This New Year began with me delving into Feminist texts, especially Estelle Freedman’s The Essential Feminist Reader (2007) published by Modern Library Classics. Following years of denying outright that I subscribe to Feminism, it was time to look at why I had distanced myself from the movement, when my thoughts are clearly in line with its agenda.
Like most graduate students of literature and history, Feminist discourse is not dealt with in the mainstream arts degree curricula within India. I first encountered Feminism while browsing online about gender disparity and violence against women, and learnt that ‘the second sex’ has been fighting for equal rights and protesting oppression for several hundred years. This oppression takes the form of Patriarchy, “a (rule by fathers) social system in which the male is the primary authority figure central to social organization and the central roles of political leadership, moral authority, and control of property, and where fathers hold authority over women and children. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and entails female subordination. Many patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage.”
It was like a splash of cold water on my face. At an age when you discover your dreams, make career plans and are more concerned about the shade of your sling bag matching your sandals, the concept of patriarchy sent my head spinning. It encapsulated everything that I felt was wrong in society and slowly put into perspective my personal narrative of struggle and rebellion at home. Power equations in relationships, especially the authority wielded by parents over children, and the shifting degrees of control that is the hallmark in a marriage, the exploitation of workers, class struggle, hierarchy and hegemony in all its forms now made sense to me.
Questioning the Question
It was the turning point for me to reject – in agonizingly slow degrees – the dogmatic traditions and cultural norms that I was expected to uphold as a member of my family and project as identity as part of a community. My late teens and early 20s was the period during which I began to disassociate myself with religion and the sacredness of holy texts; any written body of work cannot hold sway over how individuals need to behave or live their lives. Exposure to post-modern literature, on the likes of Barthes, Borges, Foucault, and Derrida, also cemented the impression that rejecting the establishment or status quo was an expected step in coming out of the closet.
When you begin to question the pillars of institutions, you also deconstruct the notions of the self. It began with my appearance and body image: why has the normative become the bedrock of social cohesion? How do we come to label something deviant, unconventional or counter-culture? Why is there duplicity in gender roles and disparity in the gender ratio? How do I take ownership of this self, when it’s nothing but a conjectured set of constructs, stimuli and reinforcing behaviour? If I am not supposed to be this naïve, bubbly, traditional girl who loves her romantic Bollywood movies and cooking, who am I supposed to become when everything is rejected and every root questioned?
In the heady days of discovering the barrage of texts and in turn, the self, I still couldn’t quite grasp what Feminism is and how ‘these women’ (Feminists) planned to erase the history of subjugation and right the scales of equality. Reading about the suffrage movement in the United States and the rise in power of women politicians across Asia and Europe didn’t convince me that progress was being made. I wasn’t aware of any legal precedent or legislative breakthrough that women presidents and prime ministers championed towards better healthcare, education, domestic rights, workplace parity or public security for women. Of course, I wasn’t naïve enough to think that change can take place overnight and we are just 60 years into independence as a country. Secondly, women with political clout still had to contend with the dominance of their majority male colleagues. However, the sceptic in me questioned the change promised by a gender-equal government: even when men are in power they haven’t done much to better the quality of life of their own fellow brothers, why would women in power be any different? And isn’t power the very construct we were to question? I do acknowledge that perhaps this was an extreme line of thinking, but nothing has changed my jaundiced view of things, until now.
Coming out of the Closet
Distancing myself from a political standpoint and donning the cloak of apathy hasn’t gotten me anywhere. In fact, it’s a recipe for pathological rage at the unchanging norms in society, with you as one of the millions who don’t lift a finger or shout out against injustice. However, I do not see myself heading out to the streets, placard in hand, participating in Slut Walks, Safe City Pledges and Anti-Rape campaigns. My way is quieter, inward looking and closer to where the most battles are first fought. My war is waged from the frontlines of the home, and my enemy, the people we call family. The first volley was actually thrown by my family, calling me a Feminist, and it angered me, to be labelled something in accusation, instead of in pride. It was then I decided to own up to the movement. Yes, I am a feminist and proud to fight for my piece of identity.
