My father prides himself on his knowledge of feminist authors and their works, ranging from Judith Butler, Simone de Beauvoir, Christine Delphi and Kate Millett to Mary John, Nivedita Menon, Uma Chakravarti and Radha Kumar. He is especially fond of referring to Judith Butler and is drawn to her style of writing, all the more so, I suspect, because his peers find her somewhat inaccessible. A history buff, my father has read feminist critiques of Lord Buddha, Sant Kabir and even Mirabai.
He was harshly critical of the Karnataka High Court’s decision to grant bail to a rape accused on the premise that the woman he had raped had taken the decision to partake in drinks with the man before he had raped her, and later fallen asleep after the alleged rape. My father sent me several articles that talked about court judgements in which a woman’s sexual history had been dragged into the trial, in addition to her consumption of alcohol, the frequency with which she kept the company of men, her clothing and the time of the day she was out in public, and how these are used to determine the veracity of the woman’s allegation of sexual assault and to what extent she ‘invited’ it.
He tells me proudly of the times when women colleagues in his office suffered sexual harassment at the hands of other officers and he was the one who came to their rescue with sharp censure to the offenders, much to the gratitude of the women — as if that is not just basic human decency.
Yet, at home, in his personal relationship with my mother and me, a somewhat different side of him emerges. I clearly remember him berating me about something, with the words (I paraphrase) that I am good only at the stereotypical chores, referring to me sweeping the house and scrubbing the floors ever since the lockdown began, which do not require me to use my intelligence, and not at anything else.
I was furious, though I saved my outburst for later, partly out of fear. One does not need to think very hard to unravel the underlying meaning of his words. Sweeping and cleaning tasks are conventionally assigned to women, along with other domestic chores such as cooking and raising children by the virtue of the gendered division of labour, which is one of the cornerstones of the patriarchal society we live in.
Since the tasks are performed by women, they are stripped of their value and denigrated as work that housewives do, conveniently dismissing how indispensable their work is, since its monetary value is not obvious. This is what my dear feminist father was so contemptuous about.
In another instance, he objected to me wearing a racer-back top outside the house because there is a ‘right occasion for everything’ and ‘not all clothes are suitable to be worn everywhere’. To put it simply, he had found the top ‘inappropriate’. He further tried to justify his statement, arguing that if he were to wear three-quarter shorts outside the house, wouldn’t I feel embarrassed? I replied, ‘No, your clothes are your choice. Who am I to have a say in it?’
He drew a false equivalence of sorts between him wearing three-quarter pants and me wearing a racer-back outside the house. He failed to take into account that my body is subject to sexualisation and objectification by those who view it, without my consent, something which male bodies are largely free from.
Secondly, to suggest possible feelings of embarrassment on my part by his choice of clothing, and by comparison, meaning that he could feel that way by what I decide to wear in public, implies that I have no right to my bodily autonomy. And yet, there exist multiple feminist texts that demand women’s right to their own bodies and for society to not judge their character through their clothing.
It makes me wonder. Perhaps my father’s feminism is somewhat performative. His ingrained sexist biases reveal themselves when it comes to matters that personally affect him.