I haven’t written here for more than a month, because honestly I didn’t trust myself to write without exploding into particles of dust, or if I did manage to write somehow it would only be selective expletives repeated over and over — I’ve been more than just a little angry. Warning to readers, I’m not writing this to cater to your sensibilities, nor is this the moment to profess how you belong to [x] group but don’t do any [abc] I talk about. I am exhausted with keeping my anger inside, and it’s coming out in all insidious ways today.
When I repeat out of frustration to western feminists — yes western feminists get clubbed in the same indistinguishable a bubble as “South Asian feminist” feels to me — that abortion wars here are different, we face different demons, we use different strategies, all they seem to hear is “India doesn’t consider abortion is illegal! They don’t have anything to complain about!”. Yes, factually, the Indian nation-state hasn’t outlawed abortion, that can hardly be cited as evidence to prove that there aren’t any problems. Or on the flip-side, almost every feminist (or not) publication from the Global North talks about the problem of female feticide India – additionally India and China are used interchangeably for some reason, as if any place that is Not the Global North must be a homogeneous mass of cultures – to the extent that “feminism in India” means “sex-selective abortion”. There is a problem with using and perpetuating such a model, where you start equating a region’s “gender problems” to its feminism is probably the preliminary layer of fail; I’ve talked about it long enough. What you leave out when you stick to the primitive equation of “Indian feminism = sex-selective abortion” are the many methods that the State designs to keep contraception from people who want to access it, to forcibly sterilise groups which the State thinks need to be curbed and even erased. It infuriates me that whenever one speaks of “sex-selective abortions” and its evils — yes fetuses are being aborted because they’re perceived to be ‘useless’ as they’re female, and it is evil, it needs to end, no disputing this fact. But there’s more to just a “culture thinking females are unworthy” that people don’t want to engage with — what western feminists don’t even consider is the way discourse around contraception figures here; mainly because they’re too busy presuming that it’s the same as it is in their native countries, but I digress.
Contraception, as introduced by the State was started in the light of the UN deciding “India’s problem” was “over-population”, and it’s not surprising that a neo-liberal capitalist socialist state that India supposedly was then didn’t contest this accusation, or didn’t argue that the real problem was unequal resource-allocation. Contraception, for a long time didn’t mean sexual autonomy of bodies, instead it was (and is), “we must control the numbers”, as if these “numbers” cannot ever be wanted bodies. Forced sterilsations of men and (mostly) women during Emergency years are no secret, nor are the sterilisations of some “backward” castes and tribes that are carried out regularly. More recently, the State has changed its face when it comes to contraception, now it’s under the Right To Information, the citizen — or at least people who are read as citizens — that we get “a choice” in what form of contraception we can avail of; there are enough ads everywhere that address this nice married Hindi and English speaking Hindu lady who has two (or three) children and is thinking of contraception. Even within this incredibly narrow range of people nice Hindu ladies addressed, they don’t get access to contraception — there are abortion practitioners who will look at your financial and social status and decide that you can raise a baby and refuse to give you an abortion, or not give you information about UID’s even if you can afford it, the concern to protect your Right To Conceive one day is apparently more important than your informed choice — and people who are not women, who are not Hindu, not English (or Hindi) speaking, according to the State don’t need to avail of contraception, going by the demographic they address in their ads and propaganda.
When contraception is constantly lapsed into “population control” you’re basically actively re-imagining a feminine body, a body with a uterus that needs to be contained within certain standards, so when the State introduces any new reproductive technology, where poor people are usually the first to “try” the technology, we don’t think it’s appalling — the way we view this reproductive body itself needs to be challenged. Many feminists here have (and are) campaigning to revert the Prohibition of Sex-Selective Abortion Act, not because they would love more female fetuses dead, but because this Act hasn’t reduced sex-selective abortions, in fact increased infections and forced sterilisations as people still continue to go have abortions even when there are hygiene and health hazards and/or violations. Some senior feminists have formed collectives in a few places in South India where they stand in as the relative who supports the [person] who wants an abortion, so practitioners cannot bully or threaten them (as it does happen to most unwed, non-feminine identifying people). Some feminists enlist the help of the CPI(M) to reach wives and daughters of Worker’s Unions, aiding them to be fully aware of their sexual rights and options, many tribal feminists argue (and reasonably so) that this skirmish around “killing a life” only makes sense if the State goes by the Hindu doctrine that every “life” or “cell” has a right, for in many tribes, “conception” means very different things, especially considering some don’t have terms¹ for “orphan”, “fetus” as children are brought up communally and as full individuals since their birth, some feminists are campaigning against female feticide by travelling across and within states, sensitising the public to ideas that female fetuses deserve dignity and life, some go around (or ally with existing women’s movements in the region) performing illegal abortions to militarised areas of North and North-East India, aiding people who live under direct military rule and are raped by the armed forces there.
There are many more strategies that we use, while I don’t necessarily agree with all practices mentioned here — and it’s unimportant what I feel in the larger structure of things — but most routes lead us to autonomy over reproductive and sexual decisions. Of course, most western feminists can’t see this side as it doesn’t need saving by their standards and terms. There is a rich history of subversion and resistance² — isn’t there always? — when it comes to the many types of feminist movement(s), next time you think of viewing the rest of the world from your particular lens, remember that. We have always been here, mediating agency in any form we can, the best we can, the fact you don’t see it isn’t our problem, not in the very least.
1. Mahashveta Devi’s ‘Imaginary Maps’ talks much more in detail about these terms than I ever could.
2. This isn’t to say feminism(s) in India are a big happy family without tensions — which is a whole new post on its own — rather to say subversion exists even if you don’t see it.