by Sam Naylor
From the 8 – 24th of August I attended a Generation UK – India programme. The fortnight programme was organised between the British Council and the University of Kerala, which was founded in 1937, to engage 46 British students and graduates with a taste of Contemporary India: Culture and Society. The study placement covered a lot of ground, ranging from a lecture on Indian foreign policy to visiting their ancient manuscript library, to learning the state language of Malayalam and gendering Indian popular cinema. The course’s content was as diverse as the state we were studying in and the people who attended the study trip.
the local citizens live with the impact that their actions directly cause, something that the UK could learn a thing or two about
Throughout the placement we were often reminded by our professors that the country we were studying in was one that is filled with contradictions. Like with most countries, for all the natural beauty spots we visited there were stretches of land marred by human contamination.
Areas of Thiruvananthapuram were peppered with rubbish and waste, a sight that some of our privileged western eyes were not accustomed to — but as one professor pointed out, having the rubbish build up around them has put pressure on the Keralan government to deal with the issue in a more environmentally minded manner. Whereas Keralan’s can observe first-hand what happens to their personal waste, we in the UK, especially in extensive middle class havens, have become complacent with waste disposal vans collecting our rubbish for us and disposing of it in a land fill site that we need not think about again. The same professor pointed out that at least the local citizens live with the impact that their actions directly cause, something that the UK could learn a thing or two about, instead of blindly consuming (myself often included) and disproportionately adding to global warming which is far more likely to adversely affect developing nations.
The two lectures that stuck with me out of the multitude of interactions with prominent professors and speakers were Gendering Indian Popular Cinema and the Introduction to Indian Feminist Thought. During our time in Kerala we had been reminded that as a state it was somewhat different to other Indian states. It has a high literacy rate of 95% compared to the Indian average of 74%, and at the university 75% of the students were female as were 60% of the staff. Coincidentally 40 out of the 46 from the UK were female on the trip. Yet top positions in the university and in highly regarded state roles are still dominated by men. Equal pay between men and women is enshrined in law, yet there is still a glass ceiling that Keralan women are attempting to shatter. The contradictions parallel in the UK and India in regard to women and the realm of work.
Equal pay between men and women is enshrined in law, yet there is still a glass ceiling that Keralan women are attempting to shatter
The lectures I mentioned above also had a contrasting but arguably complimentary approach to gender in India. Popular Indian Cinema was explored and explained through a gendered lens, with many similarities to feminist thought I was familiar with from the UK. We watched excerpts from films that demonstrated the role women play in reproducing the traditions and values of the community, undermining the role of agency and highlighting the notion that, at least in popular cinema, women’s bodies are not their own. Which was also repeated to a certain extent with men on screen who are often portrayed positively when they are hyper-masculine and assertive. There was a general consensus from my fellow British students that this was a good lecture that everyone could get on board with.
An Introduction to Indian Feminist Thought opened up the discussion for multiple types of feminisms, an aspect that is often lost during typical white feminist debates. This layered approach to feminist thought, differing from localities to social classes and upbringings, caused slight confusion amongst the predominantly white group. Something that typical western feminism often overlooks is the role that agency plays in power dynamics. People assume too quickly that certain groups of women are being oppressed and need liberating, a white saviour trope that has leeched into much western thought; western liberation is also used as a defence for racist acts and policy such as banning burkas. By the end of the lecture the protective and familiar bubble of western feminism burst and direct comparisons were made by some students between the sessions — most preferring the popular cinema lecture.
People assume too quickly that certain groups of women are being oppressed and need liberating
We need far more of this intersectional approach in our humanities subjects, not only at university level but during secondary education as well. We need to promote a plethora of feminist thoughts as opposed to stagnant, universal truths which do not actually exist or fit every section of our society. My short study trip to the University of Kerala taught me as much about British society as it did about Keralan and Indian society more widely.
Wrapping your head around the idea of all the multiple types of feminist thought working alongside one another is initially more confusing and time consuming. And whilst it’s not a new idea and many are already fully in tune with this way of thinking, I still think it’s something the UK can and I think will benefit from in the future as intersectional approaches become more mainstream and common practise.
Featured image via feministindia (Content warning: mentions rape and murder)