Nivedita Menon’s Path-Breaking Book Reveals The Complex Layers Of Feminism

Posted by Nikhil Kumar in Books
December 25, 2016
Nivedita Menon

The most topical issue in our times is that of feminism. But what is feminism? Is there a precise belief as such? To answer my questions, I started reading “Seeing Like A Feminist” by Nivedita Menon in the hope that I would have a clear picture of what this is all about.

It covers a spectrum of seemingly obvious topics. But what I got to know is how far from obvious they actually are. I found that abstract notions like that of family, body, desire, sexual violence etc. are much more complex than my limitations would have me believe.

“Ye kiska bachha hai?” (Whose child is this?) – this question is frequently put to unmarried or widowed pregnant women. To be sure, the baby is inside her body so it is obviously hers. But in reality, the question actually means – “Who is the father of the child?” – completely circumventing the evident mother. Implicit in that question is also a concern about the caste or race of the foetus, for to assume that it is the same as that of the mother is incomprehensible. It also envelopes a concern about the claim to property rights and related complications.

A man’s surname is his own, not his father’s; but a woman’s surname always remains her father’s. She has to change it to her husband’s surname after marriage. Such is the irony of patriarchy!

Any relationship that does not or appears not to conform to the notions that are set in society – intercaste, inter-religious, inter-race, homosexuality – is seen as dissent, one that needs to be controlled and disciplined. It is precisely this anxiety that exposes the fragility of such constructs. The most important concern here is the potential threat the dissent could be, just by virtue of its very existence, to the perpetuation of patrilineal descent and unequal social hierarchy. Pro-creative desires are expected to flow only in certain ‘appropriate directions’ precisely to this end.

The book studies sexual division of labour, increasing incidents of sexism and violence in the workplace, in courts, in politics. The book explains our anxieties behind prostitution, abortion, commercial surrogacy etc. while trying to convince us to look beyond them. What I found most central to the book was a realisation that accepted prejudiced practices of society classify something or someone without objective understanding, in order to trap us into its narrative.

It questions the very nature of society – its assumptions, its institutions, its objectives, its claims – to the point that your basic understanding of the obvious is shaken. The book argues that distinction between identities is not a natural certainty but a product of ‘men’ and ’women’ being inserted into social constructs designed to preserve its patriarchal hierarchy. Any view that seeks quality essentially threatens to unsettle this spectrum. It inevitably inserts a disrupting narrative into a complex matrix of established norms.

Feminism, I ultimately realised, is not a fossilised concept but an evolving theme that is inconsequential without the contextual basis of time, location and individual experiences. Any discussion on feminism that sidelines the contexts of caste, class, race, religion, region etc. is a practice in futility.

The book enumerates a spectrum of ideas that might constitute feminism. It explains how feminism complicates the social field by questioning assumed gender moralities. It tries to show us a path of thinking in order for us to find answers and then questions them too. It recognises that gender may not be the defining factor in a situation.

While the basic idea of destabilising societal norms to form a more equal ones runs into the veins of the book, it leaves itself open to contextual realities so that individuality of a situation is not lost in precision of a few lines. That is where I think the book signifies feminism at its best – confident and risk-taking.

Nivedita Menon puts an interesting line of poetry in Hindustani by Kamla Bhasin –

Main sarhad pe khadi diwaar nahin,
Us deewar pe padi daraar hoon.

(I am not the wall that stands at the border, I am the fissure in the wall.)

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