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I Think There Is A Need To Differentiate And Liberate Feminism From Feminists

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By Uzair Belgami:

Articulating a critique on feminism can be quite a risky affair. Especially when it comes from a guy. But nevertheless, being the brave heart that I am (gulp) I shall venture to share a few thoughts that I have come across in my little reading and in my large head that I find must be given some serious scrutiny, especially by those youth who call themselves feminists in India. This critique is perhaps not a scrutiny of the idea of ‘feminism’ or ‘gender equality’ itself but of the expression and manifestation given to it by feminists and youth in India.

Youth is the age of extremes… the great difficulty of youth (and of many of youth’s elders) is to get out of one extreme without falling into its opposite. For one extreme easily passes into the other.” (1)

feminism1

The above statement, adapted from the works of Aristotle in his elaboration of the need to find the ‘Golden Mean’, can be applied to many movements and ideologies in my opinion (not just to youth). Manifestations of this tendency to be “reactionary” in nature are plentiful in religious as well as secular movements, in anti-state initiatives as well as in the government responses — and also, in my opinion, in the actions of many feminists. Consider this piece of writing by a feminist in “The Alternative”:

“Unless there is a persistent threat looming over male bodies, until men of all castes and classes are not denied the rights they stop women from exercising and as long as men continue to sit on thrones in the upper echelons of power, stroking their moustaches and panthers like B-grade ’80s villains, it is naive to expect any kind of change. It seems as though only one sex can enjoy positive rights at a given point of time.” (2)

The anger and sentiment are understandable, and I shall never venture to judge the person or know fully her context, but in my opinion the thoughts presented, not only in this particular excerpt but in a wide array of feminist writing and articles, even on this platform — are culprit of being reactionary, and rather ‘extreme’. Though perhaps the argument of the ‘political necessity’ of being temporally extreme in order to combat one extremism (patriarchy) holds some truth, I will not comment on that for now. However, I think it is prudent for feminists to ‘take a step back’ from the emotional turmoil and sentiment and have an exercise in critical self-analysis. In my opinion, this would be a better portent for a healthy society. After all, fighting fire with fire only adds to the flames and creates a larger fire in the end.

Another aspect of being ‘reactionary’ in my opinion is the demand that women often make for “equality with men”. Firstly the idea that all men are equal in itself is problematic (ask homosexuals, the innocent Muslims in jails, Maoists, tribals et al — so with which men exactly is equality sought?). However a more important (and controversial) point is that this demand perhaps displays an unconscious form of “inferiority complex” from women. Why should a woman want equality with a man? Does that imply a man and woman are ‘identical’, or are there fundamental ‘differences’ at the psycho-biological level? This is the essential debate between ‘egalitarian’ feminists and ‘difference’ feminists (3). Though the idea of equality with men was important in the struggles for universal suffrage and women’s’ education, I think it is simplistic to extend the same concept to all areas of individual and societal life. My personal opinion is that a more mature course of action would be for women to decide for themselves (of course, not to ignore the opinions of men on the subject completely) what it means to be a free, independent woman devoid of oppression – and then demand that.

“My Body, My Right!”

“Don’t change the way I dress, change the way you look!”

These are some of the popular ‘feminist slogans’ we all have come to expect from rallies where women demand among other things, their freedom to dress. Though I completely agree that women or men should never be ‘forced’ to either wear or remove certain articles of clothing (except in interests of security, but that requires definition & context!) and I cannot condone the argument that a woman’s dress can ever justify sexual violence — I would like to specify upon a different perspective. Women have historically been ‘exploited’ for their bodies and reduced to a ‘bodily object’ by various patriarchal and oppressive institutions. Feminist movements have played an important part in challenging and even fighting against this oppression. However, in my opinion, an alarming phenomenon is not the obsession of men with women’s bodies, but of women and feminists on women’s bodies (no, I do not mean in a homosexual way!). It seems that even among feminist discourse and manifestations on the ground — the body of the woman is still central. Hence among the women’s issues that the media and youth give most hype about, one of the most important is either the demand for the conscious removal of woman’s clothing in the form of hijab bans in some western countries, or the demand by women to consciously un-cover themselves in ‘slut walks’ in many countries worldwide, or even the nude protests made by many women demanding freedom from oppression and objectification. Though I do not intend on demeaning these debates and the likes of them, I think there are many more important and urgent issues for Indian women than just about their clothing — issues of education, health, livelihood, prejudice, even survival – and the attention and debate must be emancipated from an overt emphasis on the body. Though such demands help to break patriarchal thought and institutions, aren’t there more urgent needs and demands of Indian women which could be made, and which do not bring the prominence back on the body of the woman?

