Dear Sir, I’m a woman, now may I speak?

Dear Sir, I’m a woman, now may I speak?

By Debotri Dhar | 28 November, 2015
Earlier this month, the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan hosted my talk on women and the politics of religion. It was free and open to the public, and the fact that Arundhati Roy had spoken earlier at the Institute made it all the more interesting. Outside, the bright colours of fall had given way to the first snow of the season: icy drifts, houses huddled close, shivering clumps of trees, slippery sidewalks. “Could the Institute serve samosas and chutney instead of the usual coffee and cookies?” I asked the assistant director, who wonderfully agreed. (It was left to a bewildered secretary to ask what samosas are. The question was answered to everyone’s satisfaction when the delicious devils arrived from an Indian restaurant. Let me add that the accompanying mint-coriander chutney was beyond stellar, and I ate more than they think I ate.)
One of my goals was to expand, and in some instances to challenge, the ways in which the politics of religion in and of India is discussed in the West. The talk was interdisciplinary, and drew from feminist and postcolonial studies, political theory, and literary theory, to examine the gendered politics of religion, and the literary imaginations it has sparked. I referenced some works of literature, including Anglophone and bhasha sahitya, such as Amrita Pritam’s Pinjar, Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal’s edited collection In Search of Sita, Anita Nair’s Mistress and others, which critique and rework male epistemologies of religion. The talk also addressed the historical role of colonialism and its evangelical machinery, the continuing white saviour complex undergirding some Western feminist ventures, and the double standards pertaining to the treatment of some women’s rights in the past and present, that have further undermined women’s voices and choices.
These are complex issues that require nuanced solutions. Endearingly, a gentleman in the audience thought otherwise. Taking over the floor entirely, he proceeded to deliver his own lecture. We did not learn his full name or his institutional affiliations, though we did learn something of his politics. 
Later several members of the audience, including the director, pointed out to me the irony of the situation. Here I was, a woman academic delivering a lecture on the epistemic silencing of female perspectives, to an audience comprised majorly of women, and being silenced by a man!
As I mulled over the im/possibility of women discovering their own voice outside of male-defined paradigms, and how to move beyond the accommodative indirections of theory to re-imagine a postcolonial politics that is forward-looking and not reactionary, a perplexing event occurred. We were discussing the talk in my class, and a student requested for my article on the subject. 
Unable to recall the exact title as it was published some years ago, I Googled some key words. The article came up, but under the name of two “scholars” claiming to be affiliated with some St. Peter’s University in Chennai. It turned out that the entire 8,000-word article, which I had written as a term paper during my PhD years and published in a peer-reviewed journal, had been plagiarised word for word, from beginning to end, with just the title changed, in an online publication some months ago. I wrote a strongly-worded email to the journal with a copy of my own earlier publication. To their credit, I received a prompt apology note from the journal stating that the plagiarised article had been removed from their website. Interesting, their email to me was addressed as “Respected Sir.” 
Research shows that there are certain traits we subconsciously associate with males, among them strong action, risk-taking, travelling outside one’s comfort zone. 
Last year, I had written a piece about being an academic, along with references to books, theories, being single in the US, and living and travelling alone around the world. Even in America, the heartland of individualism, some readers assumed I was male. Would people have made the same assumption if the piece had been on marriage and good housekeeping? 
Years ago, Virginia Woolf said, “No one minds a woman thinking, as long as she is thinking about a man.” Are some people saying touché?
 

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