Subscribing to Feminist principles of equality – which are actually universal precepts for human rights – do seem like a black and white issue. If you believe in human rights, don’t you automatically become a Feminist? Why are Feminists blacklisted for fighting for what should have been the natural order, beginning with Adam and Eve? Once again, it’s patriarchy that has the answers: “Although the term patriarchy is loosely used to stand for ‘male domination’, as has been pointed out above, it more crucially means – as others have stated here: “The rule of The Father” or “The responsibility of The Father.” So patriarchy does not refer to a simple binary pattern of male power over women, but power exerted more complexly by age as well as gender, and by older men over women, children, and younger men. Some of these younger men may inherit and therefore have a stake in patriarchy’s continuing conventions…The operations of power in patriarchy are usually enacted unconsciously. All are subject, even fathers are bound by its strictures. It is represented in unspoken traditions and conventions performed in everyday behaviours, customs and habits. The patriarchal triangular relationship of a father, a mother and an inheriting eldest son frequently form the dynamic and emotional narratives of popular culture and are enacted performatively in rituals of courtship and marriage. They provide conceptual models for organizing power relations in spheres that have nothing to do with the family, for example, politics and business.” (Source: Wikipedia).
As I attempt to make my thoughts accessible to readers, it becomes clear that indeed, along with courage to own up to the movement, guilt has played a punitive part in the reason why I sought safety with apathy. I was conditioned to feel squeamish with the idea of being independent, outspoken, opinionated, strong, aggressive, assertive, and the hundreds of other adjectives that go well when you are describing a man, but sounds vulgar when it’s for a woman. In the true spirit of patriarchy, I am conditioned to value how society thinks about me, whether my family accepts me or not, whether I fit in with conventional peer groups, and if I can mould myself into constructed roles of a mother, sister and daughter. My legibility as a social entity is validated when I internalize these norms – that’s the power of patriarchy. And so, owning up to Feminism would mean disowning all the values that I was taught to hold more dearly than life itself.
Reconciling the Political with the Personal
As a student of history, art and ancient civilization, Feminism has also placed me in another quandary: questioning and rejecting rituals, traditions and values, all of which delight a historian, but are to be questioned, rejected and reworked to displace patriarchy. Everything from birthing ceremonies, fasting, circumcision, the rituals of beautification and bodily adornments, the permutation and combination of the arts – dancing, singing, poetry, painting, and photography – and every other cultural homily is necessarily engendered in favor of men and conflated to oppress women. Visuals objectify women, rituals suppress us, tradition is oppressive, and public spaces are shuttered.
How can I then conscientiously enjoy my Hindi movies, which revolve around ‘ishk wala love’ songs and heroines seducing the heroes in chiffon sarees? How do I condone the exotic body and facial tattoos, piercings and complicated body adornments of the African tribes, all of which mark the changing stages of a women’s body (and that of a man as well)? I have to keep questioning my choice in clothes, my love for Pride and Prejudice, my need to feel pampered and protected (sometimes), celebrating festivals, admiring temple art, the list is endless. Can we engender identity without the inputs of culture? Can we function and forge a new way of being? The historian in me shudders at the million-year-old line of unbroken tradition and evolution that Feminism requires us to question and reject. However, holding on to this narrative means I become witness and accused to a crime that has led us to willingly abuse women. Would you choose such a narrative?
In working for a society that is free of violence and inequality, we need to reject language as well. Language is born with the seed of hegemony and power. It contains, suppresses, cloaks and hides. It silences and abuses. It makes us believe that what is spoken in jest is affection. So much so that today, saali and bitch are used playfully when you address your loved ones and friends. Weird, right? When did we get to a point where insult is passed off as endearment?
One of the freedoms of declaring yourself a Feminist and coming out of the closet is that you don’t need to have all the answers, we can begin with questions first.