Thinking like a feminist
Ever since my childhood days, I have been grappling with the idea of ‘gender.’ Why was my ‘coming of age’ celebrated with so much pomp and show when in reality it brought only embarrassment to me as a little girl? Why did my grandma ask me to speak softly when my brother was granted all rights to shrill and rejoice? Why did she ask me to dress modestly to avert ‘unwanted looks from men’? These were perhaps the essential ingredients of a strict gender socialisation that I underwent and I began to reconcile with the fact that it was common to any girl of my age to go through the same travail.As an ardent student of Bharatanatyam, the Indian classical dance form, I was curious to why femininity was always represented in terms of "longing, hesitation, sorrow, loneliness, anxiety, or fear.”Why couldn’t the nayika act more courageously in facing the death of her husband or her lover’s parting ?I often used to feel proud about the fact that I came from a matrilineal community called Nairs in Kerala where the ‘rule of the mother’ is supposed to dominate. But I still wonder how as a woman from such a community, I was more empowered than girls of any other castes in my locality. My liberal minded dad taught me that I need to be assertive and could never be ready for any compromises when it came to education. Even my well educated and employed mom (to strictly speak in terms of proxies for women’s empowerment) used to lament at times about what my plight would had been if my father/grandfather was opposed to the idea of sending me to another state, where I supposedly received the best of education. All this perhaps propelled in me an inclination towards the field of gender studies and I dream of a research career in the same.
Four years of college life at a premier institute in India. The air of being addressed now as a ‘young lady.’ A stark reminder that I am no more a ‘girl.’ During light hearted conversations in coffee shops and restaurants which bear the latent potential to ignite discussions ranging from anything personal to political over a cup of tea or coffee, I find my friends addressing me a ‘feminist.’ I find myself raising my eye-brows half-believingly and then skilfully refuting and evading the same with a shrewd answer- “For me, feminism is a fluid idea.” I move in and out of it anytime I wish to. Let me elucidate it here.
On careful retrospection, I found myself to be constantly engaging in the politics of feminism but it was mainly through the medium of writing (which I was comfortable with). The news reports on gross human right violations against women in the armed conflict zones of Sri Lanka and Rwanda, the injustice meted out to poor, unwed mothers in the tribal land of Attapady where I worked as an intern or a case of child marriage in Natham, Tamil Nadu where I worked as a student volunteer from IIT Madras stirred me. I constantly tried engaging with these issues through my writings. It was rather the product of my helplessness in having to bring about a change in the lives of the victims. Conference papers and few snippets of creative writing were born. I am not an avaricious writer. Neither am I sure about what impact or ‘statistical significance’ my writings could make. Still, I was happy that I engaged with the same, though on a micro scale.
I am someone who adheres to the view that there should be a schism between private and public life (unlike a radical feminist view which may equate personal to political).At times, I tend to derive a mysterious, sacrificial joy from submissiveness and dependence before a few so called male cult figures I have encountered in my life, be it my father, brother or a dear friend. It has often proved to be an emotionally satiating exercise as I knew that they always acted in my interest and the underlying force was affection, care or concern. One can perhaps argue that by internalising such norms of male authority and dependence (though occasionally), I am engaging in the art of ‘Patriarchal Bargain.’ These of course present a contradictory scenario but can undoubtedly explain what I termed as fluidity when it came to my idea of feminism. But another paradox still persists. Even while I think and write like a feminist, I can sense my strong antipathy towards the sheer title of a ‘feminist.’ I was pondering over it when I accidentally came across a well written article by renowned writer C.S. Chandrika in Mathrubhumi. It was pertaining to women’s mobility and related feminist discourses in Kerala. She spoke about how women activists in Kerala who raise women’s issues today often take refuge under the anticipatory bail of initially stating that they are not feminists. She traces an answer for this tendency by throwing light on the rise of feminist movement in Kerala during 1980s .The feminists in 1980s were given abominable labels like ‘unfeminine’, ‘anti-men’, ‘whores’ and ‘immoral’ and these were bestowed by men. Did these stereotypes which constitute ‘good’ and ‘bad’ woman unconsciously seep into my perception of feminism? Societal censure and ostracism is often a strong dictating force in one’s life. This takes me back to a train journey this New Year. I was traveling alone from Kerala to Tamil Nadu for a new semester at IIT after the brief luxury of my winter vacation. That was a rare phenomenon in my case as I always had a bunch of friends who accompanied me during the to and fro journeys. Apart from the unadulterated privacy that may dwindle upon me, it is ‘practically unsafe for a woman’ to precisely quote my friend, who proudly addresses himself as a ‘Male Chauvinist.’ I could feel the coercion and monotony of having to tolerate a humid, sweaty, cigarette filled ambience in a crowded compartment. My arrival at the Chennai Central Station at around 4 AM brought forth a new set of observations. For a second, I longed for traces of sindoor in the parting of my hair. Will it have the potential to attenuate the intensity of desirous looks emanating from male gazes all around me? May be or may not be. A feeling of insecurity crept in. I had to wait till about 7 A.M in the station as advised my overprotective parents and friends as travelling alone in the wee hours when it is still dark can make me prone to an act of sexual violence. What made me long for those traces of Sindoor? Was it a product of my gender socialisation under the patronage of a patriarchal society which taught me that sindoor guaranteed security?
I began to wonder what Sindoor(Vermillion worn in the parting of the hair by married woman in India) signified in the life of a woman. To my mom, it signified a’ good natured and chaste woman.’ For the old, dark skinned lady who ran a flower shop by the street side in Chennai, it was the ‘celebration of true womanhood.’ For few married, women researcher scholars at IIT, it signified the’ feeling of security’ and censure from ‘unwanted, desirous looks from strangers or their male counterparts.’ To the sophisticated, English speaking girl of the IT park, it ‘was more of tradition’ which intervened with modernity, disadvantaging her and pushing her into precincts of institutionalised norms of gender. In most of these cases, it is a clear cut instance of ‘sexualising safety.’ The women tend to feel more protected in the eyes of both family as well as community but the underlying presupposition is that ‘women’s sexuality is something which needs to be tamed and controlled.’ But I was wondering as to what it signified for the woman from the red street who sold her flesh to feed her children. It was perhaps a bargain between livelihood and societal censure.
Coming back to the original premises, I believe that feminism has a politics of its own, especially for achieving the egalitarian goals of rights and justice. The existing state of women’s marginalisation in various domains of public and private life can act as the right substratum for engendering an awakening towards individual or collective mobilisation. I have often seen people bringing the argument for equality into the picture. Will equality always help? Men and Women are different. Their needs are different. I may demand equality with respect to the right to vote but what about the right to health? It is equity or rather fairness which matters there. For example, men and women in their respective reproductive age groups may have distinct health and nutritional needs. Thus, it is ridiculous to bring in the equality argument here. These are of course clichéd ideas that you can locate in any theoretical discourses on gender. Though I am not opposed to the feminist agenda of raising demands and the act of ‘petition politics’ in itself, I believe that it should never become their obsession. Why always romanticise a woman’s weakness and incapability? Why not celebrate her strengths? I believe in this celebration of womanhood. Her resilience and protective enrichness still mesmerize me.
Ardra Manasi is doing her MA in Development Studies at IIT Madras.