July 17, 2008

Widening the Prism

ApuA FEW DAYS AGO, when I thought about the conflict parents face when their daughters become “too liberal”, I was really thinking from my own perspective as an educated, young, urban professional. When a commenter mentioned that liberalism does not yet extend to accepting choices such as homosexuality, I was, at first, a bit startled. This was because, frankly, I had not thought about the issues faced by people different from me. Though I do support the rights of people to their own sexual preference, I honestly hadn’t given it much thought. In a sense, I am guilty of looking at the holy grail of equal rights through a very narrow prism.

Of course, this is partly because one tends to identify with causes where one has personally experienced the problems at hand. So I have experienced harassment on the street by virtue of being a woman. I have experienced a boss telling me that lower raises shouldn’t matter so much to women, since “yours is a second income, anyway!” But even if I have not experienced other kinds of oppression, I should know that they exist, shouldn’t I?

As someone born into an upper caste family, I have never known what it means to be considered “low” because of my caste. Once, when I visited my grandmother’s village, I  went to the Dalit basti, which was set apart from the rest of the village. Here, I talked to many Dalit women, some of whom were startled at my sitting down with them comfortably. Some of them even tried to prevent me. I felt good about not heeding such distinctions and I was surprised that they still had such practices. It didn’t occur to me that they were the ones who could face problems for interacting too closely with an upper-caste city girl who would leave the next day.

As someone born into a middle-class family, I have never faced challenges to my education. How do I understand the plight of a poor family, where any child is unlikely to be sent to school, and a girl child, even less likely? When I talk about challenges at the workplace, my focus is on white collar occupations. A large portion of Indian women, however, are poorly-paid labour in the unorganized sector in hazardous working conditions.

As a heterosexual woman, I had my own challenges in choosing to marry a man outside of my own caste and linguistic group. If I am honest, I must admit that when I think of the right to choose a partner, I largely think of issues where women are coerced or forced into marriages they don’t want. (And yes, emotionally blackmailing your daughter until she gives in also falls in this category). The rights of non-heterosexual people don’t figure as strongly on my mind, although I believe that Article 377 is a law that has no place in any civilized country.

Is my feminism too narrowly defined? I don’t think it is worthless; even if people like me are a relatively elite group, our concerns are not invalid. Further, changes in a small group can act as a catalyst or inspiration for others. Yet, I do believe that feminists like me need to start looking at a broader agenda. I don’t mean this as a criticism of anyone else; it is simply something that I would like to do.

For one thing, in terms of sheer numbers, this English-educated, reasonably affluent, upper caste group is a very small part of our country’s women. So unless we as writers, activists, funders — whatever role we choose to play — address the concerns of a larger group, real change will be slow to happen. It is important to recognise that women are affected in ways beyond gender alone. Remember the witch-hunting of Dalit women? This was the result of a dangerous cocktail — a casteist, hierarchical society together with gender oppression.

Another reason is that feminism as a movement is unlikely to gain support and respect, and in fact, will lose respect if it overlooks these concerns. In the last few months, there has been a huge controversy in the Western blogosphere, regarding the appropriation of material from a black feminist’s blog. One of the outcomes was many women of colour feeling that the “mainstream” feminist movement never really includes their concerns, which often are at an intersection of gender and race. So a feminist movement certainly cannot be exclusive and risk losing some of its best supporters. We have enough unreasonable critics as it is, who persist in viewing feminists as evil, men-hating, power-hungry women.

Finally, this is a moral issue as well. If we fight only the discrimination that affects us, are we not guilty of opportunism? If we believe that discrimination is wrong on principle, we need to be aware of it in all its forms and campaign against them as well.

*This may be very familiar to those feminists who have already proceeded much further on this path than me. It is more from my personal experience and my own feeling of being restricted to a narrow field of vision. For those more enlightened women (and men), who already practise this, I raise my (metaphorical) hat!

9 comments to Widening the Prism

  • Interesting. I’m reminded of an old June Jordan essay on MLK (I think it’s in Some of Us Did Not Die but I’m not sure). Jordan’s point in that essay (and according to her MLK’s) is that the connections between various victims of oppression are worth making because they have a common enemy. The purpose of cooperation is therefore not to create some sort of sisterhood of suffering, but to join arms against a common foe.

    I think that’s an important point that this post flirts with but never quite gets around to making. It makes sense for the feminist movement to align itself with the gay rights movement not because of some sentimental idealism but because they’re both trying to overthrow a common set of stereotypes about gender roles and the inequalities that flow from them, and they would both be more effective if they were to join forces.

    More generally, I think the real question to ask in deciding where we draw the boundaries of a movement and whom we include or exclude is the marginal increase in the probability of getting what we want by including the additional constituency in question. There are, I would argue, two forces at work in deciding that: On the one hand, there’s an increase in bargaining power from the coming together of two groups of oppressed people. On the other hand, there’s also a diffusion of energy caused by the coalition. First, some interests / ideas of the two constituencies may be contradictory or opposed, so that there’s a risk that they’ll end up fighting each other rather than fighting the common foe. Second, even where their interests are merely orthogonal, there’s an increase in the number of demands to be made and the scope of the issues to be fought over, which is going to make real change harder to achieve. Whether or not it makes sense to widen the prism depends on whether you think the first effect dominates the second. In the case of feminism and gay rights I think it does. In the case of feminism and rights for dalits I’m not so sure.

    Of course, in an ideal world, we’d want to fight all forms of oppression everywhere. Pragmatically, however, that’s likely to be a disaster, because you risk spending so much time sympathizing with each other’s problems that we never get around to solving any one of them. And however much a movement may lose respect if it ignores the concerns of others, it’s going to lose a lot more respect if it never gets anything done.