Hence in a way, I believe women and feminists are in a way, perhaps unconsciously contributing to the paradigm of a woman being nothing more than ‘bodily object’. It is not a question of ignoring or subverting this question, but of the undue gross emphasis given to it, discounting other, perhaps more vital ones in the Indian context.

F*ck your morals … my body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honour” is what Amina Tyler, a 19-year-old Tunisian woman, wrote in Arabic across her chest before photographing herself and posting it online.

In response, the group FEMEN encouraged women from various countries to post topless pictures and engage in topless protests with slogans across their chests in support of Amina, and in order to ‘free’ women in Arab lands from oppression and patriarchy.

In response to FEMEN a movement was launched by both Muslim and Christian women from across the world, with a famous slogan being shared widely: “Nudity does not liberate me, and I DO NOT need saving”

feminism

Though I do not want to go into the specific details of the debacle involving FEMEN and the response/critiques it garnered from feminists — I would like to highlight one important perspective: Does feminism have a cultural context? Is feminism in Western countries and the feminism of Third World countries the same in historicity, demands, priorities and manifestations? Do we in India need or have a feminism which embraces our cultural context or is it a blind imbibing of a feminism of a different context, which in turn demonstrates a deeper malady in our society and youth?

When Muslim women from around the world challenged the actions and intent of FEMEN, it was not only about the form of nude protest — but about the idea that feminism is “euro-centric” and the “liberated white-woman” felt the need to liberate the “oppressed Arab woman”. I think this argument needs to be considered by Indian youth and feminists and applied to our own context.

Take for example the point I earlier raised about the ‘Slut Walk’: When women demand the right to dress however they want, and huge media coverage and publicity is given to the debate — is this the demand of a majority of Indian women, both urban and rural, from various backgrounds and strata of society — or is this a demand which is ‘imported’ to us from somewhere else, a demand which is not really a core issue for a majority of Indian women? Why is this given priority in the minds of the youth and the media, even perhaps over other issues of Indian women? Does this represent our state of still living in a post-colonial society?

Based on my interaction with urban youth (though I in no way mean to generalize or demonize anyone) it sometimes seems as though a woman is only “free” if she drinks, wears skimpy clothes and can yell at men – as though freedom for all women would necessarily lead to that ‘ultimate truth’ and those who don’t do those things, or don’t want to, aren’t “free enough” yet and need to be subjected to ‘sympathy’ (and sometimes even ‘liberation’). If a girl from an urban metro decides to wear a bikini or mini-skirt, and proclaims this is a conscious choice and a sign of her ‘freedom’ we celebrate and encourage it — if a girl from a town decides to don a conservative salwar-kameez-dupatta or a traditional/religious attire, and yet claims this is her conscious choice and also a sign of her freedom, some of us claim that is an example of woman who are influenced by further patriarchal institutions. As if women in urban societies (or for that matter, western societies) are not subjected to patriarchal or other pressures in their choice of clothing. I am not claiming that one particular type of women are influenced by patriarchy and other socio-cultural pressures and another type not, but rather that we all are — and selective treatment should not be passed. What do these sometimes unconscious double-standards in the Indian and Orientalist mind represent?

An example of the way woman (or their bodies) are used as a form of exhibiting a cultural superiority is elicited in this excerpt: “Women are consistently used to show how progressive and modern Europe is, either by images of them wearing a bikini/underwear/or as little as possible, or with statistics that show how emancipated women are because they work/earn money (despite this drawing them into a capitalist structure of repression). Not only does this create a narrative of women in Europe being ‘free,’ which is far from the case; it simultaneously creates the narrative of women who do not look like European women (whatever that is) or act like European women as backwards/traditional. Once this narrative is constructed, it becomes the lens through which women in non-European cultures are understood.” (4)

Feminism is thus criticized as being a medium for ‘cultural imperialism’, something that our simplistic, non-critical and literalistic understanding of western feminism in India contributes to. “When women’s rights are tied to an insulting, sneering cultural imperialism in the minds of local people … women who engage in the painstaking, important work of fighting sexism in these places are often viewed suspiciously and as cultural and religious traitors before they’ve even begun. And when that happens, the only losers are women’s rights”. (5) In such scenarios, a dangerous effect is that feminist demands and actions are regarded with ‘suspect’ and ‘distrust’ from local populations who associate these movements with forms of cultural or foreign invasion of values.

