A Contested Term. The origin of the term ‘identity politics’ is sometimes traced to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement but it was articulated by women of colour in their 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement.
The term refers to collective group identities like race, ethnicity, sex, religion, caste, sexual orientation, physical disability as the basis for political analysis and action.
Its main objective is to empower individuals to articulate their discrimination and invisibility through consciousness raising and action.
Identities and Movements
It is important to debate this term and its politics as it has been the basis for several movements as well as an ideological challenge to existing analytical frameworks and explanations.
In the 1980s, there was a cultural and religious revivalism in the form of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, Hindu communalism in India and global Islamist fundamentalism. In the 1990s, there was the violence and tragedy of former Yugoslavia, movements based on tribal identities in Rwanda and Sudan. Many countries especially in the European Union saw right wing movements in the context of immigration and nationalism with debates on ‘Britishness’ or the banning of headscarves in France.
Currently, scholars have seen its re-appearance in the Presidential contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton in the USA i.e. pitching their campaigns around the ‘first woman president’ or the ‘first black president’.
Making of an Identity
Some identities come with birth like the black, caste or religious ones. Or they can be acquired like national ones, sexual preferences or interest groups.
Identities are fluid, multiple and unstable. They may be blurred or erased over a period of time. That they may be created as the identity of being ‘Indian’ was propagated after Independence from British colonialism. Multiple identities mean that they are competing with each other often resulting in conflicting loyalties like a woman may during a communal riot have to choose between her religious group identity and that of her gender.
Often there is strong societal resistance to crossing identity boundaries like in the case of sexual identities. Social norms and institutions do not allow people to step out of their prescribed identity.
Causes for Identity Mobilisations
Why have identity movements emerged during this conjuncture of history? Theoretical explanations bring together the cultural, political and economic.
The global flight of capital has spread industrialisation all over the world. World wide trade and communication has created a homogenization of culture and politics. Young people in most parts of the world are familiar with the Coke and Jean culture, American films and TV serials. However the impact of the economic process has been uneven. There is a polarisation between the rich and the poor in a country and between nations of the North and the South.
Gender relations are also changing as more women are joining the workforce often when men are unemployed creating resentment and competition. Women are more mobile and visible. And the patriarchal family structure is weakening.
There is a section of people who are benefiting from the globalised world market. But the aspirations and hopes of many are belied. Descending social and economic groups resent their loss of privileges. So there is a public outburst in UK – that Indian doctors are taking over the British medical system or that ‘outsiders’ are taking over jobs which should rightfully belong to Marathi speaking people in Mumbai.
The onslaught of Westernisation and its values due to globalisation has created a reaction of orthodoxy. Right wing Muslim, Hindu and Christian groups have called for cultural re-assertion and pride in one’s identity.
Parallel to the sweeping cultural, political and economic changes and identity based movements was the rise of post modernism in academia. As a critique of Marxist dominance in theory, post modernists gave culture a significant place in analysis and shifted the focus to power relations, identities, construction of gender, class, race etc.
The Rise of Identity Movements [ Used in Women’s Movement]
Identities are powerful sources of consciousness and mobilization as they make an individual conscious of his/her identity and bring them together for political protest and demands through violent or other means. At present there are large mobilisations based on identities like:
World wide Islamist Movements
Hindu right wing movements
Regional self determination movements like Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka, Kashmir and North East in India, Kurds in Turkey
Sexual preferences like the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered [LGBT] movement
Trade Union Movements
There is a tendency to see id based movements as regressive because they are usually associated with right wing movements. But the sexuality movements have challenged conservative notions of sex and sexual activities.
6. “The Other”
Exclusion and Inclusion are critical criteria for identity formation. The ‘we’ of a certain group can only be identified versus ‘they’ of the other group. The process of defining and controlling these ‘boundaries of difference’ has been coined as ‘Other-ing’.
This process of creating ‘sameness’ and ‘otherness’ amongst people, has been used to justify all manners of oppression and violence against marginalized, weaker, less powerful groups. Across history these have included Women, Blacks, Jews, Homosexuals, Dalits, Tribals, lower classes, People with Disabilities etc.