  • @ Falstaff,

    “In the case of feminism and gay rights I think it does. In the case of feminism and rights for dalits I’m not so sure.”

    I don’t think it would be so hard for the tie-up between feminism and dalits, if only women stopped to think that one half of dalits are women too. Or that a considerable section of women are dalits. Forget the fact that caste is a common oppressor, when the group memberships overlap, I don’t think it makes any sense for feminism in India to divorce itself from the struggle for dalit empowerment, or for the dalit movement to forget the importance of fighing for women’s liberation.

  • Apu~

    Just a few thoughts that were triggered in me upon reading this post.

    I wish I can convince you that the instance of your boss’s words and your experience thereupon doesn’t really count as a serious cause, let alone oppression. The simple fact is your boss is a moron. Not sure where you work but if this is a private company, there are laws that are clearly spelled out against such behavior. Have you taken any action against this boss? If yes, then good for you. If not, then what is the difference between an educated person like you who understands the notion of equal rights and fights for them and someone who doesn’t? But this is small stuff. The more interesting one is what you said about your visit to Dalit basti.

    There is a disconcerting possibility – when the prism is widened beyond the markers of personal experience – that the notion of equality outside of these markers will turn into an abstract notion. I see this abstract notion of equality (or equal rights, whatever) seep into your observation here. Why, there is even a bit of patronizing tone. I am not at all sure that the Dalit women’s way of receiving you and their insistence on a few things have anything to do with oppression. At least not so directly as your passage seem to imply. Everybody has their own culture, their own way of life, distinct from ours and different from ours. Why would you think that their behavior is entirely a reaction to their being oppressed? In fact I would say it is they who were genuine and unself-conscious because they didn’t condescend to putting up with your discomfort by hiding their discomfort. How can you not see all this? It appears to me that the essence of living in a communal harmony lies in preserving the identity and the difference both at the same time. Or am I missing something very obvious and simple in your recitation?

    Lastly, your post is a whiff of fresh air. Some of us read blogs such as these because we are interested in the personal experiences of the individuals. But a lot of times we are left to read boatloads of intellectualizing which is almost always condescending and a big turn off. A lot of that happens on blogs. Your post is a warm exception. Thanks!


  • apu

    Falstaff and Meena, thanks for commenting on my first post here 🙂

    This began as a personal exploration into what feminism means to me; as falstaff says, it is not just an idealistic concept of how a movement should be; there are many practical decisions involved. At an individual level, people may choose to approach their involvement from different angles. I for e.g. would agree with Meena, that the Dalit issue actually seems closer to me since Dalit women face issues both because of their caste and within that, gender. I guess that is why we need different organisations, each of which tackles a part of the prism. Realistically, no one can address everything at all times. At a basic minimum, however, we need to atleast remember the accompanying causes and ensure that what works for one group does not harm the interests of another.

  • apu

    Crazyfinger – thanks for your comment, and for the good words.

    Reg the question of how one defines oppression : Is oppression rape? Is oppression being denied education? Yes. Perhaps these are the “serious causes” you refer to ? However, equal pay for equal work is a fundamental right as well. It may not fit the conventional definition of “oppression”, but when a boss sees a woman as “needing less money”, it is bound to affect raises. The question is not whether this one person was a moron – enough studies have shown that women get short shrift when it comes to pay, and certainly attitudes like these play into it.

    Now, regarding the Dalit basti incident. Actually, there wasn’t any discomfort from my end – simply because – I wasn’t aware until later that caste had still a significant role to play in the village daily life. No one denies that any group has a right to its own culture. But – if a group of women feel extremely uncomfortable about sitting with another woman, there has to be some reason. Part of it could be the urban-rural divide, but certainly caste was an issue, as I learnt later. In fact, as a guest, these women wanted to serve me something to eat, but they mentioned explicitly that they were not allowed to serve upper caste people things cooked at home – finally they got me coconut water from the fields. So, I didn’t really get why you see it as a bit condescending. Caste oppression may not govern everything, but it certainly impacts their interaction with others in some ways.

  • karatbeaten

    Ok what about the Nuclear Deal and the fallout? Looks like Left parties and BJP have been crushed to a stunning defeat by Congress led UPA Government. Abstract theorising on some sectarian groupings wont help anyone. The Nuclear power will hopefully bring electricity and empowerment to poor and dalit women.

  • There has been some talk of late about the pressures faced by men in a changing society–depression and suicides are more common amongst men; prostrate cancer receives less publicity than breast cancer.

    A lot of these issues are first-world ones but there is some echo here–for example, in the way dowry and domestic violence laws can be subverted. Parental custody issues also perhaps?

    I would think feminism should be clearer about the fact that it fights discrimination on the basis of gender– whether that’s against men, gays, lesbians, or transgender people.

    I think it is important to retain the focus on gender while acknowledging the overlap with other rights movements.

  • Raj

    Feminism is a selfish and arrogant excuse to enlarge our self image . human life comes with problems of human relationships that originates from interaction between personal emotions and collective concious of society .
    Race , religion , Caste , marriage whatever you name them .
    We all have problems , every strong and ignorant individual tries to overtake the self respect of others .
    instead of understanding it as consequence of complexity of human mind few of us try to colour these issues in narrow and exclusive self made delusions .
    Feminism , black problems , dalit issue ,minority issue ..
    Ignorance has so many name ..

  • Red

    Raj – you’re a fucking idiot.

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