In conversation with Dr. Nancy Pathak

Nancy Pathak is an Assistant Professor (Ad hoc) of Political Science, an author, a Body-positive Fashion Model, and a Sustainable and Inclusive Fashion Activist. She completed her Ph.D. in Liberal Arts from JNU and is writing a book in collaboration with scholars from Heidelberg University. As a body inclusive model, she participated in Lakme Fashion Week and FDCI Fashion week.

Why is it important that society as a whole should recognize and respect the diverse Gender Identities and pronouns of people?

Society as a whole should recognize and respect the diverse gender identities in particular and all other kinds of diversities in general for very simple logic, that diversity makes a society more just and matures it to accommodate more interests. Going by Rawl’s logic, in a society so just, even if you fall in the most marginalized category in any circumstances you will still be provided for, the bare minimum to survive. Hence, it is only logical to promote acceptance towards diverse genders.

Gender roles in the first place are not natural, the gender binaries were created to meet very specific biological roles in traditional societies, i.e. reproduction and providing for off-springs in domestic security. This control over the process of reproduction was carved out of the vested interests of the traditional and feudal elites. To keep the labour categorised and almost free. Once the society liberalised and the industrial revolution freed the bodies from the boundations of estates, the heteronormative gender roles started losing their importance too.

With the advancement of both capitalism and liberal movements, heteronormative norms are almost not necessary. Hence, it is important that societies leave space for gender expressions that are much closer to the sexes that are naturally diverse. Pronouns are an extremely important part of the gender assertion; they are basically helping in acquiring the language for conceptualization that was denied to diverse genders by the heteronormative linguistic structures. Recognizing pronouns for diverse genders will only help in better conceptualization of the changing social realities. They will contribute towards better epistemological understandings of various genders and help society better understand itself.

Bodies are at the core of the political order as markers of status and power. Do you agree with this statement? Please specify the reason.

Biology and bodies are at the core of all the power. Everything else can be stripped of as artificial facilitators of power, but biological realities cannot be shunned. They live and die with your bodies. Bodies become the first unit of all the institutions where power is wielded i.e., families, society, state, etc. All epistemology develops in the context of the body, everybody has their own vantage point. In this context, all hierarchies are ultimately generated to control the bodies. The bodies are marked to keep the hierarchies intact so that the gatekeepers can identify these bodies and prevent them from becoming powerful bodies. The best way to keep anyone
from acquiring power is to discriminate and bodies become the source of identifying who can be checked and discriminated against.

How can we imbibe the Youth with the knowledge of how to be good feminists?

To start with, it is important to spread awareness about the fact that feminism is for everyone, and it is a liberating and just ideology for all genders. To imbibe the youth the knowledge to be good feminists we need to: –
a.) Keep the channels of organic conversations open with young minds and let them know that if they believe in equality, they already are feminists.
b.) Help them understand their gender positions and situations better by giving them conceptual tools to make sense of them.
c.) Make their classrooms and offices more gender diverse and inclusive to normalise non-binary inclusion. The aim is to make it reach their personal space eventually.
d.) Be very careful that the teachers we hire, should have a strong sense of justice and be dedicated to the cause of inclusivity, their role in shaping young minds is very important.
e.) Making a logical argument on social media for gender cause, again and again.
f.) Striving for better representation of different genders on screens, to normalise non-patriarchal gender roles and nonheteronormative genders.
g.) Help them identify their privileges, the impact of these privileges and suggest the reasons and advocate the need for shunning the privileges.
h.) Let them know of the benefits of feminism, which will generate their interest and support.
i.) Discuss the intersectionality in genders, so that they can make sense of gender in the context of other social constraints.
j.) Let them know about their legal rights in the context of their genders, point out the loopholes in those laws.
k.) Help them organise, agitate and speak up for their rights and the rights of the ones around them.
l.) Narrate inspirational stories of justice achieved and struggles won.
m.) Make them a part of solidarity, where conversations and exchange of readings on gender and diversity becomes a norm
n.) Encourage them to reach out to those who do not have the privileges of education. It is a long process and may take generations to reach where we want to be, but constant tireless efforts will bring the change, even though we will have to be very patient. Patience is the key.

