In India, most young women fumble in front of the feminist standard (the leftist-liberal one, to be precise). Their ambivalent aspirations and contradictory desires are seen as conspiracies against the sisterhood. According to the norms of feminism, the millennial who seeks equality of opportunity at work, yet performs the traditional role of wife at home and observes karva chauth is regressive. The woman who believes in gender egalitarianism but not in a socialist division of power and wealth is branded a faux-feminist for not being intersectional
All glamorous actors and models are considered double-agents of patriarchy for objectifying their own bodies. Hijabis are stereotyped as oppressed even when they wear headscarves by choice, while the large section of Indian women who religiously thread their eyebrows and wax their legs are presumed to be uncritical adherers of mythical beauty standards.
Women who choose to be full-time mothers are accused of being under the grip of false consciousness. And anyone who dares to hold a political position not endorsed by the leftist-liberal nexus is a traitor. Needless to say, it is not easy to enter the elite feminist club of excellence.
I mean, it’s one thing to blame the patriarchy for subjugating women’s lives. It’s a totally different matter to accuse every other woman of being complicit with the patriarchy for not taking charge of her life as per a feminist framework. This attitude belittles another woman’s individuality and relegates her subjective agency to the sidelines.
Sometimes, I question the idea of sisterhood. Sure, we can pass the Bechdel test in real life, “other” the men for othering us, then claim intent to raise each other up. However, we can be vicious to one another when ideological lines are crossed. If the bedrock of feminist thought is liberty, equality, and sorority, then we have failed miserably in understanding what those concepts mean.
By caustically judging women’s individual choice and subjectivity, we are losing our sisters, and feminism, its foot soldiers. Author Rene Denfeld critiques Western feminism and claims that it “has become bogged down in an extremist moral and spiritual crusade that has little to do with women’s lives. It has climbed out on a limb of academic theory that is all but inaccessible to the uninitiated.” This is true of feminism in India, too, where women constantly pull one another down for the perceived faults in their morals.
The postfeminist subject exists in this realm of alter reality, where feminism often defeats its own agenda. In fact, this postfeminist woman is the quintessential object of feminist cultural critique. She’s constantly dissed for her “double entanglement” with feminist and anti-feminist ideas. Her self-surveillant nature and self-interest are mocked. Her choices are decrypted to expose hidden agendas.
But then, the postfeminist woman knows she’s an object that’s to be appraised – by patriarchies and by feminism. However, she doesn’t like to be labelled and judged. She values her individualism. Any ideology or system that’s self-righteous, she finds suffocating.
So, she looks for ingenious ways to spoof “abjectifying attitudes and conceptions of her”. As gender theorists Fien Adriaens and Sofie Van Bauwel point out: “humour and irony are central themes within the postfeminist discourse”, meaning that snarky young women everywhere laugh at what’s assumed of their choices.
And their choices are extremely unpredictable, perplexing even. Indian youngsters attend protests to end sexual harassment by day, and groove to misogynistic hip-hop and item numbers by night with their baes. Arranged neo-traditional weddings are in vogue, replete with palanquins and kanya daan, and the US$ 50-billion marriage industry is booming. Even as their families look for an upwardly- mobile groom, millions of single women are online, swiping left and right in search of kinky sexual partners.
There are promising gender indicators out there too. In 2016, the gender pay gap narrowed to 3.5 per cent in Indian corporates. A survey by PWC found that 76 per cent of female Indian millennials enter the workforce with serious plans to reach the top. Not only because they’ve been bred to be ambitious, but also because they possess the skills to make it. However, there is also a trove of contrasting information.
The World Bank warns that millions of women are dropping out of the workforce. The average age of a woman having her first child is going up. But also, 25 per cent of women quit their jobs to raise children, and among them are India’s most educated. What’s more, these women positively acknowledge their choices and express no regret, keeping true to their Zen.
This can all be very disconcerting for the altruistic feminist. But it is only natural in a rapidly transforming world that individuals jump from one idea to another, sometimes completely contradicting themselves. No one totalising framework can be used to understand their hyper-individual realities. It is a time of deconstructions and post-everything.
Sociologist Michèle Barrett notes that “the key thinkers of ‘post-structuralism’ [have] mounted a devastating critique of the main assumptions on which much social and feminist theory was previously based and it has proved to be a critique from which neither has emerged unscathed.” Barrett holds that “fluidity” and “contingency” are the concepts we need to analyse now and move beyond blaming sexist oppression for all perceived inequities.
This is a time and space where women discursively produce conflicting meanings through their mix-and-match ideologies. They make bamboozling choices, as discussed earlier.
To get on with their real-world objectives, women these days collude with patriarchies when it suits their interests and resist it when need be. A horde of educated women choose not to work outside the home and become hyper-domestic goddesses who utilise their husband / father / brother’s capital to live their best lives with no guilt attached.
Those who work outside the home (on their laptops at cafés or at offices) happily socialise with peers of their economic class, language, race, religion, and caste, often employing their family / friends’ networks to find opportunities. The woke among them admit to these privileges, but retain them nevertheless.
