Sunday, Sep 19, 2021

'It Comes Slowly Slowly...'

As good a day as any to recognise that ‘women’ is neither a stable nor a homogeneous category.

'It Comes Slowly Slowly...'
'It Comes Slowly Slowly...'
Seeing Like A Feminist
By Nivedita Menon
Penguin-Zubaan 264 pages, Rs. 227


Is feminism only about ‘women’?

We have seen that feminism is not in fact about ‘women’ but about recognizing how modern discourses of gender produce human beings as exclusively ‘men’ or ‘women’. We have also seen that feminism is not even about gender alone, but about understanding how gender is complicated by class (as in the case of domestic servants), by caste and by queer politics (as in the case of gay men, hijras and intersex identities). In other words, feminism requires us to recognize that ‘women’ is neither a stable nor a homogeneous category. This question of the entanglement of ‘gender’ with other identities arises in a variety of contexts globally, and we will consider some of these in what follows.

Let’s begin with a crucial identity that complicates gender—religious identity [….]

The veil and the mini-skirt

The projection of Islam as uniquely regressive with regard to women is not unique to India. In Europe over the past few years, the head scarf or different forms of the veil used by Muslim women has become the emotive symbol by which the West can assert its modernity, the freedom available to its citizens and its belief in gender equality. The recent bans on face-covering veils in European countries are being presented as merely the expansion of older laws that for security reasons prohibit people from wearing face-covering items such as masks in public, but the real target is obvious – Islam as linked to both ‘terrorism’ and to ‘oppression of women’.

Sura Al-Shawk/AP

In Switzerland, a young female basketball player was asked by a regional sports association to stop wearing a head scarf or stop competing. The association cited International Basketball Federation (Fiba) rules that ban all religious symbols during official games. But as the player Sura Al-Shawk pointed out, many players have Christian tattoos and wear crosses. Fiba in addition claimed the head scarf was an ‘accessory’ that increased the possibility of injury while playing!  This controversy was indicative of the general mood in Switzerland, for it arose a few months before the nationwide vote in November 2009 that endorsed a ban on minarets, a clearly anti-democratic and anti-Muslim move.

If it is individual freedom that is at stake, then European countries should be ensuring that Muslim women forced to wear the veil by their families have access to secular laws that can protect them. But laws banning the head scarf or veil, rather than empowering Muslim women, in fact attack the freedom of those Muslim women who choose to wear them as an integral part of their religious observance. I see these attempts by European governments to selectively restrict religious observance as being exactly parallel to and on par with attempts by Islamic groups to impose the veil on Muslim societies in which the veil did not exist, as in Kashmir or Palestine for example. In both cases, patriarchal power is being directed towards shaping women’s identity and behavior, using them instrumentally as means towards ends that marginalize them.

Of course, there is also fierce internal resistance from Muslim women and men to Islamic forces imposing specific readings of Islam and of the Quran, but their resistance is weakened, not strengthened, by Western governments restricting freedom of religion for Muslims. For instance, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) had for decades struggled against the Taliban, with no support or recognition from anywhere. Suddenly, when the US launched its 'war on terror', RAWA became the staple of CNN broadcasts. At the time, representatives of RAWA repeatedly emphasized that they opposed American bombing of Afghanistan, seeing it as part of the strategic agenda of the US government and not of the struggle that RAWA had long conducted. They also pointed out that the Northern Alliance whom the US backed, was no less oppressive and patriarchal than the Taliban. Nevertheless they were appropriated into the battle as allies of the US in the war on terror and used to legitimize US state policy.

In India too, there are internal voices in the Muslim community that raise objections to religious patriarchies. For instance, the fatwas of Darul Uloom Deoband and other patriarchal seminaries against freedom for women are attacked publicly by Zakia Soman who says she is Muslim and a feminist. ‘We work under the framework of Islamic principles and Indian constitution,’ declares Soman, one of the founding members of Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Wajihuddin 2011).

But every Hindu-right-wing attack on minorities, every attempt to push through a uniform civil code, makes Soman’s task all the more difficult.

So much for the veil. What about the mini skirt, that symbol of liberation? The point that many feminists disturbed by the bans have noted, including western feminists, is that the ‘freedom’ to dress in revealing clothes is equally located within a sexist culture, one ruled by the market, for only a particular kind of body is permitted to be revealed – young, toned, properly depilated, wearing the current style.

