Why Feminism continues to be relevant for Indians Today

An acquaintance of mine who i recently got into two simultaneous Facebook comment wars with (which are, i shame-facedly accept, the equivalent of drunken bar brawls in virtual space, and only marginally better than YouTube comment wars) on the question of gender issues and this person’s insistence that women were using feminism as a weapon of abuse, linked me to the following tumblr page last night: Check Your Privilege, Feminists to this post specifically. More generally, I find that on and off, my peers read about women’s rights issues in the Western context and don’t always know whether or not those issues translate exactly into the Indian context. This write up is an attempt to examine the criticism of feminism in the USA and test its applicability in India.

The article in question criticizes feminists in the USA today to be spreading paranoia about gender inequality and suchlike on the questions of pay inequality, rape, and female victimization. She argues that feminism was, as far as she could see, being used as an excuse by women to be weak and irresponsible. Democracy is used as an excuse to enable free-market capitalism and labour exploitation. We aren’t perfect. That said, her outrage is not utterly invalid. It is important for strong women who control their lives and choices to appropriate feminism. We owe it to women and men who have historically fought for their ability to be equal and to have agency. We owe it to women and men around the world elsewhere who are fighting this difficult, complex war against the hegemony of patriarchy in various forms, as well as for a more equal, more humane, more just world. We owe it to all those who fight under the banner of feminism, and with the help of a thought and philosophy which was contributed by feminists, to identify themselves as feminists when they believe in the equality of men and women. But that’s for the last. I begin with a critique of the article itself.

Firstly, she (the writer identifies herself as a woman) begins with saying that these quotes, on tumblr and elsewhere, are by “misandrists”, not feminists. She then accepts that as these voices may not be representative of feminist philosophy, she suggests that she will now quote serious feminists. She has only and only quoted feminists who are strictly classified as and claim to be radical feminists, the most prominent and serious academic amongst these names being Catherine McKinnon. (As for Andrea Dworkin, let’s just not even go there.)

The tumblrer gives an account of Pay Inequality being a myth in USA. I cannot verify the truth of her claims. If it is indeed a myth in America today, more hurrays for success of the feminist movement! In India, of course, we didn’t have an Equal Pay Act or the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s, we had Articles 14 and 15 in the Constitution of India in 1950. The issue of equal pay in India in high paying jobs is not a prominent problem. That is because a lot of these jobs are government jobs and the Pay Commission governs the salaries of employees without gender bias. Whether or not this has been impacted by private jobs in MNCs etc today, i don’t have any statistics to help me. Pay Inequality does apply in the unorganized sector to the gap in the money we pay to picking and carrying, generally done by women, and the kind of money we give to laying down, usually done by men. Here, actually, take a trip down to your nearest construction site and speak to the labourers there and find out! If you want, you could compare the money paid to a khaansaama or a naukar (a male household employee) and a bai or dai or naukrani (a female household employee). Inevitably, the male employee is paid more in the same household because it is rationalized that his income is for his whole family, while hers (even if she is the only working member in her home) is only for herself or is a supporting income to her husbands, so she may be paid less.

It’s easy to cop out and say that men have more options to better jobs because men prioritize x, y and z better, while women prioritize p, q and r over x, y and z. When we criticize patriarchy, we criticize systemic oppression. Much like, say, one can look critically at schools for training people to become future employees of corporations, we critically look at our social system which shapes women’s needs and men’s desires in specific ways.

We are talking about this really, really old institution which gives greater credence to men’s wants, needs and desires over women’s wants, needs and desires. Halt! Take a step back. It shapes both men and women’s wants, needs and desires. Right from the time a kid is born, depending upon the sex of the baby, we choose to tell a baby boy of merely 3 that he is such a smart kid, and we choose to look at a baby girl of the same age and tell her she is so pretty! We give boys different toys to play with than we give girls. We encourage toughness is boys and nurturing and care-giving in girls. We discriminate in how we shape our children, in the social cues we give them, consciously or unconsciously, about how to fit in this world. Is that fair? And how will that lead to a gender-equal world where people take gender neutral choices about their lives, not the least their professions?

We value nursing less than teaching as a job, at least in India, when nursing often requires nearly 24 hours of being on your feet and a lot of medical expertise. Nursing is seen as a typically female job. And teaching, (unless it is in primary education, where again, women are supposed to have some essentially amazing mother-hen skills by virtue of a hormone produced in excess in their bodies) is seen as gender neutral, till 11th, 12th, where there is a slight bias in favour of male teachers– they are somehow perceived as being more knowledgable, and more capable to send one’s sons to IIT. Let me talk about a field i know a bit more of: the legal world. Not a single woman in the best female advocates of our country is, from my acquaintance and observation, able to reach there without being alternatively sweet, kind and caring, and aggressively stand-offish. It’s as though unless she has a split personality disorder she cannot succeed in a boy’s club where she has to put barriers to “approaching” her by her external attitude, while at the same time try and be a concerned human being, or no one would ever be able to reach her.

