A couple of weeks ago, the lady I buy my bi-weekly magazines from near the railway station started talking to me. The caste system is so pervasive¹ that all we’d ever exchanged over the past three years is, “Has [x] magazine come yet?” — from me — and she’d say, “No Madam, no one reads this one, so I have to send out a special order for you” and we’d smile at that gesture, but that would be all. So two weeks ago, when I went to the stall after a few weeks of absence, somehow, she asked me about my plans after graduation and I mentioned something about going out of Mumbai and before I knew it she was telling me about her daughter; how she wants to study further but doesn’t have the means. I’d seen her daughter a few times, helping out around the stall, I’d thought she was around my age, but it turned out she had two years to graduation. That day, I put this newspaper lady in touch with a couple of activists who worked specifically with underprivileged Hindu girls — the newspaper lady’s family came from a challenged economic background, but as Hindu Brahmins, they occupy higher shelves of the caste system. I don’t particularly like these activists and their goals but knew they’d help these two women out. Yesterday, I come to know the daughter rounded up about nine more girls from similar economic backgrounds but from varying castes which of course, the activists couldn’t stand for and helped only the Hindu girls. As people, we are constantly choosing and prioritising one over another, even if we don’t want to; build-ing and break-ing communities and spaces, they always carry with them little parts of us we show and hide. I didn’t want to approach these activists at all for their restricted goals, but by reaching out to them six more girls benefitted. However, the three that get left behind, their silences roar the loudest.
When I heard this yesterday, the first thing I did was look for financial aid that would suit these three girls, and as it turns out being caste, religious and a gender minority means you enter How Oppressed Are You Really Game™ which is almost always designed to leave you out, and two of them didn’t ‘fulfill’ the criteria for receiving the aid; though the one who did get aid brought forth two more girls. Next week, these girls are seeing another educational reform activist — this one is specifically for Dalit women — and hopefully some solution will emerge. In social justice too, we are constantly con-structing similar communities — not speaking of individual acts, rather the ones that are cultural context based — whether these communities have origins online or in physical geographical borders, they are shaped by production process — read dominance of the digital dollar — and actual histories. What troubles me is, we start with logical and factual fallacies or the Need To Help As Many As Possible, like this small group of girls sometimes we too look at solutions only in singular steps and spaces. In the case of safe spaces, there is an overwhelming urge to create a space where silence isn’t an act of violence but a choice, maybe even a protective gauze that will save us from the omnipotent presence of the DoucheColonial Empire. I confess, this is a tempting and beautiful fantasy to even consider, the possibility of a space where marginalised bodies and voices can express themselves without being attacked and cracked open is too tempting– the myth of ‘reverse-racism’ would be the first one to go if I had my way — and then we’d be human equivalents of unicorns. But even in ‘safe spaces’ — virtual and otherwise — a dichotomy slips through that dictates who remains inside, who eventually speaks, who has the authority to be believed; virtually speaking in most spaces that I’ve interacted in, all we do ‘see’ are absences, ‘hear’ only absences. It gets even trickier when the body you’re interacting with has a face and a name to go along with², this voicelessness is ‘harder’ to ignore — of course we can quantify pain, humiliation and violence! Like this for instance — and the desire to make an insular community deepens.
Given the differences in languages, dialects, caste and class statuses re-aligning margins and commonalities — within our unique marginality — is not only impossible, but an extremely dangerous concept to even consider. Providing one marginality and slipping into someone’s space is step one to obscuring someone else’s struggles, which flies into the face of the ‘safe space’ goal, not to mention how it serves to homogenise people and their specific intersecting locations. So instead of the Revolution™ or that Perfect Safe Space, can we just interrupt — if and when we have the ability — the bigger mainstream ideal, be it in feminism or elsewhere? I’m not insinuating that communities that have been proven unsafe over and again for marginalised bodies need to be contested and constantly challenged – I’d rather talk to you of time travel instead — just pointing out how the onus is always on the marginalised body to carve out that ‘space’, ‘community’ or ‘origin’. Instead of ‘building communities’, what if we focus on shifting locales of power and loosening borders? Whether we like it or not, most of us are points of access to others — for instance, while teaching I am the point of access for children between theoretical knowledge and practical use when learning and re-forming syllables — I have little to no control over being ‘this’ via medium. What I can do, is ask access at whose cost and context? There are times when I absolutely loathe this position of access — being a cable wire for the ‘global’ to objectify the ‘local’ isn’t fun! Who knew! — but what if we negotiate this ‘position’ of access? Instead of challenging the militant Hindu activists — and not receiving any help at all — what these girls chose to do is seek aid elsewhere, while bringing forth more people in the chain. Similarly, instead of fighting in harmful and unsafe spaces, if we leave our absences behind, we can re-orient ourselves to providing access to marginalised bodies, to local producer communities so that they can re-insert themselves as actors within the global arena and prevent re-appropriation of their identities.
To paraphrase my friend’s words, “As a Third World Woman, don’t expect me to build anything, ever. What I will do is express myself with break and silences as I disrupt the hegemony. Don’t expect me to smash and tear anything down, I have enough people doing that to me as it is”. Ultimately, what I hope to do is give and receive access that will enable Othered bodies and me the position of strength to negotiate within hierarchies and hegemonies. Meanwhile, my silences conspire and leave marks, re-present to us absences. Today, this minor disruption is more than enough.
1. I couldn’t ask about her ‘problems’ as it would definitely be me squandering my caste-privilege about considering I didn’t know a thing about her then; she couldn’t ask me because of the invisible — but firm — class dichotomy me being a customer created.
2. Many virtual interactions are considered ‘unreal’ because ‘bodies don’t matter online’, or in an essence ‘get left behind’.