Desi feminism in the UK: in between a cultural clash
Interview with the founders of The Gyani Rani (AKA The Wise Queen) activist platform
First of all thank you for your participation and for the educational work you have been doing on your media platforms.
For those who are completely unfamiliar with the term "desi feminism" how would you describe it to them? What is your activism about?
The Gyani Rani:
Thank you for spreading awareness. Neither of us are political experts, we just want to spread awareness about social issues that resonate with us. In our opinion, Desi feminism is a set of political and social movements that aim to define, establish and protect the rights of women around the world.
Like their counterparts in other areas of the world, Desi feminists seek the equality of sexes. We also speak up against cultural and religous discriminations within South Asian culture and society.
Our feminism is about working towards changing the systems built to keep certain groups of people opressed and striving towards equality for everyone. It means fighting for intersectionality and acknowledging how race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status affects feminism.
It means taking a meaningful stance on injustices and standing up for inequalities, even if we are the only ones advocating for change.
It is important to provide a voice to those whose voices are oppressed and kept silent. Feminism is about the equality of the sexes and balace in the society is all that is necessary worldwide. Everyone should have equal opportunity.
As Indian Hindu descendants, I presume both born and raised in the U.K., we can view the movement from the spectrum of intersectional feminism, coined by Kimberlé Creshnaw. How does one take action in a space of divison the western modern capitalist ideology and personal cultural heritage?
The Gyani Rani:
With both of us having been brought up away from India but grown up with Indian culture, languages and practices taught by our family and family friends, we've both experienced different cultures as well as the way Hinduism was practiced in different countries. Whilst Hindu culture and religion may have originally been vastly different to the Western ideas of culture, modernity exist within both Western and Desi culture.
Ultimately, feminism is believing in equal rights, those rights do not change under capitalist ideology or Indian or Hindu religious heritage.
Yes, bigger improvements and change must be made in India to fully accommodate all beliefs, all people, all religions, but many forget that Hinduism as a religion is one where we do not pray to the stereotypical idea of God as a form but more so what that form embodies, whether it be wealth, prosperity, happiness, etc.. The Western capitalist society is something that harms communities worldwide, not just within India or Indian culture.
According to a survey on capitalism conducted by Reuters, the results have shown that Thailand and India had the highest national level of 75% and 74% respectively, of the population not trusting the current capitalist system.
This leads to social issues such as modern slavery within sweatshops, child labour because of fast fashion companies leading to exploatation of natural resources, acid deposition, soil degradation, air and water pollution and the list goes on. These largely affects Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, China and Vietnam.
What my friend and I try to do through our small platform is just to bring awareness and understanding of issues, whether they be social or mental health related, to make those who follow us aware that, POC's, women and other minorities suffer from.
What types of discrimination have you been dealing with growing up in the U.K. and even now?
The Gyani Rani:
As South Asians growing up in a country where you are the minority in some form or the other, you are bound to get comments, offensive terms and stereotypes made about you on a regular basis.
Both of us went to girl schools and one thing that was noticeable was the frequent microaggressions made about our hair, face, or accent. Statements such as "Your accent isn't what they sound like in movies" or "You're not as dark as other Indians", "Why don't you wear a dot on your forehead" were questions that would made you question your standing around others as growing up around white people ment, to fit in, to abandon a part of your culture and heritage.
However, girls tanning to the extent where they would look almost ethnically ambiguous was trendy and fashionable. These double standards cause many girls massive insecurities as our skin tone is made to be a fashion statement, but the rest of our culture would be made fun of.
White girls wearing bindi's at festivals was cute but an Indian girl wearing one at school would be made fun of. Wearing traditional Indian clothing at school would get you made fun of but wearing paisley print trousers would be hipster and trendy. On occasion you'd get outwardly racist comments made such as "brown cow", "curry muncher" etc.
Comparisons would be made about Indians and customer service saying "You've got your future job sorted" or if you weren't good at maths, I recall someone stating "How are you not good at maths, I swear all Indians are" and to not be the equivalent to a social pariah at school, one would often take these remarks and live with them.
As from I have been able to understand, and please correct me if I am mistake, in Hindu religion the very existence of women is concomitant to Dharma and secondary to men in the order of things upon earth. Keeping this in mind, what would be the cost of a female raised in the culture to completely abandon her heritage? What would be the repercussions?
The Gyani Rani:
One thing that can be mentionned is the difference between Hinduism and Hindu practices and culture. Hinduism was a term originating from Western lexis. "Sanatana Dharama" which is the Sanskrit word that "Hinduism" tries to describe means "beginningless" as Santana Dharama isn't a religion but more a way of life.
Restrictions and regulations on the Religion were only implemented due to practices such as the Caste system and coservative marriage traditions such as "Sati" which was the act of burning alive the widow of a Hindu man, and "Kanyadaan", "dan" directly translating to "charity" and "kanya" meaning girl, objectifying women as objects they give to their in-laws. These Vedic practices kept intact are often the result of restrictive Hindu culture. Hindu mythology reveals that patriarchy, that the idea that men are superior to women, was invented.
The epic, Mahabharata, for example, refers to a time where there was no concept of marriage. Men and women were free to go to anyone, until it became important to establish fatherhood, for which ownership and fidelity of women became critical. Feminism, the idea that men and women are equal is, however, discovered in Hinduism as the scriptures point to the difference between the soul and the flesh. The soul has no gender. Gender comes from flesh. Therefore, being Hindu in any country does not mean that we abandon our heritage, it only means that we should actively remind people what Sanatana Dharama is.