One of the “serious feminist scholar” is quoted to have said that “rape exists any time sexual intercourse occurs when it has not been initiated by the woman, out of her own genuine affection and desire.” — Robin Morgan …. I am unfamiliar with Robin Morgan’s work but I really don’t find anything particularly obnoxious about this particular view. Perhaps I wouldn’t insist that the woman initiate sex every single time in a heterosexual relationship. As long as a woman or a man respond with enthusiasm to each others initiation of sexual relations, i don’t see a problem. Where sexual intercourse is a result of only one party being into it, and forcing themselves upon the other, while the second party is all “ewwww! i hate this! but i can’t stop else i may be hurt by this first party– immediately or in the future– physically or by emotional abuse/blackmail” — that’s sexual abuse (i don’t use “rape” here, since rape is a technical, legal category with gender specific connotations). Even though as a feminist i believe that rape laws should be gender neutral, the realities at ground zero make me grudgingly accept the rape law in India as it exists in all its gendered force and flavour for the time being. A gender neutral rape law not only will give men who are victims of sexual abuse the opportunity to have wrongs done to them be recognized by law, it will also challenge the overwhelming innocent victim-narrative within which a “woman” is caged in the eyes of the law.

As a feminist, i am grateful for any acknowledgement that women are capable of being crappy human beings out of their own actions. My feminist agenda is very clear. I am against the paternalism which refuses women responsibility and agency over their own actions and life choices. It is encouraging to me, though, that the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POSCO) a is gender neutral legislation. Perhaps the day is not far when we can ensure that the law on “rape” is rid of its gender bias as well. The legal system is ill-suited for societies in states of social transition. While the law exists in its current form, increasing agency and opportunity of women shall possibly mean that more women shall be guilty of sexual abuse of other men and women– or that more men are able to come out into admitting that they have been raped by women. There will come a time when the existing laws shall become patently unjust if they do not become gender neutral, and only then will we be in a position to reform them. Alternatively, the scenario may change in a way that most men would respect women’s agency enough to not have sex with them without their consent (i.e. rape them), bringing either sex’s number violations down to similar figures. Even here, we would need the law to change as it would no longer be reflective of social realities. You see, the reason rape is currently only about men raping women is because of the history of rape as an offence when women’s virginities were an object to protect. Our current, nuanced understanding of rape did not exist when the offence was coined in the law– about a hundred years ago. Even our governments didn’t really think women were people at that time: they were of the same mind as Yo Yo Honey Singh songs: women were not actors in their own right, but the objects of desire, to be primped and preened for male consumption,– or else were nurturers, to look after Yo Yo Honey Singh when he was a baby and cater to his needs after he was a man. While on the one side Paternalism precludes women from making formal choices, Patriarchy has relegated men to a state of prolonged infancy in domestic matters: wives are generally expected to step into mother’s shoes and cook and clean and pick up after the men in their lives.

As far as the radical feminist taboo against heterosexual sex is concerned, if you are a radical feminist (and a woman), it would help your life if you were not attracted to men because the belief of all sex with men being rape since it is a part of what patriarchy has socialized women to want. But this theory in practice is a bit like cutting off ones nose to spite ones face. This also applies to wearing make up and conforming to social standards of aesthetic presentation. A complete rejection of all gendered aspects of our lives, that we are socialized into, would be next to impossible to accomplish. At the very best, we can hope for making self-aware, self-reflexive choices in our orientation, behaviour and presentation.

The situation in the USA seems to be that women have agency in the formal sense, and laws in most progressive states are, by and large, gender neutral. Nonetheless, social values are still gendered in USA and social pressure assigns roles to persons of each gender. There continue to exist nuanced, harder to spot, leftovers of the way we thought about things before the feminist movements began and how we did things then (which often show up in the form of microaggressions), and we often continue to do things the same way without really examining them. We refrain from examining why we prefer long haired women, or men who earn more than us. We don’t examine our heads enough, because we often don’t step out of heads into books and ideas that weren’t in our own heads–and that leads to a weird mish-mash of women who have agency and yet refuse to use it, and men who are allowed to show tears and yet refuse to do so for fear of social outcasting. See, feminism is relevant to the US currently because though the State has already given men and women the right to organize their lives however they want to, and it does seem (from the outside at least) that there is space in society and acceptance in society of all kinds of people–that the USA has a liberal society–, as a social movement feminism is required and stays relevant… Now that women have the ability to be free agents of their lives to an equal extent as their male peers, women need to be encouraged to exercise that agency. Or else the battles that were so hard won will come to naught. Men need to be encouraged to exercise their agency in ways that challenge socially preferred male behaviour, or else the battles that feminism has won for men will come to naught.