Feminism in India thus in my opinion needs to be self-criticised, especially the feminism of our urban youth with their specific demands and priorities. It needs to be liberated from a reactionary, body-obsessed and culturally imperialistic perspective.

Though I in no way mean to disregard or demean the struggle for women’s freedom in India and in other places (I regard myself as a feminist too, I hope I shall not be chucked out of the club now!), these points were meant to add some necessary complexity and critical perspective to the idea and imagination of feminism in India — to perhaps try and differentiate and liberate feminism from feminists.

(1) Will Durant, “The Story of Philosophy”
(2) Kamayani Sharma
(3) Andrew Heywood, “Political Ideologies”, chapter 8: “Feminism”
(4) Sara Saleem
(5) Susana Carland

You must be to comment.
  1. Japleen Pasricha

    You have criticized a lot of movements but not given an alternative as to what you consider the ‘right’ issues that Indian feminists should concentrate upon. Please give a detailed image of what you think feminism in India should look like before going on criticizing your ‘urban’ feminist.

    1. Mahitha Kasireddi

      Exactly!! Could you suggest in what ways feminism movements should be carried in order to influence rural women equally and also carry our culture, i.e. which fit in the Indian context as you have pointed out?

    2. uzair belgami

      Hi, thanks for the valid questions 🙂

      Before I reply, I would first like to say that in my opinion, not possessing ‘ready-made’ answers/alternatives should not ever dissuade someone from trying to ask the pertinent questions anyway. I might not have the answers to exactly HOW Indian feminism should be (as if to say in such a diverse country it can be only of one type anyway) – but that shouldn’t stop me or anyone else from criticizing or questioning present discourses and trends among feminists. Searching for the deeper questions is half the journey to the answer.

      The points I have raised in the article are arguments which have been widely written about and raised by many feminists, activists and academics – and apart from the articulation, they are not really “original” points of my own. I can talk about many of my personal opinions (for example, when I refer to urban India perhaps I am implying the condition of a post-colonial society and hence am making a critique on that aspect of urban Indians/feminists?) and also share many articles on the same, I don’t know if they will be relevant here.

      In short, I suggest reading the arguments of “difference feminists” for the first point regarding the demand for ‘equality with men’; and the works of Mohanty for the point on feminism-cultural imperialism-post colonial discourse.

      Your question on HOW exactly I imagine feminism in India could be the topic of a whole new article, not a comment! But for now I would like to share this one quite old, yet important article from “The Outlook”, which perhaps discusses the kind of feminism India needs and the various issues Indian women face (especially in the latter half):

      http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?200427

      Hope its an interesting perspective even if you don’t agree.

    3. Rashid Masoof

      Brother i read your article in “THE COMPANION” magzine published by SIO. And i wanted to congratulate you for your balanced approach in dealing with the very critical issue of “feminism”. I must say you have found the “GOLDEN MEAN” to address the issue. I believe that these arguments of yours will lead the present youths and feminist to reconsider their approach in dealing with the issue of women rights and liberty without ending up in extremes. And i am sure in your next article you will going to illustrate the practical solutions to be implemented in our diverse culture without deviating from the “golden mean”..
      FROM
      RASHID MASOOD
      SIO MP EAST

  2. Rajiv

    Perfect
    “Based on my interaction with urban youth (though I in no way mean to generalize or demonize anyone) it sometimes seems as though a woman is only “free” if she drinks, wears skimpy clothes and can yell at men – as though freedom for all women would necessarily lead to that ‘ultimate truth’ and those who don’t do those things, or don’t want to, aren’t “free enough” yet and need to be subjected to ‘sympathy’ (and sometimes even ‘liberation’). If a girl from an urban metro decides to wear a bikini or mini-skirt, and proclaims this is a conscious choice and a sign of her ‘freedom’ we celebrate and encourage it – if a girl from a town decides to don a conservative salwar-kameez-dupatta or a traditional/religious attire, and yet claims this is her conscious choice and also a sign of her freedom, some of us claim that is an example of woman who are influenced by further patriarchal institutions. As if women in urban societies (or for that matter, western societies) are not subjected to patriarchal or other pressures in their choice of clothing. I am not claiming that one particular type of women are influenced by patriarchy and other socio-cultural pressures and another type not, but rather that we all are – and selective treatment should not be passed. What do these sometimes unconscious double-standards in the Indian and Orientalist mind represent?”

