The overturning of Roe vs Wade on June 24 by the US Supreme Court is a landmark judgement. It proves that laws and legislations can be struck down and turned on their head, not to dismantle structures of power and oppression but to rehabilitate them. It also brings to light the disdain of the ideological state apparatus for women’s rights, agency, voice and choice even in the oldest democratic society and an erstwhile superpower.

Roe vs Wade is an integral part of the story of feminism – that is, women’s raised consciousness, their struggles for mobilisation, demand for rights, rewriting of laws, amendments to constitutions, self-government, self-sovereignty and control over their bodies.

The clearing of conceptual grounds for gender, the discovery of the gender lens and the intellectual momentum of gender studies is a testimony to the vitality of feminism – an empowering idea and praxis. Feminism is more than a body of thought, it is a movement borne of struggle. The vital core of feminism is a will to overturn.

As teachers of the undergraduate courses on Feminism and Sociology of Gender at an undergraduate college in the University of Delhi, by now we have finished telling students stories about the historic alliance between feminism and its intellectual dividends.

On the grounds of possibilities and collective agency, we laid rightful claims to a room of one’s own and a future of another sort of world. We said we like to believe that the era of a confidence-deficit in oneself, in our voices and choices is on its way out.

The overturning of Roe vs Wade has created an unexpected turn for us as teachers as well. It shakes the foundations we laid painstakingly in classrooms and the syllabi on the historic achievements of what had happened in a country where women scholars and leaders had given clarion calls, influenced modern-day ideas and posed radical questions of the power structures in the family, state, military and the university.

The “personal is political” was, at once, a statement of the obvious, of the fact, and an exhortation to change society. This criminalisation of a hard-won right does not portend well for other rights, to say nothing of a notion of woman that curtails her liberty of choice.

The forces that make the discrediting of Roe vs Wade possible are similarly at work against courses on feminism and of any gender lens that cannot be mainstreamed. It is not surprising that this overturning is happening in the backdrop of the legitimisation of female desire, the LGBTQ movement and the #MeToo movement over sexual harassment and assault. Patriarchy strikes back.

Roe vs Wade is a reminder that rights – old or young – may have a shelf life. While this is an important issue for citizenship, we believe that it is also incumbent upon us as teachers to understand and explain this, and create a vocabulary of hope.

The outside crisis forced us to turn our gaze inward as women teachers in a women’s college teaching a course on women (and men).

Strong affinity or strong scorn

The first week of our classes goes into establishing the relevance of the courses on feminism or gender as they are beset by curious distinctions vis-à-vis the other courses across the disciplines of political science, sociology and history.

One, among teachers, the teaching-appeal of this domain of knowledge, politics and practice generally betrays polarised positions of strong affinity or strong scorn. Neutral and objective orientations are seen as a disservice to the binary of this way or that way.

A default position-taking is integral to the inclinations and motivations to teach or not teach these courses. Perhaps, to most students, a teacher’s affinity to feminism or a gender lens is taken for granted. They may think that the affinity is a priori to the orientation and practice of the discipline. But that is not necessarily the case. There is definitely a reluctance to teach these courses, unless otherwise.

Two, in the event of teaching these courses, the default strong scorn position stands challenged and teased by the language through which we articulate and interlocute this domain of knowledge.

As women teaching in a women’s college with years of experience in the teaching-learning of the disciplines of political science or sociology, becoming acquainted with theoretical approaches, including that of feminism, sets the gender lens in place. It informs our “ways of seeing” the courses we teach and it challenges reluctance by mounting transformative possibilities.

We pleasantly discover that the tutorials and lectures of such courses, in particular, cannot be transacted as monologues. In the ensuing dialogues and multilogues, students voice dissenting notes questioning the received wisdom of the classics or excitedly expressing affirmations of the same.

Their own lives come under individual or voluntary collective scrutiny, their articulations seeming to become objective about their own subjectivity. For these students, the draw of the course is how it mirrors their lives in terms of the questions it raises, the problems it identifies, and the possibilities it gestures to. This is one site of theory that is relatable or accessible through experience.

The polarisation of positions is found among students as well, though the pendulum in this case is a moving one. In the department of political science, the course on feminism – with different titles and an optional course – always draws a small number of students as most prefer to bypass it for hard, read useful, courses such as public policy.

The department of sociology introduces their students to this domain of knowledge, politics and practice under the rubric of Sociology of Gender, which is a compulsory course. Contrary to popular perception, most of our students do not take to these courses benignly. Some complain of a “feminism fatigue” – too much feminism in college. Others find it redundant in the 21st century’s post-feminism era.

Then, there are those who agree to its relevance but avoid it, as in their view there is no scope for new discoveries since feminism’s truth claims are battered with arguments – clichéd, tired and tried.

There are also those who maintain a safe distance from all talk of feminism lest they appear less feminine and be labeled anti-men. Clearly, the three years in the college atmosphere does not naturally soak them with a feminist consciousness. Rather, they may seek to abjure it.

Rise, roar, revolt

If biology is indeed destiny, as feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir put it, then there is room for essentialism and we must reclaim as women the women’s voice. It is only fair that to some extent we privilege experience as knowledge, and women as spokespersons for women.

Of course, the heterogeneity – race, caste, religion, class, nation – in the category of women can make for an unproductive Babel, but active, respectful listening can do the trick of consensus.

We must reveal how the strong scorn for feminism is misplaced and that it is not anti-men. American feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan, in her commencement speech at Smith College, underlined the need for feminist women to have alliances with likeminded men.

In India, indigenous heritage has cultural streams that move beyond binaries – the fact of a normativity of androgyny eloquently captured in Ashis Nandy’s Intimate Enemy.

Gender is a relational concept and the growth of masculinity studies within this is noteworthy as it makes us conscious and sensitive to the vulnerabilities, and marginalisation that hegemonic patriarchal notions of masculinity impose on some men.

To borrow the title from SS Rajamouli’s latest success RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt), women in India must participate to expand or rather further democratise notions of democracy.

They practice remembering what-was-won-how – for example the pioneering work of women such as anti-caste and education reformer Savitribai Phule and social reformer Pandita Ramabai – revise arguments and goals in the flurry of new challenges, and continue to rise but remembering in their ascent, to support the yet weak, the fallen.

Rina Kashyap Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Lady Shri Ram College and Anjali Bhatia Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Lady Shri Ram College.