A spun-gold, butter-melt bonhomie has settled on the world. In the connectedness of being equal victims of a horrible disease outbreak, many of us are cooking up a storm on Facebook, voraciously reading alternative news, donating money and food – performing the niche, the specific, the correct. Optimism knows no bounds.
The world will be different – it already is, amidst bird songs, the return of the sparrow, a cornflour blue sky. We seem to be readying ourselves for a sustainable future, a new morn that we will wake up to once this is over – this our purgatory, our learning. But are we asking ourselves how drastic this change will be?
Will the world change enough to undo the meanings of things as they have been manufactured historically? Will that one binary, the most antiquated, shameful and violent binary – the absolute hegemony and control of male over female, carefully preserved by a global brotherhood that has existed for centuries, burying its differences of time, class, race – change?
Atwood and LeGuin
Reacting to the ongoing pandemic Margaret Atwood, “patron saint of feminist dystopian fiction,” has said that moments like these offer a “reset button opportunity. Maybe we should look at the way we’ve been doing things and think of ways of doing them differently.” Naturally, I turned to feminist dystopia. Furiously looking for a template of disruption, I rummaged through the writings of brilliant women who had said all along – I told you so.
There’s Atwood’s own Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake are tales of survival on earth after it has been obliterated by a natural disaster, a virus. Or, amongst works by younger writers, The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh. As is often observed, feminist dystopia, alas, is not the future, but the present. The Orwellian garrotte of patriarchy, the impunity and conspiratorial normalising that safeguards and justifies everyday brutality against women – not only is the worst here and now, in the present, it has prevailed historically.
What could be more dystopic than the vivid accounts of rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Sita’s numerous trials by fire and banishment by Ram, all of these being acts of violence in a continuum criss-crossing time and culture. Feminist dystopia may be set in the future, but it is not a world order more frightening than the existing one.
Ursula K Le Guin, author of the Earthsea series and creator of Geten, a post-gender planet, believed that the true reason for animus against feminist science fiction is that it threatens the status quo and offers an alternative. She questioned the lack of literary adventure and rebelled against the standard instruction – write what you know, write about home. According to her, the home is not where you are or as you see it. “Home is imaginary. Home imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place…” What is that reimagined home in a feminist future? For in the quotidian lies the most vicious stranglehold of sexual difference and power.
Models of those may be found in feminist utopic fiction. Herland, the iconic novella by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is perhaps the most celebrated one. Written in 1915 – the book’s centenary celebrations took place five years ago – this slim and quirky volume is about a secret world inhabited only by women. Three men, Van, Terry and Jeff, come visiting with the obvious pornographic intention of watching women at play, women with women and women gouging out each other’s eyes. They discover instead a prosperous and dynamic society where women reproduce via parthenogenesis and there is no memory of sexual love.
In this placid setting, these men bring the whiff of the outside, the normative, bustling, unequal and unpleasant world. A reverse seduction takes place and two of them journey back outside with the women partners they find in this Utopia. Herland is a powerful starting point. It is authentic because it mocks itself as all great work should and punches a ruthless hole in this fringe existence – but it is not enough.
So I turned further back in time to retrieve the lesser known Sultana’s Dream – a short story by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. This brave utopia written more than a century ago in 1905 is perhaps the strongest and most unapologetic feminist template ever created. Instead of conjuring up far planets or creating a lost continent, the ladyland is the world as it exists around us – the author’s own house and other houses and streets of contemporary Calcutta.
It is the normative world, not a hidden Herland that has existed because it is hidden, preserved, kept safe. Begum Rokeya’s ladyland is an altered contemporaneity – the here and now where powers have shifted. Ladyland is not without men. The heterosexual exchange is possibly intact although not much is said about romantic love or procreation – this unconcern or nonchalance about the womb and motherhood make the premise of this story even bolder.
What has changed however is the direction in which the power flows. Men have been rendered invisible. They are in purdah, safe sound and possibly cherished as a source of sexual pleasure, but inconsequential.
When the narrator wants to know, “Where are the men?” Sister Sarah, who has led her out into the starstudded evening answers, “In their proper places, where they ought to be…We shut our men indoors.”
“Just as we are kept in the zenana?” her protégé asks.
“Exactly so,” she responds.
We are ready
Asphalt roads of the locked down city glitter. Their black determinedness beckoning – the promise of a journey, the desire to be away, to walk as far as the horizon. Come, reclaim the night, the city, the outside, it says. From over the wall I see the forest quivering as evening falls and the call of muezzin is sounded. The outside is quaint, the outside is safe. For the men are inside, reclaiming what has been historically, tragically a feminine space – the home, the inside. And the VAW meter careens out of control, giving COVID-19 numbers a stiff competition.
The future is going to be feminist. Forty five years we have waited since that promise was made in 1975 – the International Year of Women, peak of the second wave of feminism, the year that the Mexico conference was held, first of many in the following decades that were to redefine our paradigm.
A body of feminist classics, philosophy and scholarship? In the bag. Roadmaps, imagined and otherwise? Check. Policy frameworks, global goals, critical mass of educated and highly skilled women? Done. Popular leader’s charisma, across age, colour and caste? Plenty. Clearly, then, we are ready.
Post pandemic will be the time to move our witches’ brew, much maligned hystera, intuition-driven rationale, our natural oneness with the earth to the centre of things, to take the world by storm with the brilliance that resides in the margins.
When the new world emerges, will it be a feminist dawn? Would we find ourselves at the helm of power, redefining what constitutes power, the exchanges and ideas of it, the everyday? Will pleasure be redefined, and love too, what constitutes love? Perhaps a make-over for patriarchy’s wingman profit is on the cards?
Very likely not. For at a time when we should be furiously activating a plan, staging a coup, bringing up war rooms, finding foot soldiers and feminist leaders to sweep aside the androcentric world order, we are as a collective cooking, cooking as an aesthetic project – baking the best of Easter bakes and wondering eloquently what to do with the drumstick.
Lopa Ghosh is Country Coordinator, Global Health Advocacy Incubator and author of Revolt of the Fish Eaters, a short story collection. Previously she was with the United Nations.