There is something inherent about the feeling of being a woman that is not only intensely political but also witnesses a pervert societal desire to dominate her. Why are societies afraid of her? What makes people across cultures afraid of a woman? The basic emotions displayed by both genders and the choices they make constitute an essential marker of politics. A man wakes up and thinks little of the clothes he would wear or what he needs to apply on his face. But these mundane acts become a political choice for a woman. The length of her hem, the shade of her lipstick, the colour of her dress. Men appear much more confident than women because nobody judges them about their looks.
Being an Indian Air Force officer's wife, I have lived in several places from the Northeast to Kashmir and coastal India. I have found women in all these parts struggling to raise their voices on different issues. In the Northeast, communities like Khasi and Garo are matriarchal and the property of a mother passes on to the youngest daughter. But if she gets married to an outsider, say a Marwari or a Punjabi, her family starts agitating against ‘outsiders’, as her male relatives now want to catch hold of her property. A simple act of marrying a person of her choice becomes a political rebellion.
When my husband was posted in the ‘progressive’ state of West Bengal, I witnessed the ugly reality of tea gardens. The women who pluck leaves are mostly Santhal and Munda Adivasis, who were brought there during British rule. They carry their infants and toddlers, tied to their backs, to the plantation area that fumes with pesticides.
In countries like Iran, a casual act like letting your hair loose becomes a political issue. In the United States and some European countries choice for abortion is political, and so is breastfeeding in the open. Strangest of all, even the age of consent, when they can have sex—the most intimate feeling known to us—becomes a political choice for a woman.
In developing countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Angola, the age of consent is 12 years for a girl and even in developed countries like Germany, it is 14. One can easily anticipate the meaning of consent of a 12-year-old girl. It lends legal protection to child prostitution and other sexual offences against minor girls. The comparative age in India is 18, but in many states like Rajasthan, my home state, child marriages are still a reality and any opposition to such a practice becomes a political issue.
For women, personal is political, and for men personal is personal and political is political. Indeed, for men, everything is hypothetical, their views, their choices and their actions. Being a woman is a political act. Any statement by a woman is a political assertion.
India is a horizontally and vertically layered country. We not only speak many languages and dialects but also live in multiple financial, social, cultural, political, geographical and historical worlds. Few women are seen asking questions crucial to their lives because questioning is absent in their conditioning. Subtle politics convinces them to believe that they do not have a right to speak or to be heard.
During all the decades I have lived in the world of ‘progressive Hindi literature’, I have often been judged by my sartorial choices and male friends. Some of my fellow writers termed me a ‘nationalist’ in a derogatory way because I live in the cantonment zone. They wouldn’t know that my experience with the army was far better. I always received due respect, even highly decorated officers stood for me. I was never once judged on caste or class, my clothing or dancing with other men. I felt the winds of change when women were allowed to join the armed forces as officers. The armed forces did have immense gender disparity earlier, but women officers broke barriers.
It has been achieved through a strong sense of womanhood, an emotion that has kept us moving. To be a political woman, you need to transform the very ontology of discourse, the way you look at the structures around you, especially the way in which women are presented and represented in a variety of media and mediated forms. We want to be represented not as objects but as we argue, fight, contest and negotiate within the existing power structure. Sadly, our representation is often at variance with our demands.
Bringing a feminist perspective to the media is also a political act. What I feel as an Indian woman, what I need from the system, and what I can give to the system as a woman. We are exploring versatility, femininity and fantasy. It’s our emotional demand. If it’s political, yes, we are political.
The personal is political became a slogan among feminists as their experiences are deep-rooted in their living conditions. Women’s personal problems are essentially political problems because they are caused by socio-economic inequality and can be solved only by a political struggle. The phrase was the slogan during the second-wave feminism, which shaped the development of social analyses and theories and encouraged new forms of activism.
And then you have ecofeminism, which is another extension of being a woman. The ecofeminism movement proposes that women are the custodians of biodiversity. The theme has prevailed in India for nearly half a century. It reclaims women’s involvement in saving the Earth by saving the forests and agriculture-related forestry. In an interview, Vandana Shiva defined ecofeminism as a complex system of forestry, agriculture and animal husbandry, which necessarily includes female participation. She also underlines that while women farmers treat biodiversity as a spiritual issue, for the biotech industry it is a financial instrument.
Connection with Mother Nature has two distinct sides. One, how both nature and women are being treated by a patriarchal society and the associations between women and nature. Second, fighting this patriarchy leads to sisterhood. Women must realise that the words we express about ourselves become catalysts for change and inspire the next generation to pursue activities that were limited to men. The journey that begins with the rights of a woman culminates in the emotion of womanhood.
(Manisha Kulshreshtha is a Hindi fiction writer.)