Why I Won’t Join AOW Just Yet
This article has been written by Anonymous. The cover picture has been illustrated by Gunjan Jadiya (Batch of 2023).
Earlier this month, the NLS Feminist Alliance/the Alliance of Oversensitive Women (‘AOW’) sent out a call for applications to join its “Core Team” of members. The mail informed readers that “While everyone involved with AOW is a part of its activities, the Core Team is tasked with conceptualising the agenda and organising events, on and off-campus”, and went on to list several of the activities that AOW had been involved in conducting, in the past few years. Something which particularly struck me here was how the roles, activities, and functioning of AOW seems to have fundamentally changed, in the few years since its inception.
AOW was formed in 2016, in the aftermath of a few NLS students discovering certain sexist comments made by members of the NLS community regarding women and female sexuality, which were subsequently called out via posters put up on the 19(1)(a) Board. The conversations which grew from this event sparked what Prof. Elizabeth called NLS’s 2nd (or 3rd, can’t recall exactly) feminist awakening, which grew into an opportunity for learning for persons across campus, including the persons who made the said controversial statements.
Over the course of that year, AOW also went on to hold ‘Not A Safe Space’ sessions – forums for open discussion where people were encouraged to ask their nagging doubts and questions, especially with respect to taboo grey areas – for example, questions regarding the appropriateness of rape jokes, attitudes towards women, sexual consent, locker room talk, and more. What is of particular interest to note is that the initial Not a Safe Space session had a large turnout and was attended by an equal number of men and women, was attended by a significant number of seniors, and went on for over 2 hours – highlighting the ubiquity of these doubts, the lack of forums for discussion and discourse on the same, and that not all of us have been raised on a diet of Sylvia Plath and have come to NLS having imbibed Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin’s life’s works. And this is where I believe that AOW had truly made a culturally significant inroad at NLS – in the creation of a hitherto non-existent opportunity for more grassroots learning on such issues at NLS, in an ideally safe and non-judgemental space – and no, History classes do not count enough for the same, as it is often an intimidating space for many.
In the year following, AOW did some fantastic work in highlighting issues of gender disparity on campus – such as the Silent Count Report, which highlighted the prominent lack of invited women speakers/judges in the events hosted on campus; and finally getting women access to the field post sundown. While they did also host a panel discussion, the scope of their activities still primarily remained education, learning, and discussion by and for people on campus. This scope of activities has fundamentally transformed in the years following their inception, veering more towards event management (with tie ups with the Law School Policy Review and the National Law School Trilegal International Arbitration Moot, for example) than actual learning and discourse on campus – contributing to the ever growing output of outward-facing talks that NLS seems to have, but leaving a frankly gaping hole in actual on-campus discourse. Their very mail seems to indicate that their only new activities in the past year appears to have been sending POSH Acts to CJI Gogoi in protest regarding the allegations against him, and the organisation of a panel discussion last month, which their individual members proudly announced on Instagram and LinkedIn that they were pleased to put together. Hundreds of students and professionals may have attended the same, but how many NLS students could you count amongst the attendees?
My point, in simple, is that in the rat race that is NLS, has yet another forum with initially humble intents and beginnings taken a life of its own to become just another avenue of CV building? What seemed to be AOW’s original mandate has seemingly been relegated to the corner – the last Not A Safe Space session was somewhere in 2018, with significantly lesser senior and male participation; and forums for sharing and discussion have been left to LnD, peer support groups, and the Mental Health Support Group to organise. What of the consent workshops that AOW said they’d take up, following the call-outs in 2018? What of the continued awareness they said they’d try to inculcate even amongst the senior batches? Because clearly, just two history courses don’t teach us even nearly enough about issues of such magnitude. AOW’s call for apps emails have consistently over the years mentioned that “you should apply if you are a passionate individual committed to the cause of raising and sustaining a feminist consciousness through varied means”, but the consciousness which is being raised is certainly not of those in NLS anymore – consigning AOW’s purpose to one amongst the various ‘feministflowercrown’ groups that exist to repost feminist memes and Medium think pieces on their Facebook page, and organise talks like any other ABC/Non-ABC on this campus – all for external consumption. There are enough superfluous groups and organisations out there in this world which are raising feminist consciousness. There are not enough groups doing the same within NLS.
As an example of how I believe AOW’s consciousness raising on campus would in fact be very beneficial, and its lack might produce a tangible harm, I take the case of the 2019 SBA elections. As has been the case in many years, NLS was once again faced with the prospect of having only male candidates running for the position of SBA President and Vice-President. To rectify the same, AOW subsequently proposed to nominate persons from amongst their ranks to contest these elections. These nominations ultimately did not pan out, whatever may be the reason. But why in fact was AOW put in a position to have to take such a step?
