pay more attention to the kind of unique struggles women from different backgrounds face.
Experiences from disadvantaged communities are close to nonexistent in these discussions, and even in this article, we barely managed to cover two narratives. There are so many other oppressed groups who have been forced into silence. There can be no real advocacy for safer spaces for women, if it only means safer spaces for savarna women. The onus lies on us to diversify our brand of feminism, and reflect on its intersections with caste, class, religion, race, sexuality, gender and disability/able-bodiedness. Only then are we taking the movement forward. Anything less, is simply not enough.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India
Aditi is a final year student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. She believes a little room for confusion and curiosity is always necessary in the process of framing one’s politics, and tries everyday to nurture her own. She likes to think that there’s rarely ever any knowledge that isn’t useful! When she’s not excessively napping in between project deadlines, she loves to geek out about a good National Geographic documentary and gorge on her mom’s Goan food.