Representation, Not for the Sake of Representation

July 29, 2016 IMG_1355

By Nisha Santhar, Programme Officer, ARROW

The second day of the regional feminist strategizing meeting allowed me a peek into the wide spectrum of feminist struggles, including in-depth discourse on voices (or the lack thereof). The opening session on voice had a recurring concept; representation. The rhetoric on representation boils down to two forms – to have representation and being represented. As we manoeuvre within various political spaces, both civil and societal, it becomes apparent that both these forms are lacking.

To Have Representation

It is an undeniable fact that there are various degrees of privilege, and the first aspect of having representation is to recognise privilege. Priyanthi Fernando from IWRAW AP reiterated the importance of women being actively present in public spaces and to consciously represent their voices as women’s voices are consciously constrained.

To have representation is the presence of women in active decisionmaking processes, in both micro and macro levels. Although women’s representation and voices are increasingly present within spaces, especially in civil, the panel were in full agreement that system is still inherently patriarchal. Women’s representation then is merely tokenism within the larger picture. However, progress in representation, no matter how small, is important.

The Axis of Intersectionality

Representation alone is not enough. We also discussed the truthfulness and legitimacy of voices. For an example, a middle class urban Indian voice cannot and should not represent a Dalit woman but often this is what happens due to factors such as language, resources and resulting privilege. This then brings about the rhetoric of women being represented and the importance of thinking along the lines of intersectionality. Sundari Ravindran from the Achutha Menon Centre for Health Science Studies pointed out that this is the way forward for twenty first century feminism. It was interesting to note that intersecting axis , such as class, race and gender, which creates identity, vis a vis, the representation of women, at the same time, present themselves as factors of domination on women, depending on context.

Being Represented

One of the key points of discussion was about whose voices are being heard. As the group discussions progressed, it was collectively agreed that in certain instances feminist voices can and have ‘taken up space’ of voiceless women. They are being represented by women with no notion of their lived experiences, hence silencing their representation. It was acknowledged within the discussions that resources, stories and realities are being represented by women in such very rooms that we were in. Representers of the community and the women are not present to decide on policies, the way forward or even funding.

The politics of being represented begs the question of women’s awareness of their position in society while manoeuvring within the agents of culture, religion, media and the family. The dictation of these agents shapes the identity of women, which gives rise to gatekeeping of their voices. The internalised silencing or self-censorship goes beyond the role of laws and policies, which begs for debate of localising the SDGs as a tool for intersectionality. The politics of voice extends towards the freedom of expression, be it art, dance, stories or even performances.

In conclusion to the myriad of discussion of the second day, the take away messages that beg for further thought and discussion are, ‘who is setting the agenda?’, ‘who legitimises voices?’, ‘whose voice is being heard’ and ‘are we unconsciously (or deliberately) silencing voiceless women?”. As Sundari reflectively pointed out, the SDGs ought to be used as tool in the search for a solution. Having situated knowledge and working towards the bottom up approach begs us to think global and act local.

Image sketched by Dewi Candraningrum on Day Two