My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 2 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Rethinking Feminism

 I had an email from a friend today, titled 'Food for thought in the times of the women's bill. See for yourself:

Is the feminist movement barking up the wrong tree, trying to secure for women the right to be men with all their failings or is there substance to the claim that your body defines your existence. Two takes

Body of evidence
   That June evening in 1910, Manavazhi Gopalan Menon was having a drink, sitting on the broad polished teak plank suspended in chains from the roof of his house in Ottapalam in Kerala. The Excise Inspector, given much to reading, was watching rain pour down from the eaves drooping over the verandah. Menon was going to say something pleasant to his wife Parukutty Amma when the glass dropped from his hand and he toppled over.
   That’s how Parukutty, amateur Malayalam poet, seamstress of small silk money bags and connoisseur of sweet gooseberries, became a widow, and a single parent to three very beautiful, very long-haired, and very nasty daughters. She was 34. Parukutty fought it out alone for six long years. And, just as the suffragist movement, which culminated in Britain in 1928 with all women over 21 getting the right to vote, was peaking in the UK and US, Parukutty got married again.
   She bore two sons when she was past 40. When her husband died soon after, Parukutty mourned for 40 days and then got back to the business of presiding over the chaos peopled by children, nephews and nieces, grandchildren and grown ups. And all of them got a
money bag with a seed capital of a single anna on their birthdays for as long as her hands were steady enough to sew them.
   Parukutty happens to be this writer’s great grandmother. She was middle class, informally educated, and worked at home round the clock as wife, widow, mother and matriarch. She was single for most of her life. But she did not whine. She took charge of her life when fortunes dipped. She went against social prejudices and remarried when remarriage, nearly a century later, is still a fraught issue. She bore children, dangerously, when post-40 motherhood was relatively unheard of.
   Whatever Parukutty did, she let no man browbeat her into becoming a stereotypical role player of the female sufferer in a maledominated society. Parukutty remained herself. Which was more than a woman or a man. She was Parukutty, an individual whose essence mass movements like Feminism tend to lose sight of.
   In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan talks about “the problem that had no name” which plagued American women, domestic ennui. The sense of woman’s worthlessness no matter how much she worked at home, the intangibility of results and appreciation, and therefore, the lack of existential affirmation.
   Friedan’s critique launched the second wave of the feminist movement — the sustained campaign for legal and social rights in the ’60s and ’70s. (The first had climaxed in the 1920s and the third wave that rose in the early 1990s is now flattening out.) It was Parukutty’s great talent that she was incapable of ennui.
   Feminist movements in India have brought women a better deal. In property laws or access to education, awareness of rights or anti-dowry rulings, feminism has done its bit. But the moot question is, are these much-needed reforms feminist territory? Just as the historically oppressed classes like SCs and OBCs need social justice, so do oppressed genders, feminine or neutral. But surely that is well within the ambit of larger empowering social movements? A poor marginalised tribal boy is the same as a poor marginalised tribal girl. Why bring your body into it?
   If the third wave of Feminism, which in India is limited to upper middle class women in the metros, is anything to go by — witness for example, the celebration of sexual power, from nipple piercing to nymphomania, from pornography to sheer promiscuity — the body is in full evidence at the expense of a sense of community of spirit.
   The trouble with the feminist movement in India is that it has no rural roots, where the real war is social and economic, not gender. This is a chink larger than the armour. The feminists do not even have an idea who their real icon is. At one end of the spectrum they miss out on the Parukuttys. At the other, they miss out on perhaps the only authentic feminist martyr in recent history, Phoolan Devi.
   Perhaps no other Indian woman represents feminist politics in praxis as Phoolan Devi does with her appalling history of abused childhood, gangraped teen years and murderous 20s. Nevertheless, except for a few awestruck academic dissertations and a clutch of bleeding heart papers on her, Phoolan was never really a feminist icon; perhaps she came across as an embarrassment of riches. Indian women’s rights activists had monumentally failed — both ideologically and strategically — to appropriate a symbol of woman power who had lived, breathed and bled for caste, class and sex rights.
   Between the two ends of the spectrum, what we do have is a movement for lifestyle, where smoking, drinking and late night clubbing have taken on parodic gravitas. Feminism as Freakin’ Good Time. For, when it is all boiled down, what women seem to be fighting for is equal access to the pleasures of a material culture. A female Utopia where they can be as men, if not men themselves; as predatory and perhaps as lumpen. The masculine as the final destination of the feminine.
   It is possible that in an inexorably upwardly hedonistic culture, a whole complex of issues, including the political use of the body as a weapon for self-advancement, could be seen as different fronts of the big battle to bleed the enemy into submission. In the process, though, there is every danger of the victim swapping places with the tormentor. If that’s victory, what is defeat?

