June 30, 2009

The Fear of Feminism


ON A RECENT VISIT to a Ivy League university in the US with scholars from across the Global South, we came across something strange. A book on feminism from its library had a bizarre tag pasted on it. The tag was brought to our notice by Elizabeth Weed, one of the editors of the acclaimed journal of feminist cultural studies called ‘Differences’. She was delivering a talk to us provocatively titled ‘Against Gender’. Before I reveal the name of the book and what the tag said, it might be useful to touch upon why she used this title. Weed raised some critical questions about how the journey of feminism in the academy – from women’s to gender to feminist studies centres and departments – has had to continuously confront attempts of being depoliticized, appropriated and domesticated. While she was referring to experiences in North America, it had resonances for Feminists from the Global South as well.

There are no Gender or Feminist Studies Departments in Indian universities – they are instead called Women’s Studies Centres. Feminists who were instrumental in pushing for and setting up these departments or centres wanted them to be locations for critical inquiry into the operation of patriarchy in India across class, caste, religion and sexuality divisions, and continuously raise the women’s question in every initiative promising ‘progress’. On the other hand the State wanted these centres to literally study women, as if it was a category whose mysteries were yet to be unraveled – much like Area Studies excavated the mysteries of enemy, decolonized or exotic countries/ regions – and come up with ‘practical’ solutions that will ‘mainstream’ women into the family and market, ultimately feeding a heteronormative political economy. Less than a decade back there was even a move by the state to rename Women’s Studies Centres to Family Studies Centre – to reinscribe the belief that the panacea for women’s emancipation lay only within the compulsorily heterosexual family.

Clearly then, the point that Elizabeth Weed was trying to make is that every time feminists have attempted to radically use language to subvert its normativity – be it ‘women’ or ‘gender’ – there’s been a fearful backlash, not in the form of retaliation but insidious disciplining. As long as its ‘women’ or ‘gender’ it can still be disciplined, their subversive potential can be stunted – but calling an institutional department Feminist will not only ruffle feathers but destabilize institutional sanctity – much like radical Economics Departments can never be called Marxist Studies Departments. The task of feminism then becomes to work ‘against gender’ and confront and resist the ways in which it is being appropriated in the name of women’s emancipation.

It is in this context that the tag and the book that it was pasted on become important. It was Chandra Mohanty’s ‘Feminism Without Borders’ which carries her classic essay ‘Under Western Eyes’ that challenged the racial biases inherent in Western White Feminism and offered a critical lens to question the Orientalism and essentialism embedded in Western feminist work. She argued that Western feminism’s obsession with Third World women and their plight treats them merely as subjects of compassionate feminist inquiry, but not recognized as active and autonomous agents who have the capacity to negotiate their own futures. In the book she challenges the monolith of the ‘Third World Woman’ as represented in Western texts and also takes us on an autobiographical journey of her tribulations and negotiations as a Third World feminist in the USA. She offers a strategy for building bridges of feminist solidarity across borders that are not informed by the logic of colonialism and civilizational superiority, but by a commitment to resist patriarchy and its liberal manifestations in an age of devastating capitalism. Simply put, Mohanty argues for a transnational feminism that is not constrained by sovereign or ideological borders, but which is also grounded in the experience of local feminist struggles – where the local constitutes the global and vice versa.

This book has inspired many feminists like me for both its radicalism and humility. The essay ‘Under Western Eyes’ is one of the most recommended readings for any critical course on feminism/ third world feminism/ postcolonial studies, be it in the Western academy or in India.

The tag attached to the book was from the US Department of Homeland Security and read:

“As of 15 November 2007 the book you are holding has been deemed ‘Elevated Risk’ in accordance with the USA Patriot Act as per National Security Surveillance Act and Department of Homeland Security regulations. By checking out this book from the library, you may be subject to exceptional deployment of certain surveillance measures from the US Department of Homeland Security.”

Our jaws dropped! This was bizarre, outrageous and hilarious. One could still believe that US security paranoia could tag a book on terrorism or jihad or anything to do with Islam, but one on Feminism was quite unbelievable. But then as the initial shock dissipated, our discussion took an interesting turn where we started thinking about how this queer ‘recognition’ was actually an acknowledgment of the fact that Feminism was still a radical force with a real potential for disturbing the status quo of imperialist injustice and effecting transformation. And some of us thought this fear of feminism was worth flaring. We requested Elizabeth Weed to find out the parameters for tagging books in the library.

Next day during a discussion session, another faculty member at the university received an email from Weed in response to our query. Apparently, the tagging was no doing of the US state department, but of renegade university students who wanted to use a strategy like this to popularise books like Mohanty’s. We sighed with relief, but were super impressed by the successful subversion effected by these students.

The ‘fear of feminism’ is no defeat for feminists, but an opportunity to destabilize patriarchy more powerfully, challenge hierarchies of knowledge within and beyond the academy, and most importantly redefine fear itself. The ‘fear of feminism’ can be transformative, unlike the fear of complete dispossession in today’s world order that annihilates the powerless.

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