- Hiding in Plain Sight: Disclosure, Identity, and the Indian Men’s Rights Movement
Hoisting myself to ride helmetless pillion on a motorcycle across Nagpur to go from one MRA (Men’s Rights Activist) Sunday morning social gathering to the next in April 2015, I was consumed with the anxiety of impending doom. I thought, “if this motorcycle crashes I am truly going to have one of those ignominious yet hilarious tragic deaths, complete with a tabloid headline reading ‘Feminist Researcher’s Risky Ride with Antifeminist Leader,’” as inglorious as professional martyrdom gets. It was bad enough that Nagpur was the only fieldwork site where I did not know a soul other than my interlocutors, or that I had chosen the town because its leader was known for posting the most disturbing of misogynous vituperation (it turned out that, like many MRAs I met, this leader had many stances in different kinds of public venues, from his amiable cooperativeness in introducing me to lots of people to his enraged social media presence). I was planning to go from the weekly meeting at a local park, where families sought help on civil and criminal laws, to a smaller gathering, where the core organizers met to cook lunch and eventually drink rum-and-coke for several more hours, strategizing, kvetching, ribbing each other. The man giving me a ride, a member of this smaller circle, scorned the idea of wearing a helmet in Nagpur, perhaps a stance consonant with the risk and toughness associated with the hegemonic masculinity of MRA groups. Though late in my fieldwork, this incident carried the frisson of those “arrival narratives” that are so beloved by anthropologists, hitting the notes of nervousness, danger and excitement at being a person completely out of place—especially thrilling for me, an urban anthropologist observing courts, police stations, and NGOs, [End Page 117] with no hazardous boat rides or perilous insect encounters to boost my professional credit.
Although that anxious moment makes for a good anecdote, it elides the bigger risks of this project: questions of safety and reckonings of self. In this essay, I explore some of these methodological obstacles with studying antifeminist groups after having spent a couple of decades researching feminism and its impacts. MRAs are not necessarily a topic separate from the study of feminist legal reform—indeed they came to my attention because they appeared in media accounts as vociferous anti-feminist presences critiquing the very laws of domestic violence and rape that I was studying. However, a project focused on rigorous ethnographic attention to MRA lives poses a complex set of problems of disclosure, identification, interpretation, and alliance for feminist researchers, potentially realigning many of one’s professional and personal relationships. Among my worries: Does my very topic undermine feminist achievement and validate masculinist cries of backlash? Will I lose the feminist friends and allies with whom I have worked, and acquire new acquaintances with whom I’m not sure I can be fully comfortable? Do my ethnographic responsibilities clash headlong with my feminist politics?
I foresaw a lifetime of awkward chagrined explanations, my fears perfectly illustrated in the following encomium coming right after one of my first conference presentations on the topic. A senior Indian biologist based in the United States, a fellow Fulbrighter for the year, came up beaming, to let me know how pleased he was that someone was finally “saying something on men’s behalf,” while also relaying in seeming jest that his wife, who had warmed to me the previous evening, was now grumbling about my topic up in their room. I have received many versions of this response from friends and strangers in the years since, typically framed as queries about my “conversion” and “loyalty.” Naturally, suspicions (and stakes) have been proportionately even higher among my MRA interlocutors as well as among feminist activists under attack by MRAs.
But the enumeration of such worries is also a woefully common methodological exercise. It enacts the very trope that Kamala Visveswaran (in her gloss of Judith Stacey’s article, “Can There be a Feminist Ethnography?”) evocatively identifies as being at the heart of feminist methodology: that feminist research is foundationally...