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)
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”
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.