The lack of women in leadership roles on this campus has been previously pointed out, and it merits greater questioning as to whether NLS really does inculcate an atmosphere where women are comfortable with and encouraged to take up leadership positions, and as to why many women feel disinclined to do so. One possible reason could be the noted lack of a female collectivization on this campus, which the men on campus have and benefit from at the time of SBA elections. In this regard, even small efforts towards building the same (such as LnD’s ‘Women Speak’ session, where women were encouraged to open up regarding their issues with leadership and competitive activities on campus), could go a long way. Grief sharing and collectivization is a strong tool in building female empowerment on this campus, knowing that the struggles that you have faced are not singular, and hearing of and learning from the experiences of others. Perhaps had more of these existed, we could have helped build such a culture on campus which could help in the long term by showing women right from the moment they enter NLS, that there exists a support structure in place for them. This could give women the confidence to take up leadership right from their initial years, culminating in more women candidates for our SBA eventually.
This, in direct opposition to hastily trying to nominate women at the last moment when faced with only male candidates, would have been a better and more foundational goal that could be worked towards, which could benefit women across their tenures at NLS, rather than fulfilling a short term interest. Where this is also important is, first, when we consider that there exists an understandable possibility of burnout or fatigue from fulfilling the role of an SBA President/Vice President, especially for someone whom the role was thrust upon, who didn’t have prior experience or interest in governance; and second, that in the pursuit of normalisation of women in leadership roles, there exists an ocean of difference when younger law school women see an underdog candidate genuinely contesting a position, versus seeing a name thrown up for the sake of representation. The former is AOC, and the latter, possibly Kamala Harris.
Finally, while there is a point to be made as to whether NLS is even capable of civil, nuanced discussion any more, especially regarding questions the answers to which may not lend themselves to everyone easily (see the comments on Daksh Kadian’s Quirk article, for example), the transformation of AOW into a feminist SIPLA, and the perception that goes along with the same, certainly doesn’t help. The ranks of those who form a part of extended-AOW are not public (as far as I know), but AOW remains identifiable with identifiers of urbanity, affluence, and first-world feminism, markers which only get amplified with this increasing preoccupation with event-focussed activism. I know these markers may not hold true for each and every member, but this remains AOW’s perception as a whole – that AOW exists for women to discuss the latest Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie think piece and second each other’s homogenous opinions on their Whatsapp group, with not much room for diversity of opinion – that the Feminist Alliance and its activities are the domain of and are solely meant for those already well versed in feminist thought and literature, and not those for who’d take any stances any less radical or any less informed, and not for those who want to see and learn, but rather for those who already know. This ultimately informs choices of people as to whether to be a part of and whether to associate with AOW or not, and also whether they’re willing to engage in discussion and debate with them, if AOW ever makes its pivot back to that domain again.
Now before you label me a ‘pick me’ or say I haven’t read more than 40 pages of feminist writing, I’d like to clarify that this is honestly not intended to be an angry castigation of AOW as a whole, and I know I am no one to stand at the fringes and shout my opinion into the void, believing it deserves to be heard. I do believe that AOW has continued to also do good work – such as simplifying the SHARIC Code (a truly horrendously complex document otherwise), and organising the sit in for the EC Meeting – and that there is some merit to their non-NLS focused activism.
But NLS and AOW must truly introspect and see whether this is the avenue where they can truly claim to make a difference, and whether they would be satisfied in essentially proceeding with armchair activism at best, and CV-building at its worst, in abeyance of an opportunity to truly support progress and influence thinking at NLS. American feminist scholar Janet Halley once called upon feminists to question their own relationships to power. In other words, she basically said with great power comes great responsibility, and she urged feminists to “take a break” from their own presuppositions, and introspect whether they are, in fact, wielding said power responsibly. Such a break, in her opinion, would change their perceptions of what considerations are actually important, and help them re-assess their role anew. This is all I ask that NLS and AOW do. Go ahead, do organise your talks and events, but don’t lose sight of your beginnings.
 Here, I’d like to clarify that I don’t mean that it is AOW’s job and burden to take up every feminist issue on campus. I only take the example of SBA elections, as that is clearly an avenue where they’ve identified a problem which they would like to correct, and for which there exists a different but achievable solution within their grasp. However, I hasten to add that even with regards to this solution, the burden cannot rely solely on them, of course.
 I’d like to clarify that I don’t mean to demean these events conducted by AOW or these Whatsapp group discussions, if they so take place – my point simply is that perceptions regarding those being the singular focus of AOW form part of the growing ostracisation of AOW from any grassroots consciousness raising that could take place.