Homosexuality, transsexuality and sexual liberation as well as women empowerment and feminism are core tenets to Hinduism. When practicing this, we are not abandoning our heritage, on the contrary, we embrace the true heritage of India and Hinduism. When practicing Hinduism in the UK, it is important to educate people on the true meaning of Hinduism and not the practices that have been restricted by Vedic, patriarchal practices.
The repercussions of these are not Hinduism based but more on the question of free speech, one thing we have noticed as admins of our page is that when we are outspoken on matters on our account, it is often shadowbanned, meaning our content is often not shown on peple's pages. This will not stop us from trying to spread awareness on the issues that surround rituals in India.
A part from Hinduism, I believe it is important to bring up the British colonial influence in the construction of the Desi identity, if we know that this colonisation lasted for about 190 years. What were, in your opinion, the most catastrophic effects of colonialism on the position of woman in Indian society?
The Gyani Rani:
Colonialism has affected Indian culture to this very day. Many social issues in India are a direct result of colonialism. As mentionned in my previous answer, homosexuality, transsexuality and sexual liberation were welcomed in India through religion as well as comunities. On 6 September 2018, The Supreme Court of India struck down Section 377 (S377) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), decriminalizing homosexuality. Introduced during British colonial rule in India in 1864 as a legal transplant of the British 1533 Buggery Act, this section criminalized non-procreative sexualities. Historically it was used to target, among others, transgender folks, including hijras, a traditional community in India and South Asia more broadly.
Hijras were traditionally powerful figures in charge of collecting taxes and duties in the Sultanate and Mughal courts. While S377 was not specifically designed to target the hijras, it criminalized them as a group, and had serious implications for the community. India's transgender population is something that was celebrated and accepted in Indian culture. It was said that if a transgender woman came to your house during an auspicious occasion such as wedding or the birth of a child, then your house would be blessed.
The repression of sexuality has had massive implications to women to this day. During the British Ray, the women in lower classes were subjected to violence, intimidation and public shaming. Women would be raped and subjugated to abuse by colonial administrators to maintain the gender inequality. This idea of male superiority has continued to exist, women still suffer from domestic abuse and martial rape which is still not constituted as rape in India.
You are activly speaking-up about some major issues in India ongoing as we speak: the Punjab farmers crisis, rape culture, status of the LGBT communities, coronavirus crisis, fast fashion pushing irretrievably Indians into deep poverty.... Who is primarily responsible for these issues according to you? How has the gouvernment failed to protect the less fortunate ones?
The Gyani Rani:
There are various reasons as to why these social issues have arisen in India, such as casteism and the LGBTQ+ communities as I have mentionned before. However, many of these causes can be attributed to European, predominately British, colonialism. The British Crown had a singe goal - exploiting the people and ressources of the Indian subcontinent to the maximum profit. The colonial administrators created new social categories and hierarchies whilst also hardening any previously flexible caste boundaries.
Issues such as fast fashion have arisen due to a strong demand in the West and Western corporations exploiting the cheap labour in South Asian countries, but also due to the factory owners not paying their staff a fair wage.
For Coronavirus in India at this moment, the issue can be attributed to the governments lack of forward thinking and preparation for their own nation as one of India's key roles which the government wanted to maintain, was being globally, one of the largest vaccine manufacturers. India provided over 99 countries with the COVID vaccine, 1 of 3 vaccines in the UK being manufactured in India. However, they ignored the signs of a second wave as well as not implementing a secure covid strategy to reduce cases such as a national lockdown or curfews until much later.
Space in India is a massive problem due to overpopulation. Maintaining social distance is a privilege as it means you have clean running water, which many slums do not. Beating covid is a privilege which is mainly being done with the rich as the government has failed to protect the less fortunate ones.
As a part of an intersectional feminist group what is your view on radical feminism? What part of the Western-conducted feminist ideology is in opposition (if so) to your beliefs?
The Gyani Rani:
As the patriarchy places men in a position that is superior to that of a women, countless men have oppressed women from throughout time, knowingly or unknowingly, creating barriers and obstacles on their paths to success. Because the patriarchy and the actions of so many men (towards women and men refusing to abide by toxic gender roles) are often interlinked, it is difficult to not criticize certain men while criticising the system in question.
The idea of radical feminism and taking action towards patriarchal practices in society, in our opinion, is sometimes an act that is necessary. Recently the mere idea of feminism is being misconstructed as the idea of hating men. This is because, in terms of activism, women are expected to mince words and respect the rules that gender roles have placed on them. Rage is something that is not considered as "feminine" and therefore, when women choose to indignantly talk about, among other things, the violence inflicted by numerous men on women, the accusations of misandry enter the picture.
Because of this, terms such as "Feminazi" are used which place women who are unapologetic in their activst actions in a negative light. Thus, many people who would otherwise support equality, refuse to associate themselves with the movement as they confuse feminism with misandry. However, it is important that we address and eradicate the suffering patriarchy continues to cause, through feminism.
Find out more about the activities of The Gyani Rani on: @thegyranirani
A very interesting and informative read on key issues that need addressing.
This was very informative!! I love the point about how modernity exists in Desi culture too. The West is seen as the pinnacle of progression but they stigmatised many things we deem as progressive today during their colonial rule in India
Such an interesting read! Very well delivered answers to issues that need to be spoken up about now. Keep it up ranis!!
This was so powerful and thought provoking to read, more power to you both!! 💪🏽
Super engaging questions to answer and important topics to understand in the 21st century. Thank you so much for using your blog and doing your bit in spreading awareness on these social issues :)