Was Phoolan Devi a feminist?

“Violence is not justified but resistance is”.

By Ekta Sonawane

(Phoolan devi 10th Aug 1963 – 25th july 2001)

It is important for the students from marginalized communities to know about the existence of a parallel worldout there, which is not yours and trying to fit into that world is not a change or progress. Instead, forming strong counter arguments and establishing your ideals, can be the step towards the change we want to see.

Let me tell you a story; for the first time in 2018, I chopped my hair very short. Right after, I received a comment from a well know Ambedkarite activist saying, “Nit raha naytar tujhi dekhil phoolan devi hoil” (Behave nicely or you will become like Phoolan Devi) in a condescending tone. Eighteen year old me was devastated, and was desparately trying to look at what my fault was. I had many questions, 'What I did wrong?', 'Who is Phoolan Devi?' and 'Why does this ‘progressive man' have no respect for her?' I wanted to know more about Phulan Devi.

After research, I found her to be brave and an inspirational figure! This made me ponder even more, why did this man have no respect for her?

The next time I came across Phoolan was in my gender studies classroom, in an university space. I was supposed to present a movie review from a feminist point of view, where I choose Shekhar Kapoor's 'Bandit Queen' from 1994, as my subject. While presenting, I stated that “I see her as a feminist.” The counter questions to this were, 'How can she be a feminist?' 'Is violence justified?'

'Feminism is not about killing people it’s about challenging the structure, and by extension challenging the society'. This was my first interaction with class and I felt queer and isolated. The people questioning were my liberal progressive classmates, and the professors were telling me that feminism is about challenging hegemony, patriarchy, breaking structure and they couldn't see phoolan doing that because “violence is not justified.” I'm taken by a shock.

These aformentioned incidents reflect the hypocritical nature of society and its problematic aspects of patriarchy within and beyond caste-class-gender-space.

Intersectionality : Theory, Practice and Academia.

“Change is important but not according to them!”

Them? Yes! Them, those who are in position of power, those who are setting waves, and those who ruled. The term 'Intersectionality' was first quoted in 1989 by Prof. Kimberlee Crashaw, to describe race, class, gender, and other individual characterstics which have a role to play in a person's reality. The discourse of intersectionality and debate around it has grasped a grip world wide in this half a decade. In india the intersection of caste-class-gender-race became a fashion in the academic circle to work on. It is truly amazing that Indian scholars are considering 'caste' as their matter of study, and showing interest in forming intersectional theories.

However the classrooms, where these theories are taught, not considering Phoolan as feminist because of their dominant nature. The structural oppression in academia still holds strong. Irrespective of the theorotical framework of intectionality in Indian academia, it is the rigid concepts of moral and liberal correctness, which holds them back from accepting Phoolan as a feminist.

Phoolan said, ‘What they call crime, I call justice.' If her act is not seen as feminism, then those feminist professors, students, women and every person should rethink about their feminist ideology and even the practice of intersectionality. Although in west the word 'intersectionality' is more despised because of the way it is understood and perceived. For them it means 'because you are minority you get special standards, special treatment.'

I ponder if it is the case in india now, especially in academia? Is it seen as a ‘conspiracry theory of victimization?'

Indian academia should thouroughly talk on the discourse of intersectional feminism and its practice atleast in academia. Phoolan Devi is an icon for many, and seeing her as a feminist, and as one’s icon doesn’t necessarily mean that one is justifying violence. Violence is not justified but resistance is.

Today on her 19th death anniversary, I pay tribute to revolutionary Phoolan Devi with my revolutionary greetings. She will be our inspiration as long a revolution.

Long live revolution, long live Phoolan Devi!!!

Ekta Sonawane is currently persuing her MA in Gender Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi.

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