  3. Akshat Seth

    Boy you walked a tight rope there and for the most part walked it so well! As for the questions asked of you in the comments, if you do read a bit of Hindi than try searching for a book called ‘Band Galiyon Ke Viruddh’ (Against the paths obstructed). It is an anthology of women’s writing from all across the country in Hindi and deals with issues of the hinterlands. Particularly of interest to you might be an article right in the beginning by Anamika, a poetess and a professor of Delhi University who has written about the concept of ‘Integrated Feminism’. I tell you, that woman pens fire.
    I was amazed HOW MANY TIMES did you have to explain and almost sound apologetic about your views for the obvious fear of being lambasted as a Misogynist and still you are held up to such intense scrutiny.
    To understand the issues of women, particularly in the hinterlands which are obviously different from a clutch of metropolitan cities, a need is there to look at the feminist literature in the local languages of these places. Being a Hindi speaker I can vouch for the fact that in all of the feminist writing in Hindi that I’ve come across, the issues of women have been dealt with in a far less patronizing and much more sympathetic way which doesn’t at all conversely mean that vice-verse might always be the case with English but looking at the writings in the vernacular can help answer the questions about the question of an ‘Indian brand of Feminism’.
    The ground reality in India however, with its inequalities in socioeconomic statuses and the fact that Feminism still has to encounter challenges, which make the reading of the situation in a Black and White perspective prevail over a deeper understanding, renders the ‘looking at the finer details’ approach prone to be attacks by militant feminism which at this stage they’re entitled to execute in my humble opinion.

  4. Akash Deep

    Firstly, kudos for being point specific and elucidating your point of view, pertaining to the subject. I have always wondered, and asked myself, what exactly is ‘Women’s rights’, and what is the purpose? Because in this country, all I see about women’s rights is about how a woman needs to be given freedom of dressing the way she wants, and doing what she wants. Is that all the purpose of liberty and equality on par with men is about ? Ridiculous, if you ask me.Now, don’t tag me a sexist for asking this question, cause I for all, stand for EMPOWERMENT of women. There is a big difference, between empowerment of women’s rights, and empowerment of what they wear. The latter is certainly not what women’s rights actually stands for, though the practice is for the same. The day the view and understanding of “Women’s Rights” changes, that is when women will be empowered in the actual sense.

  5. Meghna

    Since there is so much speculation about what feminism pertains to in the above write-up, I would like to remind you it basically entails a positive change in people’s mindsets. You have certainly spent considerable amount of time explaining why everything is so wrong about present feminist movements but you have just overshadowed the entire idea of feminism by providing the “imperialism critique”. Feminism everywhere means the same thing i.e. bringing about a change in what people think about women. It can however have different manifestations. Be it encouraging education for girls in rural areas or the popular urban feminist slogans. There is a call for change. Please don’t consider my comment as bashing I am just elucidating the fact that such criticisms (above mentioned) are not as important as it is to carry on the feminist struggle. In whatever way it’s done, it’s of no consequence. And, as far as “The Alternate’s” quote is considered I guess if not completely, at least it is partially justified. Since forever, men have been the power bearers at all levels and so the very definition of every subject, every single term has been devoid of a feminist perspective.

  6. adya00

    You’ve raised some very good points, esp about how everyone might not be comfortable with this idea of nudity. But I’d have to say that you haven’t realised a major aspect.
    Oppression on women has happened in one big way, through their bodies; be it unwanted sex after marriage, children we don’t want, considering our bodies to be similar to a ghee ka dibba (read as pure), the very idea of a woman being marriageable lies foremost on the platform of her hymen being intact. Women are beaten. A woman is expected to wear ornaments once married to show the world she is married, a man is never expected to do so. A woman is forced to wear conventional clothes by the patriarchal system, and then there are men who are involved in human trafficking. Something we fail to realise is that body and soul(mind) are not two distinct entities, both are meaningless without each other.
    I have seen women forced to wear salwars even in hot weather whereas men can wear shorts. The body of men and women is different true, minds to an extent too, but both should have the right to do whatever with their minds and bodies. If a man can expose his chest, why can’t a woman? Who was it who sexualised breasts?

  7. Kamayani Sharma

    Hi, I have a problem being quoted of context and being made to sound like an unreasonable “male-basher”. I appreciate what you’re trying to do with this piece but it is important to point out the larger discussion I was contributing to, especially the historical moment of the 16th December gang rape. Additionally, the vitriol in this paragraph comes at the end of a balanced assessment of the prevailing condition of gender justice in this country. It is at least partly an expression of despair and helplessness, with some irony thrown in for good measure with a spoof of hypermasculine Bollywood bad guys inserted in! OF COURSE, no feminist including myself actually believes that positive rights can only be for one gender. That it seems to be so is something to be addressed and corrected, was my point.

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