Says Naomi Wolf (2008):

When you choose your own miniskirt and halter top—in a Western culture in which women are not so free to age, to be respected as mothers, workers or spiritual beings, and to disregard Madison Avenue—it's worth thinking in a more nuanced way about what female freedom really means.

Saina Nehwal/AP

It is important to recognize that the feminist critique is of the cultural pressure to dress in particular ways, whether this involves showing more skin or covering up. In either case, the element of force is what we isolate as the problem, not the dress itself. For instance, in 2011, the Badminton World Federation announced its new dress code requiring women players to wear skirts ‘to ensure attractive presentation of badminton.’ Of course, most workplaces have dress codes. But the problem here is the blatant sexism of this requirement, for what the BWF was saying quite openly was that they expect more people to come to the sport if they could expect to see suggestively flying skirts (on women). There were protests from all the top women players of India on grounds of comfort while playing and personal preference; Chinese players too, raised objections (Beijing Olympics doubles winner Yu Yang: ‘I don’t like wearing skirts. I am not used to them. When I wear a skirt, I don’t know how to play’). Two-time mixed doubles world champion Indonesian Lilyana Natsir said: ‘Skirts hamper my movement when I play’ (Menon 2011). As Eliza Truitt put it in an article on tennis gear, if skirts were more comfortable or conducive to better play, male tennis players looking for a competitive edge would have adopted skirts long ago, just as male athletes shave their legs and don body stockings for swimming (Truitt 2001).

Religious objections predictably made their appearance.  Badminton Asia Confederation Vice-President Syed Naqi Mohsin said that the rule would be discriminatory. Not to ‘women’, as feminists might feel, but to ‘Muslims’: ‘The BWF states that the new regulation will not discriminate against any religion or beliefs. How can wearing skirts not clash with the religious beliefs of female Muslim players?’ (Menon 2011)

Eventually the BWF backed off, but what was interesting was the foregrounding of 'religious' and 'Muslim' objections by the media, over the completely non-religious and profession-related objections made by women players. One wonders if 'Muslim' objections had not kicked in, whether the opinion of women players would have counted for as much! […]

‘Women and peace’

The French Nobel Prize winning writer Romain Rolland said, 'Where order is injustice, disorder is the beginning of justice.'

Peace and order are not necessarily just. Often peace and order rest on a dominant order that maintains itself through a combination of force and hegemony.[1] Coercion is exercised and hegemony produced through institutions ranging from army and police to schools, the family and religious institutions; often both involve the law, which predominantly maintains an order that is in the interest of propertied and dominant groups. 

There is disorder and conflict all over the world—movements for national self determination, struggles against land acquisition by the state, against the dispossession of indigenous people. In such a scenario, where you find different kinds of resistance to the project of the nation-state, to capitalism, to the project of unjust social order, what does it mean to talk of ‘conflict resolution’ and ‘peace’? You cannot resolve a conflict unless you remove the inequality and injustice that underlies it. It is not a matter of getting opposing sides to sit and talk to each other—if one party is very powerful and the other is completely powerless, the conflict can be resolved only in one way. So, sometimes conflicts should not be ‘resolved’, but should lead to the destabilization of the old order and the establishment of a new, more just social order.

Behind the notion of a special role for women in peace and conflict resolution lies the assumption that across all other identities, ‘women’ have a common bond—women are mothers, women are nurturing, women want peace. But women can be combatants, they can be violent; they can also want peace, they can want to resolve conflict; just like men, they too can have a range of motivations.

Of course, it is possible in certain kinds of contexts, for women to use their conventional identity to be peace activists in quite creative ways.  So far example in Sri Lanka, the political formation called The Mother’s Front that emerged between 1990 and1993, had a huge grassroots membership. Basically these activists were mothers protesting the disappearance of their sons and male relatives. In many conflict situations including the Northeast of India, Kashmir and Sri Lanka, ‘disappearance’ has a particular meaning. Young men--and mostly they are men--vanish, usually taken away by the state and sometimes by militants. For three years the Mother’s Front actively used their identity as mothers: on the one hand presenting themselves in traditional ways as mothers who care, emphasizing their maternal suffering, but on the other hand, presenting these sentiments politically, in the public arena. Malathi de Alwis suggests that in this way they continuously subverted the idea of motherhood, which is seen as a private and individual identity, because although they invoked maternal suffering, they were not sitting at home and suffering, they were marching militantly on the streets, confronting the Sri Lankan state (de Alwis 1997). The ‘Women in Black’ in Latin America and many others too, have politically used and creatively played with this identity of motherhood.

