Equality fight in an unequal world
Feminism is not being part of an organisation; rather it takes inspiration from past heroines, aiding women to feel a continued responsibility, explains Nivedita Menon’s Seeing Like a Feminist. The title is inspired by James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, where the state “seeing” is all powerful, compared to the marginal position of the feminist.
This is a book about women and patriarchy, and about how the feminist views the operation of gendered modes of power. It is divided into six chapters, which deal with vital, interrelated themes.
Efforts have always been made to shield the institution of the patriarchal heterosexual family. Couples who choose inappropriate marriage partners come under the scanner. Women have been relegated to domestic work, which is less valued and unpaid, despite the Equal Remuneration Act of 1976. Domestic work is more demeaning and exhausting than that of a sex worker, probably why 71% of ‘servants’ have moved voluntarily to sex work.
In North India, a woman has no rights in her natal home after she moves to her husband’s home. In Kerala, only vestiges of the matrilineal system are seen. The Hindu Code Bills empowered Hindu women to choose their partners, and marry outside their caste. The Hindu Women’s Right to Property gave widows rights to their husband’s property, but the Hindu Succession Act nullified the position of daughters under matrilineal laws, by granting equal inheritance rights to sons. The three interlinked features of the Indian family are patriarchy, patriliny and vivilocality.
Dowry has spread its tentacles almost everywhere, as women go to their husband’s homes to survive with limited rights, despite the Dowry Prohibition Act which deems both giver and taker guilty. Women, right from childhood, prepare for marriage, which sometimes leads to the ‘implosion of marriage’, when young girls refuse to conform to docile roles of wife and daughter-in-law. The author avers that feminists need to build up the strength to live in ways in which marriage is voluntary, and create alternate non-marriage communities.
In ancient times, the universality of gender as a social category was challenged in African and the North American countries, and even in the lives of the Bhakti saints. But the creation of a distinction between sex and gender is intrinsic to feminism, as from childhood onwards, girls and boys pick up gender-specific forms of behaviour, training to conform to set roles.
In the 1990s, the media began airing sexually explicit images, through cable and television channels. Questions on homosexuality and issues revolving around the civil liberties of eunuchs, bisexual and transgendered people have all been viewed through the lens of the feminist here.
Patriarchal forces call rape a blot against family honour, while feminists denounce it as a crime against a woman’s bodily integrity. The Pink Chaddi protest was a non-violent gesture of ridicule against intolerance. The modern slut walks are the latest chapter in a long, powerful history of inspirational feminist struggle.
Caste politics and patriarchy have stalled the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill to reserve 33% of seats in Parliament for women.
There is mention of the commoditisation of the female body, through advertisements showing scantily clad bodies and pornography. Feminists expose how this outlook can be transformed by thinking of women as consumers instead of victims.
Pregnancy and child bearing are the sole responsibility of the woman. The ideal feminist world is one in which women can control when and under what circumstances they deliver their children. Sexual harassment charges against celebrities, the ban of the veil in France, forcing women badminton players to wear skirts and queer politics have all been touched upon in this revealing book.
Thus, for Nivedita Menon, feminism is not about one triumphant moment against patriarchy, but about the ongoing shift that enables young women to say, “I believe in equal rights for women, but I’m not a feminist.” Many new positions, energies and challenges have transformed the feminist field over the years, and this book takes a bold look at these.
“It comes slowly, slowly, feminism does. But it just keeps on coming!”