Understanding Trans&Queer Issues in Women's Movements - An Interview with Chayanika Shah

Shannon Mathew

In its celebrations of Women’s History Month, TYPF conducted an interview-series called “Movers and Shakers: In Conversation with History”. By engaging with feminist individuals from across the country, we hope to revisit significant moments and gain new perspectives on our understanding of history through the experiences of these remarkable women. 

Chayanika Shah has been involved in the autonomous women’s rights movements since the late 1970’s. She started off by actively campaigning against hostel regulations for women students while studying in IIT Bombay, after which she joined the Forum against Oppression of Women. Since then, she has been an active participant in various significant protests, campaigns, and national conferences. She joined Stree Sangam, which is currently is known as LABIA – A Queer Feminist LBT Collective. Currently, she has taken voluntary retirement from teaching Physics at a college in Mumbai, and is still active as ever in women’s movements across the country.

Chayanika Shah has been involved in the autonomous women’s rights movements since the late 1970’s. She started off by actively campaigning against hostel regulations for women students while studying in IIT Bombay, after which she joined the Forum against Oppression of Women. Since then, she has been an active participant in various significant protests, campaigns, and national conferences. She joined Stree Sangam, which is currently is known as LABIA – A Queer Feminist LBT Collective. Currently, she has taken voluntary retirement from teaching Physics at a college in Mumbai, and is still active as ever in women’s movements across the country.

Shannon: What led to you getting involved in the women’s rights movement?

Chayanika: I always feel old when I have to talk about things like this, which is why I’m smiling! I think that I have known of women’s groups and been a part of them since 1979, which is when the first round of groups started getting formed in Bombay. So I was a student at that time, studying in Bombay, and the first women’s march I remember was in 1980.

Shannon: Which is after the Mathura case verdict?

Chayanika: Yes! So by then Forum against Rape had already formed. And I remember seeing their poster in our campus. One of my first memories of being part of a protest demonstration is from 1981 or '82 when a young kid had been raped by a policeman at one of the local stations here. But outside of that, I think one of the first campaigns that we did was on campus, which is much like the Pinjra Tod that is happening today, which was about changing the rules in our hostel.

I studied in IIT and the hostels were named Student Hostel 1, Hostel 2, up to 9, and then there was the Ladies Hostel. The first fight we had was in ’78 when we said we wanted the hostel to be renamed Hostel 10, which we managed to do. Then, we also had this curfew time where we had to be back inside by 10:30pm, I think. And we just decided that we didn’t believe in any of these rules, and we broke them! And the inter-hostel movement was another thing we fought for, and we managed to implement it too.

The first campaign I remember that was feminist in character was in ’78 or ‘79. And then subsequently, the groups had started forming in the city, and I joined the Forum around 1983. So I’ve been around since then, and so is the group and we continue to meet even now.

Shannon: So you have actually seen the entire movement from its very genesis to its growth over the past couple of decades.

Chayanika: Almost 4 decades now, so most of my life actually. It was also post-Emergency, so many other things were also happening, and not just the women’s movement. There were many other struggles that went on alongside the women’s groups, and many of the people in the women’s groups came from those movements. However, I joined the women’s groups and then went on to other movements from there.

Shannon: And movements regarding LGBTQ issues?

Chayanika: For me, the articulation of the queer voice within women’s movements dates back to ‘87 as a campaign issue. But conversations around being lesbian, and the knowledge of lesbian women within the groups was there even when I had joined. For example, the Forum would meet in a household of two women, who we all knew were a couple. And for me the fact that they met in a lesbian couples’ home made me think that this group is welcoming to lesbian women and that all was fine. My understanding at that time was also that we didn’t need to be very open and out, and that I don’t need to label myself; I can be in a relationship with whoever, it really does not matter. But there was a lot of conversation, and there was a feminist understanding of sexuality and of relationships. Though there was an acceptance of being lesbian, there was no foregrounding of issues. So one felt that there was space within these groups to be who you are to a certain extent, but there were no campaigns that were being taken up.

My understanding at that time was also that we didn’t need to be very open and out, and that I don’t need to label myself; I can be in a relationship with whoever, it really does not matter... there was a lot of conversation, and there was a feminist understanding of sexuality and of relationships.

The first discussions that I remember were in ‘82, when at a meeting in Delhi there was a creative workshop called Kriti and there was a closed-door meeting of lesbian women. So within women’s groups you always knew who they were and what conversations were happening, but the public face of the women’s groups never spoke of lesbian issues. These issues came up in ‘87, when a couple got married and were thrown out of their jobs. That was the first time that, as women’s groups, we wrote that it wasn’t alright and that people should not be losing their jobs because of relationships. That was the first public conversation on this issue. And for the Forum, amongst us there has been conversation in the context of personal laws. So when you talk about laws around marriage, we have constantly spoken amongst ourselves about all kinds of relationships; relationships as a part of heterosexual marriages, as well as lesbian and gay relationships. These conversations have been a part of our understanding of marriage, family.