Capitalist and socialist ideologies intermingle unexpectedly in many women’s heads, as do tradition and modernity. They may take a liberal position on one issue, but turn conservative on another. Some are nationalistic, some aren’t. They take what they like from the jargon of feminism (when it serves to increase their sense of self-worth) and discard what doesn’t work for them. Postfeminist women, then, are self-defining, maximising, and ambitious subjects who practise pragmatic idealism apt for such morally jaded times.
The ideological purists among us will say that now is the time to be dogmatic. The idea of India is in doldrums. Liberal democracy is being leached away at the edges. Hindutva is eclipsing the nation’s secular ethos. Islamophobia and casteist bigotry are on the rise. Dissent is being squashed with an iron fist. Feminism, as ever, should be a morally superior and humanist ideology that unites women against the ills of patriarchy, capitalism, neoliberalism, caste, globalisation, eco-fascism, religious fundamentalism, and all sorts of hegemony to create a truly equitable world.
Except, woman is not a monolithic entity, especially in “new India” where opinions are super polarised, and identity politics and ideological warfare are rife. There are powerful women on the left, right, and centre. There is no compulsion here that all women should fight for the same sort of social or political revolution – because identities are plural and each woman espouses causes that are critical to her positionality.
At the same time, feminism isn’t impervious to unconscious prejudice either. In such a scenario, it’s unrealistic to expect women to gather under a rigid feminist umbrella that is theoretically for all women, but in reality, excludes many based on where their political loyalties lie or how they perform femininity.
Am I then suggesting that feminists stop questioning the motives of incendiary women for the sake of solidarity? Understandably, how on earth can feminists not be at odds with those like Bharatiya Janta Party’s (BJP) women wing’s leader Sunita Singh Gaur, who asked Hindu men to form gangs and rape Muslim women? Clearly, Gaur is not simply a victim of regressive thinking. If anything, she’s a self- empowered woman.
Except, her words were held against her – she faced intense criticism, not only from the left and centre, but also from the right. Even while men who actually let Muslim women get raped under their watch sit comfortably in their regal seats sipping chai, Gaur was dismissed. Patriarchy works in convoluted ways.
Academics and activists have always termed the women’s movement of the subcontinent as Indian feminisms, stressing on the plural, as not all women’s movements identified with Western-inspired feminism. Islamic women’s groups have been at odds with secular feminists, because the latter often refuse to recognise the former’s agency even while lobbying on their behalf.
As evident from the Shaheen Bagh protests, Muslim women have always been capable of standing up for themselves when they see fit. The idea that every veiled woman is oppressed is preposterous but that is the notion most feminists perpetuate globally.
A large section of Hindu women, on the other hand, do not subscribe to the language of feminism because it positions itself as anti-Hindu (and since the Hindu Rashtra project began, a chasm has opened up between the Hindu nationalist and the secular woman). Women from other religions too are wary of feminism for it is often conflated with atheism.
Inside the fortress of feminism, meanwhile, not all versions have proximity to power. Undercurrents of dissent have always existed. Varied groups vie to construct competing ideological frameworks for gender-development discourses inside the academia. Resident Indian feminists are distrustful of expatriate feminists. Marxist feminists are suspicious of liberal feminists. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community have been vocal about cis-het feminism’s unease with trans identities (ever heard of TERF, the acronym for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist?).
Scepticism is everywhere. And since 2017, the fault lines of Indian feminism have become glaringly visible. It was then that law student Raya Sarkar circulated a Google spreadsheet that named seventy-two men from academia for various forms of sexual harassment. The Kafila feminists, including a number of seasoned academics and activists known for being anti-establishment, argued that naming and shaming men without due process was not acceptable. Young women disagreed.
Anthropologist Rama Srinivasan called this a generational conflict between feminist pioneers and millennials without patience. But this isn’t the only perceived fault line. Raya Sarkar also happens to be a Dalit, and the invalidation of her list by Savarna feminists was seen by Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi (DBA) women as a striking instance of caste bias. This sentiment has echoed across the country among young DBA women in various movements.
Many DBA feminists left the women’s collective Pinjra Tod, writing, “Savarna feminists...we are no longer going to be fascinated by your sisterhood circles and tokenism inclusivity. Your Time is Up too.” And, just like that, the idea of feminist sorority crumbled in the public eye, yet again.
So, in such a time, when everyone’s walking on ideological eggshells, it may seem that it’s best to choose the safest feminist identity: the one of intersectional feminist. Every woke woman’s new favourite word, sorry to say, is already passé in the West where it came from (all hail Westeros).
Sure, it sounds like the right thing to be, but what does it do for us in reality? Having empathy for another person’s struggle is all very well, but can it be put to practical use over and above showing solidarity, especially when the concerned person doesn’t care for (y)our saviour complex?
On the other hand, when (y)our identities are ones that were historically denied social justice, do we find solidarity with other women by radically denying them the right to speak about us altogether, thereby denying ourselves the right to speak about others?
Excerpted with permission from Smashing the Patriarchy: A Guide for the 21st-Century Indian Woman, Sindhu Rajasekaran, Aleph Book Company.
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