Here, we reach out to people who will reflect on the theme and share their insights as to how it relates to their lives and work.
This month YFN reached out to Cayathri Divakalala who shared what identifying as Queer means to them in the context of being a feminist activist, how they express it and more! Read a short Bio on Cayathrie, after the questions!
- What is the interconnectedness you see between the feminist movement and activism with the queer movement and activism? Why and how does one help us frame the other?
I became an activist in my teenage years in the early 1990s in Northern Lanka. Neither feminism nor queerness was part of my vocabulary then. Tamil was the only language I spoke. Helping the community in whatever way possible came unsurprisingly due to living amid an ethnic war in a family full of activists. My experiences of coming of age — on various levels — happened amid this brutal war.
When I first heard the word feminism in Tamil in the mid-1990s, it felt like I found a tool to understand many discriminatory experiences of mine and girls and women in general. I wanted to learn more. I was fascinated by women who identified as feminists from the Sinhala and Tamil speaking communities. Some of them spoke English too. In the early 2000s, my exposure expanded beyond Lanka. I think it was around then that I started to identify as a feminist activist. My journeys have been evolving since then. The kind of feminist activism I was involved in focused on women’s oppression that intersected with other discriminatory social structures such as ethnicity, class, and caste from a justice point of view. A deeper look into sex and gender-based identities with various communities helped to think and act beyond the binary.
Around the same time, I was also exposed to queer politics. However, it took me a while to make sense of my queerness. I have primarily been working in the north and the east of Lanka. The socio-cultural and political landscapes produce various nuances and challenges to lives in general, let alone queer lives. The understanding of gender itself was focused mainly on the binary of genders for decades. Aspects of sexuality and various sexual orientations were not part of conversations until recently. Even to this date, activist spaces shaped by queerness have to be cautiously done. A lot could be compromised otherwise.
In this background, the question you asked speaks to me in two ways at this point in time and space. Firstly, the feminist movement has been evolving since it’s inception when intersecting with other forms of marginalisations and how they impact the lives of women and women-identifying persons. I want to stress the need to look beyond the gender binary. Also, I prefer to use sexism instead of misogyny to be inclusive of discriminations faced by all sexes and not just women. The definition of misogyny is limited to prejudices against women. The intersections of various forms of marginalisation offer the space for feminist activism to be more inclusive, accommodative of differences, and find common grounds to voice concerns and advocate for changes. Hence, feminist activism thrives when it voices intersectional experiences that have been long overlooked, even by feminists and/or feminist movements in some instances.
Secondly, the ideologies challenged by these two movements — i.e., sexism, gendered social systems of power like patriarchy and matriarchy, heteronormativity, and homonormativity — are closely interconnected with one another along with other systems of marginalisation such as ethnicity/race, caste, class, religion, differently-abled bodies and mental health. They produce and reproduce one another. They thrive at every intersection — more the factors, deeper the marginalisation/oppression. Hence, activism must speak to this reality in society and impact marginalised/oppressed communities.
Having multiple lenses to identify the various elements and layers of marginalisation brings out nuances that might not have been seen and/or heard before. The search for marginalised voices in it’s entity would be a lifelong journey of an activist. Also, the rapidly changing world that is increasingly reliant on the narrative of “survival of the fittest” continues to produce new categories of margination. We must continue to evolve to be able to identify and address them.
- In your experience as a queer feminist, how have you seen misogyny and queerphobia manifest in your work and life?
Sexism and queerphobia are deeply embedded in our societies. No aspect of any human life is untouched by them. If one could think of instances that have not, I would encourage that person to look deeper. Since my consciousness of the self and society began, I realise that I have been subjected to various identity-based norms and practices. It is an ongoing struggle to challenge these identities to rise above the limitations they pose to my life in general. After all, one of the feminist struggles has been to make the personal the political. However, it has also been challenging to be imaginative beyond the profoundly embedded ways of being. For instance, could we imagine a society without the representations and symbolisation of female and male bodies as we know and live them at present? The same applies to norms imposed by heterosexuality. For instance, I think the institution of marriage is a product of sexism and heteronormativity. I was married once. It feels like in another lifetime. I am not on board with the fight for marriage equality of same-sex partners. I understand their grievances. However, we are still fighting for something within the frames that have already been created by ideologies that do not make sense to us — like heteronormativity. We should be asking a different set of questions to imagine a society beyond such limitations.
- Who are some queer feminist writers, activists, and leaders you think we as South Asian feminists need to be following, reading and learning from?
While I understand the purpose of this question, a few alarms go off in my mind that prevents me from naming and framing. I firmly believe that any piece of work/expression/activism must be approached with a critical lens or more. I have found myself learning more in the process of critiquing and/or disagreeing, which helps to think and grow together. In other words, constructive criticisms. Moreover, what we learn from one another could be subjective and contextual. I find it difficult to share any names without going a little deeper on how each piece makes sense to me and why. Also, we could learn from the unlikeliest places, genres, people, and other living and non-living beings. My suggestion would be to look out for material that provokes our thought processes.
I search for materials produced by people of colour and queer people from different parts of the world on various topics. For instance, a few ago, indigenous ways of making sense of lives and the relationality with humans and non-human elements, including oral traditions, have been shaping my presence in this world. There is plenty of material out there if we look. The key will be to find something that speaks to us and add meaning based on our experiences and locations.
In South Asia, I have learned from quite a few personalities. I am not sure who could be named without posing a threat to their lives and/or to their communities. However, Priya Thangarajah and Sunila Abeysekera, who no longer live in their bodies as we knew them, have made profound contributions to activism in Lanka, let alone queer feminisms. Their thoughts, wisdom, and memories continue to challenge and guide my ways of being and doing.
- What is your advice for us as allies and queer feminists in integrating queer issues and realities into our feminist leadership and activism?
I could share some of my learnings based on being an ally to other movements and working with allies in movements. Have those difficult conversations to shed light on issues and voices that existed on the edges of mainstream activism (of any kind) or been marginalised for various reasons or previously ignored. Being aware of our privileges alongside our own experiences of marginalisation will be helpful in understanding experiences that are not our’s; however, be an ally while being cautiously conscious not dominate voices/experiences due to our privileges/positions of power. Openly admit that you are struggling to make sense of experiences that are not your’s. However, you would want to be part of their struggles should they require it. Spend a considerable amount of time listening and understanding. When you feel the urge to speak, always speak with them and never at them or for them. Compassion could take us a long way. Being mindful of spaces we share to nurture equal relationships that strengthen a sense of community is profoundly powerful!
From a very young age, as a Tamil girl living amidst a brutal ethnic war in the North, I have been grappling with issues of identity and connectedness. Then, I had neither the language nor the analytical tools to make sense of my experiences as a dark and chubby girl from specific socio-economic and caste backgrounds. While most of these were subjects of discrimination of different forms and levels I faced, a few were privileges too.
My journey of questioning dominant identities and seeking people and platforms to resist began after the mass exodus of 1995. This was when my world slowly started to expand as I displaced from one place to another seeking refuge from the brutalities of the war. The journey started with Tamilness, which was quickly accompanied by girlhood/womanhood based on my personal experiences and many in the community. Though sexuality joined this dilemma in my early twenties, it took me a long time to be comfortable with this identity, mostly due to my locations and community work. These are ongoing journeys with the privilege of having befriended many fellow travellers from various backgrounds.
I firmly believe that alongside the experiences of oppression exist the powerful instances and stories of resistance. I am currently reading for my doctoral thesis in Aotearoa, which focuses on marginalised voices of activism from northern Lanka.