Mainstream political science has tended to treat bodies as an unproblematic category stemming largely from a presumption that bodies are part of nature, hence apolitical and unchanging. What is your opinion on this?

Bodies are neither apolitical nor unproblematic. From their birth itself, their fate and future are sealed until they struggle against the structures that define their hierarchy and opportunities. Bodies are a site of power, power is exercised upon bodies, by the micro and macro bodies, i.e. the society and the state and vice versa. Like everywhere else, the “Brahmins” of Political Science, wish to serve the purpose of the state and policymakers alone. Issues of politics that help the masses develop an understanding of the politics around them are often trivialized and placed lower in the hierarchy. We have seen that bodies have shown the potential of resistance, reforms, and reclaiming the narratives. The bodies might be a natural reality, but the power structures around them keep changing. Now, with the help of medical advancements, natural bodies are also being changed and accepted in societies. Hence, the bodies may be natural, but they are not
unchanging and they are constantly involved in the process of re-defining power around them. In fact, the power structures keep changing even with the changes that the natural body undergoes with time. A child’s body or an old body in normal circumstances may not be as powerful as a young body in possession of power. To not treat body politics as a mainstream subject of Political Science will be an injustice to the subject itself. This has become clearer in the times of pandemic than ever before when bio-power is naked.

What do you think of the socio-sexual liberation of women considering the fact that women’s sexuality in society is kept in check by the male heads of the family?
I believe that females are naturally sexually liberated. Anthropogenic studies of a lot of tribal societies indicate that. Patriarchy, deriving its strength from traditions and feudalism has really curtailed her true nature. It was done through institutionalised subjugation of women with the help of education, caste, religion, mode of economy, society, and family. All these institutions were hand in handled by the patriarchs or the matriarchs serving the patriarchy. But again, modernity did loosen up some unjust traditions. Legal and fundamental rights gave women protection to express themselves. Economic opportunities gave them independence and now they are reclaiming their true nature, i.e. socio-sexually liberated. However unfair we may call the capitalist system, the capitalist logic allowed economic participation to all the genders out of the logic of profit-making. The liberal, feminist, left-wing movements only provided them solidarity, they still have a long struggle ahead of them, but they got a platform. But the sad reality today still is that there is a huge divide between modern women and those still under the traditional socially institutionalised burdens, and also the class burden of capitalist exploitation. Until such exploitations exist, patriarchy will continue to stifle the true nature of women.

Can you tell us briefly about ‘Bio-Power’?

The word Bio-power was first used by Foucault in the first volume of his series- The History of Sexuality. Foucault explains that Bio-power is a set of mechanisms through which basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy of power. The power that emerged after the 17th century was not just the power to rule with a monopoly of force but also the power to govern. It was the new power to produce the subjects, where various institutions like medical knowledge, moral structures, laws, and instructions introduced power relations. These were achieved through series of power processes like surveillance, rewards, punishment, hierarchies, etc. These processes were used to regulate the understanding of humans, their relationships, their sexualities, for the purpose of creating subjects, regulating populations, and exercising power over bodies. It is an extremely useful concept in times of pandemic.

In light of the ‘Boys Locker Room’ Incident, what are your opinions on ‘Social Media Trials’?

I firmly believe that there are laws in place to deal with crimes. Social Media is a place that is always flooding with sentiments. While it is important to show solidarity for a cause, we should never jump to conclusions on anything on social media. Most of the information is not very credible due to the anonymity these platforms offer to their users. The ‘Boys Locker Room’ looks like just the tip of the ice-berg. In a platform, this democratic and this anonymous, the true nature of the social malignance is bound to be visible. We need to take this as a lesson and gender sensitize people, set better examples in front of our young ones, provide sex education in schools all over the county even in the remotest of areas, and work towards better laws in regulating social media.

How has your journey been as a scholar and as a model for Body Positivity Activism?

