Chaitanya Lakkimsetti – Tolerable Identities, Intolerable Sex Acts: Sexuality and Rights in Contemporary India

On Thursday September 27, 2018, Dr. Chaitanya Lakkimsetti, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University, presented her most recent work at our Seminar. The research questions guiding this work involved questioning how previously marginalized and stigmatized groups become able to make claims on the State of India, and how the State responds to these demands. The case study is centered on HIV/AIDS as a biopolitical project where the State has a need to manage the bodies of individuals, in specific to micromanage sexual behavior, with special attention to non-normative sexual behavior. Here, the main argument is that effective biopolitical projects necessitate the engagement of the governed with the State, where biopolitics is read as a tool to analyze both the State’s need to manage populations, as well marginalized populations’ demands for rights from the State.

This particular conversation is made even more relevant by recent news coming from India. Just a couple days before Dr. Lakkimsetti’s presentation, the Supreme Court in India unanimously ruled to decriminalize consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex, which was ruled as unconstitutional. This law, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, had been introduced in 1864 by British colonial rule, and followed anti-sodomy laws imposed during colonization throughout multiple Global South then-colonies, including the Americas. Advocates argued that the present law made it harder for those at risk for HIV/AIDS to access needed healthcare, on the basis that their sexual behavior might come into question. According to National Crime Records, 1491 people were arrested under Section 377 in 2015, out of which 14% were minors.

While legal decriminalization will not be an immediate fix on social discrimination against people who engage in same-sex behavior, Dr. Lakkimsetti’s work adds a layer of analysis to the understanding of biopolitics as opening a space for new political subjectivities, where the contradictory nature of the Indian State can be theorized hand-in-hand with the resistant nature of political movements like those for LGBTIQ rights and sex worker rights in India. In her previously published Signs essay “HIV is Our Friend: Prostitution, Power and State in Postcolonial India”, which is also the first chapter of her upcoming book, Dr. Lakkimsetti discusses the possibilities HIV/AIDS provided marginalized groups, in specific sex workers, to negotiate citizenship with the Indian State. This talk in particular focused on the contradictory judgments of the Supreme Court on sexual rights politics during 2013 and 2014: the Koushal decision of 2013 (to retain colonial antisodomy laws) and the 2014 NALSA decision (granting rights to transgender groups). Here, the bifurcation of acts and identities is a hollowing move by the Indian State to LGBTQ activist groups, but it also provides them with an opportunity to challenge this dichotomy and consolidate a coalitional politics between similarly marginalized groups.

Using a feminist and postcolonial lens, Dr. Lakkimsetti deploys the Foucauldian concept of biopower to read sex worker and LGBTIQ groups struggles regarding HIV/AIDS, as both a moment of agency as well as a movement of self-discipline in order to enter a dialogue with the State. In her talk, she remarked the ways in which these legal struggles are a space where marginalized identities emerge and consolidate, a space to observe the dynamic interaction between the law and social movements. Challenging the idea of a top-down State with a totalitarian institutional space, Dr. Lakkimsetti makes way for resistance by remarking the ways in which the Indian State becomes accountable to communities that exert political agency by de-centering power from the State and bringing policies to question.

Dr. Lakkimsetti got her PhD in Sociology from UW-Madison, is an alum of FemSem, and her book “From AIDS to Rights: Using Biopower to Achieve Citizenship in India” is forthcoming. She can be reached at clakkimsetti@tamu.edu

 

Malú Machuca Rose is a second year graduate student in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at UW-Madison and an artist/activist/educator in the transfeminist movement in Lima, Perú. Their essay “Giuseppe Campuzano’s Afterlife: Towards a Travesti Methodology for Critique, Care and Radical Resistance” is forthcoming in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 6.2, special issue of Trans en Las Américas.

 

“Female writing as a praxis of change: On Cultural Effects and Outcomes of the Women’s Liberation Movement” by Kristina Schulz

In the gender seminar last week, Dr. Schulz discussed cultural effects of social movements, or how female writing and reading as a part of the 1968 Movement has been a source of advancement of women’s rights in Western European societies. To investigate this idea more clearly, Dr. Schulz focused on local feminist movements in Swiss of the 1970s because it was such a multilingual and multicultural society. It made women’s movements dispersed and decentralized due to ethnic boundaries in the 1970s, but it also enabled feminists’ engagements in writing and reading to play an important role in women’s movements in Swiss. Dr. Schulz looked back on the 1968 women’s movements at the time and provided us a valuable narrative of how feminists’ cultural practices of reading and writing can be an important source of change for women’s rights.

Dr. Schulz defines female reading and writing as reading and discussing texts from the feminist point of view. Even though literary work is not written with a feminist purpose, feminist ways of reading literary work can read (taken-for-granted) gendered connotations and be critical of misogyny revealed in in the works. In the feminist ways of reading, Western European feminists in the 1970s focused on contexts being ways of making sense of the texts and sought to break the social contexts the texts are embedded in. This also led to feminist ways of writing in publications in various forms that deliberately overthrow male ways of writing. This was the cultural effect of social movement practices.