Shannon: So, what do you think led to this space being created, where these issues weren’t just talked about amongst people who were actively affected by it, but was being put out on to a public platform?

Chayanika: I think that in the history of the autonomous women’s movement, we have had about 7 conferences. In the fourth conference in Calcutta in ‘89, there was a meeting of single women. These non-married women got together and spoke, and in this meeting some lesbian women also came out to each other in a larger unknown group… At the Tirupati conference [in ‘92], there was a session on sexuality, where there was a lot of discussion on lesbianism. But there was a separate meeting for ‘women who loved women’ – that’s the term we used then. So ‘women who loved women’ met separately, and that was the first time that we were saying to a larger audience of women’s movements that there is a presence of women who love each other, who want to find a space for themselves. It wasn’t very easy, we faced a lot of backlash for doing that in that conference… but there was also support. And I think that started off a discussion.

Also, in the 90’s, two things happened. One was HIV AIDS and the groups that were organizing campaigns, and conversations about sexuality were opening up due to work around this issue. Second was that a lot of queer people were coming back. This was unlike the earlier years when many left the country because they found that they could not live as “lesbians” in India. In contrast in the 90s, younger people who came out while studying outside came back to India and said that ‘we are here and we don’t want to lead hidden lives, we want to be out there in the open’. And so for the first time in the early/mid 90’s, women in the Forum started saying that they are lesbians and were open about it outside of the group. Organizing of groups of lesbian women for lesbian women by lesbian women pushed the women’s movements to be more open about it.

...in the 90s, younger people who came out while studying outside came back to India and said, “we are here and we don’t want to lead hidden lives, we want to be out there in the open.”

From then to now, I also find a lot of people have actually shifted somewhat in their understanding of sexuality. And not just around sexuality, but on issues of genders as well, to talk of non-binary genders and so on.

Women’s movements have their blind spots, like all of us do, but there has continuously been pressure from within and outside to keep moving in our understanding. It doesn’t come easy to everybody but at the same time I think that if I look around and see other movements, I find that the women’s movements in the articulation of morality has shifted quite a bit, and moved quite a bit on the issue of different and diverse sexual orientations. And I think it’s starting to move on diverse gender identities as well.

Shannon: So that was going to be my next question; the entire discussion of homosexuality began with ‘women who love women’. How did it grow from being about ‘women who love women’ to a wider umbrella of issues?

Chayanika: So the issues of all queer people, have become issues of the women’s movements. But the women’s movements itself has not really opened itself up to talk of all genders. So men, as in cis men, are not really a part of the women’s movements in the same organic manner as women, that is cis women, are. In the sense that when we talk of homosexuality, we primarily reach out to lesbian women, not gay men.

As far as issues go, I think for LABIA itself, it has been a learning curve. Because while we have people amongst us who do not feel like women, we didn’t have the language of how to articulate it. I think in some way our feminism also restricted us. I mean, feminism allows us to be any kind of women right? So then if somebody is not fitting in, the older feminism taught me to say that I’m a different kind of womaen. But now, it has pushed us to start looking at gender very differently. So with LABIA, we learned over the years the image politics of non-binary genders. From seeing different kinds of women to seeing gender beyond the binary has come from meeting people who are different and learning from them. Today I would say I feel ashamed to say that as feminists we never looked at transwomen as women, and that was our mistake, our narrowness of vision. We saw them all the time (at least as hijras) but never saw their issues as women’s issues. And I think that it finally happened because they told us that “you are not looking at us, look at us”.

...I feel ashamed to say that as feminists we never looked at transwomen as women, and that was our mistake, our narrowness of vision. We saw them all the time but never saw their issues as women’s issues. And I think that it finally happened because they told us that “you are not looking at us, look at us.

Shannon: At this point, do you think there’s a space where trans-issues are maybe seen at the same level as issues that concern cis women, or is there some sort of disconnect between the two?

Chayanika: At one level there’s no uniformity, I think. A person can make comments making distinctions between trans and cis women. Some might say that trans-women have had the experience of male privilege, and that cis women are ‘real’ women, and so on and so forth. But for us at LABIA, when someone says that they are a woman, they are a woman. It doesn’t matter, because they are all equally women. If someone says they are a man, then they are man. If someone says they are neither, they are neither. Nobody has any business to then rate their experiences in a hierarchy. Yes, our experiences of the patriarchal world are different; it’s different for a Dalit and for a Brahmin woman. And I don’t think difference means hierarchy. There is a difference in our experiences, but that doesn’t make one real and the other unreal; it doesn’t make one intense and the other less intense. I don’t think that’s how one understands it.

...when someone says that they are a woman, they are a woman... If someone says they are a man, then they are man. If someone says they are neither, they are neither. Nobody has any business to then rate their experiences in a hierarchy.