The journey has been full of mixed experiences. I have been appreciated amongst the academics in Germany and other parts of the world to be working on the field and pursuing my activism in the field of body politics and fashion. I have been welcomed by the fashion industry and especially, Fashion development council of India, with open arms, they have more than appreciated that a scholar wanted to study the gender and body projections of the industry, whereas on the other hand I have raised many eyebrows in Indian Academia, a field supposedly known to be liberal. Some of them have even tried to use it against me, to further their sexist, orthodox agendas. On the one hand, we have been able to bring some changes to the fashion world, we have been able to include big bodies, disabled bodies, bodies from different genders and ages in the fashion world.
The bodies walking the ramps are no more anorexic, juvenile, heteronormative, submissive, tender women, but confident, healthy educated people from all genders and all ages. That according to me is a big change that has come over years of struggle, we may trivialize it, but the fact remains that it has a huge impact on public health- physical and mental and on very important life choices of young people. As a body-politics scholar, firstly the fashion and now also casteist and sexist academia have become my field of activism. In an environment where so many vulnerable young people are engaging in power relations with their Professors, it is very important that a safe and healthy environment is provided to them. I hope I am able to bring some change to it, like a bunch of confident young people have been able to bring to fashion.

The recent controversy regarding ‘Fair and Lovely’ brought to light India’s obsession with Fair Skin as a sign of superiority and success. Why do you think such ideals are flourishing in India, when it is in fact is one of the most racially diverse nations in the world?

I have always argued that our traditional beauty standards were much more liberal. Many of the gods and goddesses were in fact celebrated for being dark and powerful. Unfortunately, that has just culminated into large scale hypocrisy in society. We still see matrimonial ads asking for white-skinned, slim, convent
educated, well-cultured brides. As much as people like to call it a result of our colonial hangover, I sincerely believe that the history of this racism goes back to the ‘Aryan-Savarna’ hegemony institutionalized through the caste system and orthodox religion. Coming from such a colonial mentality we link the opportunities and success with the color of the skin. Especially linking the color of the skin of young women with success is not only racist but also extremely sexist.

What is your favorite part about being a teacher?

My favorite part about being a teacher is getting a chance to interact with such young minds and to keep constantly learning. I like the positivity of outlook, love for righteousness and ideals, zest for change in these young people. While I get to read a lot in the process of helping them learn, they help me grow every-day.
These are organic experiences that no reading or academic pursuits can ever replace. I get to listen to their side of the story too, I get to align my activism with them and they have been my single source of inspiration in an extremely exploitative academic system.

Where are we standing as a civil society to understand the notion of love other than the heteronormatively defined ideals?

I honestly believe that we are part of a very vibrant civil society in India, which again is being led by very young educated minds. At the same time, we will have to acknowledge that there is a huge gap between civil society in Urban Indian and sub-urban, rural India. While Civil society in Urban, educated spaces has been open to accepting notions of love beyond heteronormative norms (more or less), some orthodox civil society groups have not even tried understanding gender in its entirety. The divide is huge, and we need a space for dialogue. What worries me now is that the authoritarian structures are shutting down the space of constant dialogue and the propaganda against liberal progressive forces has been massively used to demonise anything that is beyond their understanding. Openness about Ideas of gender, non-hetero-normative notions of love, and challenge to a heteronormative structure will need at least an open space of dialogue. We are still very far from achieving even the basics. Like Judith Butler suggested, the gender must be “performed” until it is normalised, in order to claim the space in society and law. People have to be moved out of their hetero-normative comfort zones. The change of hearts and minds has to be brought using social media platforms, a more representative mass media, art, and even literature before we expect these spaces to open for dialogues.

According to you, what is the root cause of ‘Gender Inequality’?

The root cause of Gender in-equality like any other kind of in-equality is the motivation to preserve power and resources for a small section of people, to be able to use bodies and their labour without having to pay the worth of it. In the case of Gender, there is an additional motivation that drives Gender inequality as Foucault has addressed. Gender norms and hetero normativity is directed towards achieving regulated reproduction and management of the population. The laws and rules have also been laid down to achieve the goals of population management in terms of creating a reproductive and obedient economic labour force.

How open was the educational institution you studied in/are currently studying/teaching in to discuss issues related to gender? Do you feel that educational institutions in India are in general a safe and free space for women/people of other sexual minorities or gender identities especially during large scale student gatherings?

