By Shilpa Phadke
Mistaking one work of fiction to represent all women in a country is rather blinkered and when it’s a country of the diversity and complexity of India, it borders on the ridiculous. Compounding this by attempting to pontificate on a subject about which you clearly know nothing and circulating this in an international newspaper should be a libelous act. I refer to Anand Giridharadas’s recent piece ‘A feminist revolution skips the liberation’ in the column ‘Letter from India’ in the International Herald Tribune. The writer begins innocuously enough by reviewing Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy’s book ‘You are Here’. The trouble begins when Madhavan Reddy’s fictional protagonist Arshi, drawn from her blog, begins to represent all Indian women–or at least all Indian urban women and what he calls ‘Indian feminism’.
In saying, “Indian women are trading regular bras for push-up bras, by bypassing the phase of burning bras”, the writer demonstrates his lamentable ignorance not just of the history of feminism in India but also in the US. A quick Internet trawl would have told him that no bras were burnt. A group of protesters outside a Miss America beauty contest in Atlantic City in 1968 threw not just bras but also girdles, mops, pots and pans into a ‘freedom trash can’. A look at some feminist writing would have told him that feminists don’t actually view push-up bras as a great feminist victory though some of us may choose to wear them.
The writer’s understanding of American feminism has him trace its (supposedly decreasingly ‘militant’) path from Betty Friedan to Carrie Bradshaw. Clearly the writer has difficulty in separating fictional characters from real ones. Almost as much difficulty as he has in understanding that most basic of things: historical context.
The granting of universal adult franchise and constitutional equality to women and men simultaneously in India in 1951 was not only a ripple effect of suffragette movements in the West but also reflected the social reform movement in the country and the presence of articulate women in the struggle for independence from colonial rule.
It was in the 1970s that a nationwide women’s movement came together to reform the laws on rape. This followed numerous, disparate feminist battles in various parts of the country. In the 1980s, the women’s movement addressed issues of dowry, sati, female foeticide and domestic violence, targeting not just the law but attacking the patriarchal ideologies that underpinned institutions. In the 1990s and 21st century, the movement grapples with questions of sexual harassment and sexual desire, globalisation and beauty contests, nuclearisation and Hindu right-wing pogroms, as well as the questions of post feminism that the writer assumes are the only relevant ones.
Indian feminism– yes, there is such a thing–is a complex, multifaceted animal that is not a replica of the west but one born of a unique context. It encompasses many women and a reasonably large number of men who often disagree vociferously with each other in person and in print. This Indian feminism defies definition. It struggles not just with concerns of gender but also with those of class, caste and religion.
The writer appears completely in the dark about the various demonstrations that women have been part of on issues of gender. He also seems to have completely missed the times that the women’s movement has marched with environmentalists, workers, and most recently, queer rights activists.
None of this is intended as a critique of Madhavan Reddy’s book. Her quotes in the piece tend to stick to the point–-that this is a book and these are characters, who represent some women in some ways, but certainly not all Indian women in all ways. However, even if it’s only this small minority of women that we are talking about, there is no excuse for the writer’s disapproving misrepresentation. Many of these women who he disdains as making fat pay packets by day and kowtowing to husbands by night, work hard for their money, struggling to play the role of neutral professionals, looking good without appearing to invite trouble. Many of them agonise over how to fend off unwanted passes without making a noise about it because this will affect their careers; note theirs, not the man’s. These women don’t just “sleep around, don bug-eyed sunglasses or down mojitos” (though one fails to see why any of these should “compromise feminism”). Many also run households, support old parents, and bring up children. They read books, watch films, meet friends, travel, and make decisions about how to live their lives, including (but not only) their sexual lives–all of which is their own business. Some may call themselves feminists.
The writer’s perception that ‘real’ feminism is about micro-credit in the villages reveals his unease with women like Arshi, who he then moralistically disdains as urban sybarites seeking pleasure for itself. His facile division of Indian women, into the ‘innocent’ hard-working real ‘feminist’ peasant women whom he romanticizes and the self-centred, hedonistic, urban women wanting to ‘fornicate’ (do people still use such words outside of courtrooms?) while seeing men as meal tickets whom he deplores, is deeply judgemental and borders on the puritanical.
(As a self-indulgent corollary, one might add here that micro-credit’s role in the ‘empowerment’ of women has been contested and it has been critiqued as locating women as good citizen subjects who will work themselves to the bone to pay off a debt.)
“Modernity”, he pontificates, “involves more than sin. … How many urban women chop off their hair, or choose not to procreate, or dine out alone?” Apparently the writer doesn’t seem to leave his desk much to stroll in the irreverent city of Mumbai, or he might have discovered the answer is, actually quite a few.
Not only does the writer appear to be prejudiced, he is also badly informed; certainly a ‘sin’ when information is for the asking at the click of a mouse. If bald heads, non-procreation and dining alone are his meter of female modernity then perhaps he needs not just Indian Feminism 101, but also Modernity 101.