No country for women
   Here’s a thumb rule for whenever you are involved in an argument: take the safety catch off when you hear them, very reasonably, talk about stoicism, about forbearance and about those with more trouble. In the West, it is at about this point that Rumi (“You were born with wings. Why prefer to crawl through life?”) or even Marcus Aurelius (Get rid of the ‘I am hurt,’ you are rid of the hurt itself) will be urged upon you. Here, in India, we don’t need quotes from saints and emperors. Silent acceptance and resignation has been drummed into our gene pool from centuries ago. It makes life easier for all those who wield power — men over women, upper castes over lower castes, rich over poor. Whichever way our complex society is sliced and diced, this works.
   But, even a thousand anecdotes cannot wipe away some stains and get rid of hurt itself. A few days ago, Pranjali, a 17-day old baby girl was admitted to a hospital in Mumbai. She could not breathe properly. Doctors examining her made a chilling discovery. Stuck in her food pipe was a 6 cm-long iron nail tightly bound in a cloth strip. There was no way she could have accidentally swallowed it. Pranjali’s parents already have a five-year-old daughter. The police are questioning them for suspected attempt to kill off their second unwanted daughter. This, when the sex ratio among children in the 0-6 years age group in Mumbai has dropped from 933 in 1991 to 898 in 2007, and from 946 to 913 in Maharashtra. The attempt to kill Pranjali is clearly not a one-off act of barbarism — it’s a social trend that leaves about 2 million tiny lives snuffed out.
   Now, multiply that by an eight-fold increase in rape over 30 years, a doubling of the number of young women burnt to death by greedy husbands and their relatives, over 27 million girls dropping out from school in order to do housework and 117 million women working 10 to 12 hours a day rolling bidis or stitching buttons for a mere Rs 30. Won’t their stoicism and forbearance start cracking up? Can we, then, be more sympathetic to the ‘whining’?
   Does this mean that everybody’s life is nothing but a caravan of despair, as Rumi would say? Despair, like anger and love is an emotion, but fuelled by processed information, about what could have been, or what was. Very rarely can a person live a life filled only with despair. Humans survive because their minds are like chandeliers, reflecting a thousand lights. So, people laugh and weep, work and rest, love and hate even in the most difficult of circumstances. That should never mean that they are unwilling to change their circumstance for the better, that there is no yearning, dreaming for a better life. If not, the human species, the weakest of all animals, would have been wiped out millennia ago. We, both men and women, have survived because of this lust for life, and by changing our circumstances so that we survive better.
   A very popular and widely propagated view on women is that there is no difference between men and women except their bodies. So, why whine about ‘oppression’ of women, or ‘women’s problems’? Problems are the same for everyone. Simone de Beuauvoir, the French feminist and writerphilosopher, answered this way back in the 1960s. She said that a woman is a social construct. What she meant was that apart from some major biological differences, there should be no difference in men and women as social beings. However, society has defined a whole set of ideas about what a woman should and should not be. Not only defined, but institutionalised, practiced with vehemence and coerced to be followed by everybody, including women themselves. The end result — a hypocritical social system cutting across all civilisations that calls women goddesses but treats them as personal slaves. Don’t believe the personal slave part? Check this out: even in the ‘advanced’ countries women do most if not all of the housework — making food, looking after children and the sick, fetching provisions, cleaning — in short all care work. It defines their worth, their value. That, and the fact that women are also there to provide sexual gratification, as and when demanded.
   The ‘body’ has been brought into the equation not by women but by men themselves. The woman’s body has become an object for titillation, of prurient entertainment and, in a major way, a vehicle for selling stuff. Any stuff, from cement bags to chrome hub caps can see its sales curve shooting up if you introduce a hint of scantily clad woman in it. Throw in power, glamour, domination, success — and you can sell anything to anybody. This is not speculation — just google ‘women and advertising’ and you will know that it is a cornerstone of marketing strategies around the world. There is a large body of evidence — stats and all — to show the commodification of women, which is just a part of their general downgradation.
   You may believe in any path for humanity to be free of hunger, want and disease, from war and violence, and from ignorance and hedonism, but no path can be traversed without the woman walking hand in hand, as an equal of man.

And if that wasn't enough, in an almost poetic touch to the article, my friend's signature was scrawled beneath: 
  Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be, for my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears, looms but the horror of the shade. Yet the menace of the years, finds, and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.


  1. The very fact that India did not have an isolated suffragette movement I think speaks volumes for women's contribution through the ages in India and their liberation.

  2. Wonderful! Thanks for sharing. I do feel that reservation is demeaning. We are not weak and we do not need to be patronized.

  3. That article by CP Surendran is wrong and offensive at so many levels I want to scream. Is there a link so I can personally rant at him? I'll just say this - he should marry Sagarika Ghose and they can live happily ever after spouting misguided pearls of wisdom.