If I must answer this question in all honesty, I will say that I have had all kinds of experiences at all kinds of places. I got an opportunity to study in JNU, a liberal space where genders were not only openly discussed but also celebrated. Yet, I saw that certain sexual harassment cases never reached their fair conclusion due to misuse of power and authority, exercised by people in decisive positions even there. But the JNU community at large stood in solidarity against the perpetrators and that really mattered. I am not very sure if anybody will be able to get that kind of camaraderie and support in gender issues outside the liberal spaces like JNU. There is still a lot of hypocrisy around gender issues, and academia is a very dangerous space for young people. They are constantly engaging in direct power relations with people who are sexist, communal, casteist, and even sexual predators in many cases. The system has left a lot of young scholars at the mercy of the Professors and administrators in cases of grades, scholarships, appointments, etc., making the system extremely potent for facilitating exploitation. In times like these, where most of the spaces are so patriarchal and politically motivated, you are basically left with legal recourse as your only escape. So, my expectations of any other spaces for gender justice are no-where close to what I had in JNU, but at the same time, I see a great need for gender activism and gender solidarity, and collective in academia.
In the context of large-scale student gatherings, I have myself had experienced in the past when in 2008, a massive mob of Delhi Police aspirants returning from their exam’s centers went on a rampage attacking and sexually harassing women on streets in DU, North Campus. A massive protest had been led against the violation. It has been 12 long years since then, and we still had a similar harassment incident at Gargi College’s fest. I believe that it is really high time that Delhi University takes it as a serious law and order issue to start with and then should take other measures to ensure female safety on campus.

What role does Media (especially platforms like Instagram/Twitter) play in bringing change towards the notion of ‘Gender Equality’ and advocating for ‘Body Positivity’?
I am so glad that you asked this question because this is a major part of my research work. Social media has been a revolutionary change in terms of providing a democratic space for a lot of organic movements and expressions, including gender expressions, which the patriarchal gatekeepers of various systems wouldn’t allow otherwise. Like the hetero-normative gender roles that have been taught by society, social media has become a teaching space for alternative discourses of genders. It has provided a space for different genders and bodies to keep their perspectives, their problems, and their sentiments on social media and in the public eye, thus providing a learning space to people coming in touch with these stories. Social media is being absorbed by so many people every day, that it is a great opportunity to reach out to those minds, to help them unlearn and relearn gender norms and bodies again. The popular media has been projecting hetero-normative and even patriarchal gender and body norms, for such a long period of time. The notion of beauty has long constituted a heteronormative, tender, flawless female body or a macho dominant male body with pumped-up muscles. Social media has just been blasphemous to those norms. We have seen bodies with stretch marks, scars, fat, short height, non-binary sexuality being projected as beautiful and acceptable on social media. It is re-defining beauty, health, love, bodies, acceptable and normal in the public eye. It is art and revolution both at the same time for both gender and body. It is in fact laying down the foundations of the future gender movements and just laws, in my belief.

Many laws in India like Surrogacy Act and Adoption Act only take into consideration family as related by blood/kin. Do you think this is discriminatory towards members of LGBTQIA+ Communities?
I believe that the understanding of marriage and parenthood needs a paradigm change in society and in laws. Marriage is still considered a union of a hetero-normative couple in the eyes of law. The law itself is a victim of patriarchal and hetero-normative understanding of social institutions. In this context, the Acts like Surrogacy act, the adoption act, etc. become extremely discriminatory, when they allow the right to parenthood only to married couples or to single mothers. This is the systematic exclusion of LGBTQIA+ individuals from healthy social life. Not only has the law been discriminatory, but this has also given strength to the administrators and police in reinstating their queer-phobic practices in the social sphere. This is in my belief a complete violation of the fundamental right to equality of the LGBTQIA+ community. Having a family life and parenthood should be ensured to all responsible human beings as a matter of human rights.

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4 thoughts on “In conversation with Dr. Nancy Pathak”

  1. Good article and some interesting, profound thoughts from a progressive intellectual, full of passion and holding a beautiful mind high up in her head. Keep it up.

  2. This Blog is definitely worth sharing and its summary must be included in the curriculum of graduate and post-graduation courses.
    She highlighted need of the hour in the very point i.e workspace and classroom should be made gender diverse .
    I enjoyed reading and send warm greetings.

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