The diffusion and development of feminist ways of reading and writing had a strong local character in Swiss in the 1970s. Dr. Schulz focuses on the role of spaces in which feminists can gather and write to make substantive changes such as local community centers, libraries, bookstores, and publishing houses such as EFEF. These places became the locus of research networks and it led to the productive feminist writing practices. According to the presentation, feminists’ engagement via local meetings created a sense of belonging and shared understanding and identities among feminists (who are mostly middle-class white women), and it led to the diffusion of collective interpretation patterns of social order. Text per se may not change the society, but social change can emerge around books by facilitating public discussion.

Feminist reading and writing also led to institutional changes in formal politics. By arguing so, Dr. Schulz proposes to break the stereotype that “new” social movement is weak in explaining cultural phenomena. Union movements are not the only source of changes in formal and institutional politics but cultural practices of female writing also can be one of them. According to the presentation, reading and writing should be considered as a social and political act; culture is not something that people enjoy without thinking any political connotations and implications but should be politicized in constructing our lives.

But, as the publishing industry transform itself to be professional and more strongly centered around profits over time, the publishing industry became less focused on the feminist audience and writers and moved on to the general. Norms about what constitutes good books changed to be based on the principle of the enjoyment of the ‘general’ audience, and it discouraged books written by women. As a result, the diversity of women’s literature and expression was discouraged over time, and active local participation disappeared.

The key takeaways of the presentation were that local literary activities were important in female reading and writing, and the perception of women’s liberation is associated with self-discovery for collective identity formation and politics for substantive changes in women’s rights. To these points, there were lively discussions about the presentation. An important point to note was regarding the relationship between technology and gender movements. The local characters in gender movements may have decreased, but we can still use technology to communicate with each other with less restraint on geographic differences and mobilize efforts for changes via the communication strategy.

 

Jungmyung Kim is a graduate student in Sociology who studies gender in the workplace and intersectionality.

“Jonge”: The politics and performance of a Senegalese womanhood. A dissertation proposal by Astou Fall F. Gueye

The word or rather the concept of “Jonge” contains different meanings. Primarily it could be translated as “the art of seducing and pleasing” while, at the same time, it can be extended to a broader social context. That means, it can be related to clothing, cooking, hosting events or as a part of sexuality. It can be framed as a Senegalese gender practice for both sexes although the focus of the presented work will be on womanhood. At the same time practicing “Jonge” stands for recognition and status in Senegalese society, which shows the concept’s intersection of gender, sexuality and class. Scholars have not paid much attention to the topic, which left it understudied, until now.

At the center of the presented research work lies a set of questions including topics like the deconstruction of the representation of Senegalese womanhood and the gender relations in that particular cultural context. Specific questions would be: How and for whom is “Jonge” performed and how can its social relevance be described? Does it challenge or maintain traditional gender division? One aim of Gueye’s research will be to understand gender categories in the Senegalese context via a specific cultural practice. Another central factor is the presentation and representation of the body and how bodies are transformed through “Jonge” as a cultural practice.

For the analyses on the transformation of gender, Astou Fall F. Gueye uses the theoretical framework of postcolonial feminism. The setting for the qualitative research is in Senegal, a country with a relatively young, multiethnic population of 15 million people, mostly Muslim. Gueye will do her research through a postcolonial perspective, used especially to analyze the development of the concept in oral literature, the representation in literature and popular media as well as through qualitative interviews with Senegalese women who practice “Jonge”. This data will be analyzed with the use of grounded theory.

Regarding the cultural context, “Jonge” is treated as a taboo on national television. Instead, women are watching these shows on channels similar to YouTube and others. “Jonge” in that sense enables women, gives them favor and respect as well as expertise. A given example is the so-called fishing-net, a sexual practice that is at the same time challenging traditional gender roles because the work of fishing is exclusively done by men. It challenges that men are the active part in sexuality; instead women leave the state of passivity and are in control of the situation. Furthermore it can be seen as a possibility for women to get into conversation about sexuality and allows them to speak about “inappropriate” topics. This challenges the predominant discretion in Senegalese society. There is a certain ambiguity, so the concept can simultaneously be seen highly critical because of negative impacts it could have on the expectations made to women in the frame of relationships and marriage.

In her research Astou Fall F. Gueye will give an insider perspective on a cultural practice that will contribute to a broader understanding of gender categories, the construction of Senegalese womanhood and the contemporary challenges women face in Senegalese society. We are excited to learn more while the dissertation proposal is processing and progressing.

Tina Wolf is a German graduate student in Peace and Conflict Studies who studies in the fields of African American Studies and Gender
& Women Studies.