In the US today, there is a kind of subversive maternalist politics in which militant feminists have been fighting for better working conditions for women, better childcare facilities, maternity and paternity leave and so on. But there can also be a conservative maternalistic politics where motherhood and the special moral responsibility of mothers is used to defend the dominant status quo with all its social inequalities intact. So maternalism is not always radical or progressive, it can lead to a very conservative politics.

This is why ‘women and peace’ initiatives in conflict zones all over the world where militant movements are in confrontation with armed forces of the state, often face criticism from women within these movements. The invocation of ‘peace’ and the unproblematic assumption that ‘women’ are necessarily committed to it rather than to ‘conflict’, such critics argue, is in effect an attempt to break the solidarity of the embattled community through the supposed unity of ‘women’. The active presence of women in armed organizations and their commitment to the goals of those struggles is seen to illustrate their greater solidarity with the men of their community than with women of the oppressor community.


‘Woman’ then, is not a natural and self-evident identity, the obvious subject of feminist politics. The subject of feminist politics has to be brought into being by political practice. There are no pre-existing ‘women’ who may be Hindu or Muslim, upper-caste or Dalit, white or black, rather, there are ‘people’ who may respond to different kinds of political challenges as ‘Dalit’ or ‘Muslim’ or as ‘women’. The success of feminism lies precisely in its capacity to motivate ‘people’ to affirm themselves as feminists in different kinds of contexts.

But equally importantly, sometimes a feminist will have to recognize that the defining factor at work in a particular situation may be race or caste, not gender; just as conversely, a Dalit activist or Marxist will have to recognize the defining feature in some situation as gender, not caste or class. All radical political activists and theorists then, necessarily also must be feminists […]

An outside to patriarchy

Narivaad, behna, dheere dheere aayi! Feminism, sister, it comes slowly slowly, sings the Delhi-based feminist group Saheli, which has remained stubbornly non-funded since its birth in 1981, when the wave of autonomous women’s groups began. It’s a satirical song, sung with energy and good humour, making fun of all our anxieties and quarrels – labels of funded feminism and government co-opted feminism, fear of the L word [2] among some old guard lefty feminists, the mad confusions arising from relentlessly collective functioning and the refusal to lead or be led.

If one thinks of social order as a series of overlapping structures, then one can see that these structures have to be assembled through a variety of interventions. Even those upon whom the order is harshest need to put in the daily hard work involved in keeping it all together. The assembling is thus continuous and works simultaneously on different parts of an already existing field; so the assembled field is heterogeneous and layered. As every one of us participates in this assembling, either consciously building or refusing to build our parts of different structures; or simply living in certain ways that permit or do not permit structures to come together, what happens is that structures never really get to close their gates with a satisfactory click. Their borders are porous, the social order fragile, and every structure is constantly destabilized by another outside of it. Like any other structure of power then, patriarchy too has an outside, which is what makes possible the different kinds of recalcitrance that constantly undermine it. [3]

Feminism is not about that moment of final triumph, but about the gradual transformation of the social field so decisively that old markers shift forever. This shift is what enables many young women today to say ‘I believe in equal rights for women, but I’m not a (shudder) feminist’. Feminist struggles have made much that they fought for yesterday, the baseline beyond challenge today. In effect, those privileged young women who float through their empowered lives in the wake of over a century of feminist struggles are simply disowning their own heritage. But they are not the last word, are they? From that very same social class after all, we saw also the militant impatience of the young women who organized Slutwalk, and those who staged flash mobs against sexual harassment on Delhi’s Metro. And as we have seen throughout this account, there are innumerable new energies from different class and caste positions transforming the feminist field, new contestations of patriarchy as well as of normative feminism.

It comes slowly slowly, feminism does. But it just keeps on coming!

[1] That policeman inside your head who tells you how to behave.

[2] Lesbian!

[3] I guess that’s the academic way of saying naarivaad behna, dheere dheere aayi!


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