Shannon: So has intersectionality made it easier for everyone to talk about their own issues?  Because one is aware of the fact that even as women, one experiences patriarchy in different ways.

Chayanika: We have learned intersectionality through doing this work. I say that because in this conversation I took only the track of cis women, of homosexual women, and of transgender women. But it was in our work within the women's movements that issues of all like tribal, dalit and Muslim women came up, and the issues of women coming from marginalized groups and from conflict regions. Each one of them has told us that all women are different. And in my experience of being a woman, there are commonalities but there’s a vast amount of difference too. I think that the richness of listening to all these experiences has taught us intersectionality. That we today cannot speak of women as singular category is something that we have learned through all of this. And then in that narrative, trans-ness and disability is adding layers to see how complex every woman is, or every man or every person is. And how everyone’s gender is constructed by all of these together.

But then to say that we cannot talk about women, but talk of persons, is not the jump we make. And that is the difficult terrain; that you recognize that there is a gendered hierarchy in this world and there are still people who are being marginalized merely because of gender, but at the same time, marginalization has many other layers as well. So you are trying to work through this very messy terrain of seeing how to build solidarity between cis heteronormative women and the very marginalized women from all these other various categories. How to build solidarity across intersections is the real struggle. I think, that’s the most challenging bit.

Shannon: Do you think there is a connect between the digital space, where women’s and LGBTQ rights movements have gained ground, and the physical space where issues around these areas manifest or transpire?

Chayanika: I don’t know how much I understand of the digital space because it keeps transforming so fast. But I do feel that there are a lot of younger people today who have benefited a lot from having the internet and social media, to reach out and meet people and feel agitated in different ways. So if I look at the 80s, I think that ‘who did anyone really have to turn to?’ And I know that in 2015 they can find someone. I don’t know if it’s enough or if it reaches everybody, but there is a large chunk of people who are able to reach out to each other and also build a community. So that I recognize as a contribution of the digital age.

At the same time however, I don’t know if this is what makes communities. When I am this individual who is struggling to make sense and fight my battles within the isolation of my family or in a village, I don’t know if this kind of [digital] community helps. You need to have physical community. I put myself in the category that can manage without having my family or community support me; I don’t need that validation, as I am privileged enough to be autonomous. Autonomy itself is a privilege. And if I’m autonomous, then the digital community is enough for me and I can survive because I know that there are many people like me. But if I’m not able to do this transition - and I speak specifically about people from marginalized sections - I think when there is a larger maligning of community, then I seek to remain in it and if in that community I don’t find support, then this ephemeral support from the virtual does not really cut it. We need to do more, and there’s no getting away from doing more. It has become easier to reach out to a larger section, but even then, I think that a physical community is essential, and we have to spend more time building on it.

Shannon: So I had read this somewhere and I wanted your opinion on it:

“Younger Indians tend to be more tolerant towards gays. These twenty-somethings are a part of an emerging urban middle class that is connected to the rest of the world. Their numbers are not large enough to make a difference now, but half of the population is under 30, so in the long run, the demographics are favorable for the LGBT movement.”

Do you think there is truth in this statement?

Chayanika: I do think that younger people are more open. Younger people of a certain class, or from a certain region - say in a city like Bombay or from the middle and upper middle class - are growing in a neo-liberal world, where they believe in the concept of choice and think that it’s cool to be able to make choices of this nature. So I would agree with the first part of the statement; they are more tolerant. But at the same time, I think that difference is not really tolerated. For example, I may be tolerant of gays but I might also ask them not to show their gayness too much. I’ll tell them not to be so outwardly gay, to not flaunt it. We see young people looking the same across the board – where they have similar clothes or the same hair - so of course when someone is different, it stands out. So I don’t know how much of it has to do with tolerance. I mean, you do what you want to do in the bedroom but when it comes to the outside, or walking with me, or me welcoming you into my home, I don’t see that tolerance. I feel that the tolerance is very superficial.  They might say yes to gay marriage, but if tomorrow I say that the meaning of being queer also includes toppling monogamy, then I don’t know how many people will agree. If I keep my public image of queerness like a heterosexual married couple, then yes, I am welcome. But if I will overturn any of these assumptions, then maybe not. Let’s see.

Shannon: Thank you, this has been incredibly insightful. Would you like to say some closing words?

Chayanika:  Some words of wisdom? Well, I do think that the times we are in today are very challenging. If I look back and see the past 40 years, I feel that this is the most difficult time in terms of bringing about change. Even though I was too young to participate in any movement, I did witness the Emergency. And I think that these are tougher times than that and I think we all know the reasons why it is worse. I do feel that the voice of the margins is more strident at this time, and that is a cause of hope. My concern in these days and times is purely of how to build solidarity across differences. We may not agree with each other but we have to make it work so that society doesn’t move backwards. But I do feel a lot of hope.

But I do feel a lot of hope.

Shannon Mathew studied History at the University of Delhi, completing her Bachelors in 2016. She is currently interning with The YP Foundation.