The Ideal Woman
Identity Movements, which are right wing, have given a special place to women. For example, both Muslim fundamentalism and Hindu communalism project an ideal woman as indispensible for society. These ideals are related to women’s dress, behaviour, sexual activity and motherhood. Nazi Germany glorified the blond Aryan woman, who bears children, accepts secondary status to her husband and the State.
Muslim fundamentalism advocates a return to tradition as Islam is in danger, reinforces Muslim identity by rejecting Westernisation and especially by propagating the veil for women, role of a homemaker, and the return to or imposition of the Sharia Laws or Muslim Personal Laws.
‘Roots’ of tradition are in the past and is not open to interpretation. Life and Laws flow from the holy book, and its meanings are fixed and non debatable. Women are regarded as guardians of Muslim culture and honoured as long as they perform their duties to be good mothers and raise their sons as warriors of Islam.
8. Sita not Draupadi
Hindu communalists idealise Sita, the wife of the mythological god, Ram. The qualities of Sita are that of a chaste pati vrata or ideal wife who follows her husband to the forest, bears him sons and immolates herself when her fidelity is in suspicion. Draupadi on the other hand was an articulate, assertive and proud woman who has 5 husbands, who she continually challenges and even seeks revenge.
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Women have been part of the internalisation process since their childhood. They too believe in many of these values and strive to maintain the roles propagated by fundamentalists. And for doing so, they are honoured and given status by their men and fundamentalist leaders. Many educated, professional and ‘Westernised’ women have turned to their religion because it also offers them mental and physical security.
Crisis in Feminism
The women’s movement and feminist theory went into a crisis with the advent of post modernism and identity based movements. The former contested the category ‘woman’ as also all universalisms. Women could not be considered a homogenous group and the using of ‘we’ was politically incorrect. The slogans of women of colour were picked up by Jewish women, indigenous and later Third World women. Global sisterhood was laid to rest.
These voices of ‘other’ feminists introduced the notions of “feminisms,” rather than simply “feminism”. In addition, these feminisms brought in the notion of multiple oppressions, multiple patriarchies and women’s movements. Feminist analysis shifted from “standpoint feminism” to various “postmodernist” feminisms. Studies on women’s subordination across cultures, societies, and historical periods shifted to micro-narratives of class/race/and gender.
10. Crisis in Feminist Politics
The clash of multiple identities and allegiances which surround them came out into the public.
The women’s movement in India and the feminist groups are not that large or popular to have reached the masses of women to shore up a gender based identity. In the absence of a popular secular movement, the majority of women align with their caste or religious identities. Large numbers of them participated during the Mumbai Riots of 1992-93 after the demolition of the Babri Masjid against Muslims and in support of the sati of Roop Kanwar  against feminist groups and progressive movements asking for a ban. In the Shah Bano Case , women supported a maintenance law formulated by the govt and Muslim leaders against their own interests.
Sometimes women are pulled into battles not of their making as in the case of the Cauvery River riots. Both Tamil and Kannadiga women had no knowledge of river water issues but were subjected to rape and molestation by the rival community.
Domestic violence becomes invisible in the face of other state wide violence like in Kashmir, North East and Sri Lanka. Women would like to address domestic violence but sacrifice their individual rights as women to community rights for self determination.
One of the main problems with identity politics is that its assumptions can lead to an almost infinite number of small, atomised identity groups. Taken forward this logic comes to mean that ultimately each individual is her own group. Identity politics makes it difficult to bring together large groups to protest and collectively act for radical social change. In an oblique way, it supports conservatism and status quo and works against collective struggle.
On the other hand, identity politics has introduced important elements and lessons within the women’s movement. It has changed its lexicon, challenged its assumptions and visibilised many sections of women and transgendered people. Sexual minorities, religious minorities, women with disabilities and race and caste based women’s groups have come into their own with vibrant movements.
The lessons for the women’s movement in general is that it has to respect and build bridges with different identity groups, take on board their agendas and issues and together move towards transformative strategies for a just society.
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