A manual for new feminists

So many unexpected and inspiring things happened in Delhi this past December, that Nivedita Menon’s publishers couldn’t have hoped for a better time to launch her book Seeing Like a Feminist. Bestseller lists show that it’s been doing well — even with the F-word in bold capitals on the cover: a word which has never been popular, and seldom been handed to anyone as a glowing compliment, but still seems to have reached the very nadir of unpopularity in the last few years.

As American feminist poet Katha Pollitt said in an interview recently, “The word ‘feminist’ is polarising because feminism is polarising. It’s a pretty deep critique of ‘normal’ relations between the sexes… It’s not about the name — if they called it ‘bluebird happyfun’ the same people who disdain feminism now would say, ‘Those bluebird happyfun women are just a bunch of man-haters’.”
And it is disheartening to meet disdainers everywhere — at dharnas and morchas, at women’s group meetings, at seminars and film festivals. In various situations, I have heard them saying, “I am not a feminist, but…” or, rather more baldly, “I am not a feminist”. I can only hope that this book crosses their path and knocks a few elephant-sized holes into the general fog of unknowing. Menon’s book might be a starting point in reaching out to these naysayers, especially those who think feminism is about “man-hating” and “bra burning” in the same way that some dinosaurs still associate India with snake-charmers and spirituality. It’s not the first feminist book in Indian publishing — there have been several memorable titles that have done well in non-academic sales: Radha Kumar’s The History of Doing, Mary John’s anthology Women’s Studies in India, Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha’s Women Writing in India and Kamala Bhasin’s What is Patriarchy? But it may be the first of its time that seeks to pull a much wider readership into an understanding of the feminist politics which informed those books and are always current in movements for rights and social justice.
Her style, in fact, does seem likely to appeal to a larger audience: one of lucid demonstration and explanation — an engagement with someone who might ask, but what is feminism, can you please explain? I was a little disappointed by this at first: perhaps I was hoping for something like The Female Eunuch to come and blow our brains out (in all fairness to Zubaan and Penguin, that might have been a book which would have remaindered rapidly). Menon’s book is not a polemic, nor a call to arms and action, but it isn’t cautiously careful either. Her aim, as the title indicates, is to make her readers see: a feminist “seeing”, as she says, is necessarily from a position of marginality and a gesture of subversion towards power.
The book is divided into six themed sections: Family, Body, Desire, Sexual Violence, Feminism and “Women”, and Victims or Agents. Menon takes apart these vexed areas of conflict, and the debates that have emerged around them, especially in India. In her introduction, she uses the analogy of “nude” make-up to analyse social forms and structures, observing that what seems “natural” has in fact centuries of painting and touching-up behind it, that to “see” the world with “the gaze of a feminist (is) rather like activating the ‘Reveal Formatting’ function in Microsoft Word. It reveals the strenuous, complex formatting that goes on below the surface of what looked smooth and complete… Feminism is not about individual ‘men’ and ‘women’, but about understanding the ways in which ‘men’ and ‘women’ are produced and inserted into patriarchies that differ according to time and place”.
And so, what better way to start looking at the subjugation of women, than with a chapter on “Family”: the main site of their oppression and battle for rights. Menon writes about a judge of the Delhi high court who observed in 1984 that letting the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution into the family would be like “letting a bull into a china shop”. Of this judgment, she observes drily that “the judge was, in fact, absolutely right… if every individual in the family is treated as a free and equal citizen, that family will collapse. Because the family, as it exists, is based on clearly established hierarchies of gender and age, with gender trumping age; that is, an adult male is generally more powerful than an adult female”.
I found this way of putting things across compelling, a Q.E.D of sorts: Gender Trumps Age in Patriarchal Families. Menon enjoys a reputation as a fine teacher and speaker, and she deconstructs complex ideas into familiar concepts: even the most uninformed reader will have no trouble at all in quickly internalising and understanding words like virilocality, patriliny, normative, heterogyny, hegemony, misogyny, and — of course — patriarchy. Having taken the trouble to explain, she manages to cover vast areas of Indian law, history and sociological and political analysis in just over 200 pages. And there’s so much that one hasn’t ever thought about that begins to emerge. For example, in a few pages in “Family” she recalls the regressive debates around the Hindu Code Bill, when a number of people were forced to suddenly start calling themselves Hindus, and that “invariably, practices that differed from the upper-caste North Indian norm were either not considered at all or rejected, enshrining only one kind of practice as truly Hindu and Indian”. In “Body”, she sets out the complex and exciting ideas around sex, gender and queer politics: from gender as performance to the differences between sex and gender, to why a person might be intersex and, for that matter, whether any of us might “pass” a gender test.
The horizon keeps shifting with this constant undermining and questioning of normative ideas: and so the book, whether you agree or disagree with some of its interpretations, does indeed demonstrate how nothing can or should be taken as pre-ordained or fixed in the constant battle for rights in our country. It is a solid little paperback, a handbook that can easily slip into almost any bag. I hope it’s slipped into many, and read widely, as it deserves to be.

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