Srila Roy, a professor of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg has received awards from the American Sociological Association and the International Studies Association, for her recent book, Changing the Subject: Feminist and Queer Politics in Neoliberal India. These prestigious recognitions highlight Roy’s expertise in transnational and decolonial feminist studies.

In her book, Roy examines the swift evolution of gender and sexual politics in India within the context of global neoliberalism. She meticulously dissects the paradoxical effects of India’s liberalisation: while it has boosted visibility and energy within queer activism, it has also co-opted and de-politicised women's rights struggles.

Roy conducted an in-depth ethnographic study of two feminist organisations in West Bengal, Janam and Sappho For Equality (SFE). Janam, an NGO blending neoliberal development tactics with discussions of women’s empowerment, and SFE, originally a support group that later transformed into a fully-funded queer feminist organisation, serve as intriguing case studies.

By delving into the historical, political, and economic factors shaping feminist and queer activism in West Bengal, Roy illustrates how colonial legacies, leftist ideologies, digital technologies, and urban economies have intertwined over time. This comprehensive analysis portrays the complex interplay of forces that paved the way for contemporary activism within Janam and SFE. Roy’s book offers a profound theoretical reassessment through the concept of “entanglement”, challenging simplistic divisions within feminist activism. By dismantling the autonomy-versus-co-optation binary, Roy urges readers to embrace the intricacies of feminist and queer politics.

Changing the Subject is a compelling ethnographic exploration of NGO work and feminist activism in India. Roy's engaging narrative and innovative theoretical approach make this book essential reading for scholars, activists, and anyone interested in comprehending the dynamics of gender and sexual politics in the neoliberal era.

In a conversation with Scroll, the academic talked about her research, gender and queer movements in India, and the projects she’s working on.

How did the idea to write this book come about?
I was inspired by new feminist and queer movements that I saw in India. These were quite different from previous mobilisations. For instance, they were led by young people – of all genders and sexualities – and were often digital and urban. At the same time, the academic and journalistic literature I encountered was constantly bemoaning the loss of feminist struggles in an age of globalisation and neoliberal capitalism. So, in some very basic way, I wanted to find out what was really going on, on the ground – was feminist politics all lost? Or was it being recast into something else?

More generally, my research has always been inspired by subaltern struggles in the global South. Remembering Revolution, my first book was about the gender and sexual politics of the 1970s Naxal revolt in West Bengal. I have edited books on social movements in South Asia and more recently, South Africa. I find it important to remind readers everywhere that these are the places that have the longest histories of robust – however complicated or contested – struggles for social change.

When reflecting on your early works, what thoughts come to mind? How does this book differ from your previous works?
This book is both a continuation of and a departure from my previous work. As already said, my first book was on the gender and sexual politics of the Naxalbari revolt. Many of the radical left-wing women I interviewed for that project came to constitute the generation of autonomous feminist activists, and so it was their biographies that led me to histories and afterlives of the Indian women’s movement. At the same time, I was also always independently interested in the Indian women’s movement and how it was changing under conditions of globalisation, digitalisation and liberalisation in India. These interests were most represented in my edited volume on New South Asian Feminisms. But the book is in fact not about “new” feminist and queer politics alone; in important ways, it undermines ideas of newness and generational change by showing the ways in which ideas and practices endure, across successive generations and types of Indian feminists, queer and non-queer.

How much change do you see on the terrain of gender and queer movements in India?
On the surface, there appears to be more change than continuity – in the way in which Indian feminist politics have moved from the march to the online petition, for instance. My book shows, however, how older ways of organising and even understanding feminist politics endure in these new sites and subjects. For instance, queer groups, who rejected the homophobia of women’s groups, reproduce their ideological leanings, nevertheless. If there are continuities across time then there are also across space. While globalisation informs gender and queer movements, I show how it does not erase the local, regional and national. Thus, at a time in which we think of everything – including our politics – to be highly transnational and globalised (think of the #MeToo movement, for instance), I hope the book returns the reader’s gaze to the importance of place and time.

The journey of bringing this book to fruition spanned over a decade. What factors contributed to such a lengthy process?
Research for and writing up the book took a decade of my life. I started preliminary research – in the form of a pilot study in India – when I was a lecturer in sociology at Nottingham University in the UK. Subsequently, I moved to South Africa, took maternity leave and started a new job at Wits. I gradually returned to the field but before I had children, I could make regular field trips, thereafter, I made less. This long duration was not expected but it helped to produce a richer narrative, I think, enabling me to see trends and dynamics that I would not have otherwise been able to see, in a shorter period of time.

The idea of “women empowerment” has been trending nowadays. What impact do you think it has made on women’s movements?
The idea of women’s empowerment is a longstanding one in international development (Aradhana Sharma provides a great mapping in Logics of Empowerment). With neoliberalism, however, the idea of empowerment has moved from tackling the structural issues of poverty or inequality, to helping people to help themselves, through entrepreneurship. So, in terms of gender equality, the priority has become the financial inclusion of women through micro-loans, for instance. In the book, I show how an NGO with strong ties to the regional women’s movement tried to combine this more neoliberal approach to women’s empowerment with more feminist concerns around women’s rights, with varying degrees of success. In sum, the idea of women’s empowerment has to be constantly unpacked and never taken at face, by academics, activists and practitioners.

What is currently keeping you occupied? Can we expect another book in the coming time?
I am writing a new book, for Wits University Press, tentatively titled Dissonant Intimacies: Transnational Feminism in the Global South. This book project is different from previous ones, in that it does not draw on grounded qualitative data. It comprises, instead, a more theoretical mediation on the concept and practice of transnational feminism from the Global South, drawing on my own professional experiences of doing feminist pedagogy, research and institution-building in and across the South (primarily in South Africa and India). At the same time, the project also puts into question the comparative method – and its colonial legacy – and probes the asymmetries and dissonances within the Global South, as opposed to the easy forms of commensurability and solidarity that we have come to expect, with our current interest in decolonisation.

What academic and non-academic books are you currently enjoying reading?
I am reading work on higher education and decolonising for a new book of essays on decolonising higher education in South Africa and India. I would encourage those interested in debates on decolonising to read work from South Africa, such as scholars like Achille Mbembe, Jonathan Jansen, Sarah Nuttall, Mahmood Mamdani and Ayesha Omar. I am also trying to read more fiction than in previous years. Partly for pleasure given how instrumentally academics tend to read, as you probably know! But also because I am exploring writing some personal essays and short stories myself. My dream is to retrain as a fiction writer.

Could you list some of your favourite authors and share what draws you to their work?
Always so difficult as there are so many, in fiction, non-fiction and poetry! A common theme is women writers, like Maggie Nelson, Deborah Levy, and Siri Hustvedt, who write compellingly on motherhood, sexuality, and marriage in the personal essay (my current favourite genre). Fiction from Han Kang, Chimamanda Adichie, Awaeke Emezi, Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy are able to similarly address the intimate and everyday through the lens of gender and sexuality. I still return to the Indian feminist work that I cut my intellectual teeth on – Gayatri Spivak, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Uma Chakravarty, Pratiksha Baxi and Tanika Sarkar – who have modelled to me complexity in thought and writing. And finally, Michel Foucault remains a firm favourite for understanding power in its micro and macro manifestations.