Let’s switch back to India.

Gender issues in India seem to me to be very complex and full of intersectionalities within intersectionalities. We have not only caste or class as a factor for making experiences that arise out of our gender positions entirely different, we are also located within immensely variable religious histories and practices, and cultural differences arising out of geographic necessities. And to complicate it all, we spent 200 years under a colonial power which laid down most of our laws, so we no longer know for certain whether the things we support or vilify as “Indian culture” are perhaps in fact Victorian culture.

Perhaps this non-uniformity is true even of USA, given the “melting pot” of cultures that it is as well. I can’t say. I haven’t lived there all my life. But this i can say. Indian women’s experience of patriarchy cannot be generalized in a one-size fits all sort of way. The most i can assure you of is that i am most certainly a feminist and i will continue to advocate the cause of it because India is not a post-feminist place. Our laws smack of inherent patriarchal assumptions about women and men’s roles. Our politicians are still by and large sexist. And our most vocal demographic: the educated, privileged, Westward looking youth which identifies with the urban white male in USA, doesn’t always understand the meaning or cause or point of feminism.

My beef with patriarchy is not always about women’s oppression. It is also about our views on people who are both or neither or are anything which is “the other”. It’s about a systemic subjugation of people who stay weak by people who stay strong. It is about destabilizing the status quo and ensuring social mobility betwixt genders. It is about aspiring to a gender neutral world, and i don’t really know what that world would look like. I would prefer it to be a liberal world where want and need and oppression and poverty in quality of life and quality of thought are lessened to a great degree. I understand that this is a utopian imagination, perhaps to some (men and women who enjoy the privileges of their position) a gender neutral world is a dystopia. I understand that it is perhaps never going to be achieved, for scantily clad women objectified by men is something which capitalism can use to promote consumerism, and it is hard to separate women who choose to be scantily clad (for or sans profit) in a free economy, and women who are simply complying with a worldview out of the absence of autonomous spaces. And both consumerism and capitalism are powerful forces of “ism”-ing, which feminism can all but dare to take on. Feminism in India is a small, striving-hard-to-be-inclusive movement at the moment, and we need as many people with all their critical faculties to come on board and help steer it towards greater inclusiveness and to steer India towards greater equality, humanity, justice and fairness (not of the cosmetic kind).

We live in a complex society where all kinds of people must coexist. We have to find ways to make it a happy, equitable coexistence. This can be done with constant reexamination of empirical evidence on the basis of our principles and ideologies, and a periodic revision of our principles and ideologies on the basis of empirical evidence and the explanatory power of new ideas.

Finally, feminists can’t exactly choose the leaders of the movement as it is a bottom-up movement. For a face of the movement, Emma Watson seems to be doing a pretty decent job. If you still need a name, i’d say Mary Wollstonecraft makes a fine leader. Or maybe Judith Butler. Or even Betty Friedan. Or maybe Simone de Beauvoir. Perhaps Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak. Or maybe Upendra Baxi, or Lata Mani, or Lotika Sarkar or even my former professors and colleagues, be it Mrinal Sathish or Rukmini Sen, or an equally contemporary Pratiksha Baxi or Uma Chakravarti. And if you need an Indian pop icon, i’d go with Kalki Koechin. As a rider, i’d like to add that anyone who who engages with “feminism” will find that it is not a single school of thought as it is a movement with various streams of thought. Feminist ways of doing things, be it taking a class or doing a survey or arranging organizational structures in a corporate office, also informs the feminist way of thinking about feminism. It is wholly a participant driven movement for social transformation.

The thing about “leaders” of grassroots movements is that they grow from bottom upwards. Practically speaking, that’s the only way they can grow, since there is barely space for them at the top (which is why they are in a position of disadvantage). Inevitably, though, it is either the absurd or the radical who manage to get the press’s rapt eyes. It is in the interests of the status quo that the movement be discredited by ridicule (take, for instance, the bra-burning event which never actually happened). I say my last sentence with apprehension as it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but alas, there is no grand old patriarch sitting atop a mountain, twiddling His thumbs and spinning webs to engineer the systematic return to the kitchen of all women. If only bringing down Patriarchy was as simple as killing Lord Voldemort!

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One thought on “Why Feminism continues to be relevant for Indians Today

  1. Drunken brawls are NOBLE!! Always for a cause. Maybe a game or your girl and after you’re drunk.

    YouTube comments are juvenile, expletive laden, jingoistic, and written when people are uneducated and naive and in front of a laptop.

    Therefore, no comparison!!

    Rest I concur with you

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