Everyday feminism and its efficacy

This morning I have had a rather humbling moment.

Without going into too many details (as these details are not about my life!), I was speaking with a woman who approached me for some financial help. She described her harrowing life, of being a victim of domestic (physical and emotional) abuse from both her spouse and siblings. She belong to what are generally seen as lower economic class and lower in the caste hierarchy.

I am a scholar of Gender Studies within postcolonial context, and see myself as a feminist. Feminism has a problematic connotation in postcolonial contexts- I am not the first to propose this. Many scholars, specifically within Subaltern Studies, have pointed to this [See Mohanty’s fabulous and well known essay] . Also, that caste/class hierarchies cuts across patriarchy in the Indian context is something that many scholars have pointed to [see this and this]. Thus patriarchy is not homogenous, nor are feminist movements including ‘everyday feminism’. Hence, what I am primarily interested in finding is different ways of understanding alternative ways of acting agency for which positionality and intersectionality are key. I see ‘everyday feminism’ as a way of doing this: by this I refer to a broad understanding of feminism as (amongst others, I hasten to add) ways of subverting patriarchy. These can be small instances that generally are ignored as insignificant by the mainstream feminist movements. These are crucial in understanding how patriarchy works in varied contexts including the one I have described above.

My humbling moment came from the fact that much as I see myself as a feminist and much as I (and others) would like to talk, write and publish about women’s empowerment, there are instances and contexts such as the one described above where what we do seem to be ineffective. Do I dare to use to term ‘failure’? I do not say that feminism (everyday or not) cannot help women in the context described above. As I have said before, I strongly argue for understanding agency in alternative ways thereby broadening our understanding of feminism by taking contexts as a factor. My question then is: why do measures to subvert patriarchy, reduce violence against women, subvert patriarchy does not work effectively in certain contexts? I do not believe in any kind of feminist movement that is theorised and published but does not actually provide solution for everyday sexism.

I believe that both in academic and other contexts, we ignore those aspects of patriarchy that cannot be quantified. For instance, that patriarchy affects women in certain contexts (economic class and caste) disproportionately is widely acknowledged because we understand, in quantified terms, what class and caste structures are. Moving beyond that, there are several aspects of social structures that cannot be quantified. Take the example of the woman I was speaking with: she explained to me that what is preventing (or impeding?) her from taking any sort of legal action, approaching any organisation that might help or even just walking out of the situation (she has a job and therefore, seemingly economically independent to be able to do that) is the question of ‘bringing disrepute to the family’. In other words, she is concerned that her neighbours and others within the context she is living would not that think of her and her family as ‘respectable’. This social stigma, although might seem/sound Victorian, is an existential concern because… and this brings me to the next point… of the question of marriageability of her daughter. Most aspects of life (social and personal) are still governed by the marriage economy. A huge concern for parents in India, where arranged marriages are very common, is how the society (broadly) evaluates the women in the family and the family itself in relation to the marriage economy. (There is a reason why TV adverts regularly sell gold, real estate, skin-lightening cosmetic products, and dating/matrimony websites). With more women joining the workforce and apparently, becoming economically independent, this particular aspect is now becoming subtler and embedded in everyday practices. This concern dictates almost every action and measure. And this concern disproportionately affects women in certain economic class/caste contexts. This concern and that it dictates every aspect of one’s life (especially that of women) cannot be quantified and gets overlooked by feminist projects. Of course, feminist organisations in India are doing some excellent work catering to women in various contexts. But the fundamental problem remains: that these concerns exist and we must not overlook them.

Everyday feminism provides us a way of understanding subtler ways of subverting patriarchy. But it is crucial for us to observe both quantifiable and ‘unquantifiable’ factors that enables patriarchy to function in the first place.

Neoliberalism, Capitalism and Gender Violence

Last week I was at a conference where I was invited to give a paper. The conference, on the interactions of capitalism and music, was convened by Dr Anna Morcom of RHUL in association with the Institute of Musical Research, London. It was a very interesting conference with presenters from different aspects of the music industry and music genres sharing their work. In addition to being exposed to those genres of music that I was unfamiliar with (such as Rap, Hip Hop, traditional Irish music, a specific type of evangelical gospel music, etc.), the conference helped understand capitalism in other ways to what I have been doing so far. An interesting argument that was raised often during the conference was the presence of multiple capitalisms, in plural. In other words, it was argued that it is problematic to reify capitalism as a uniform system that can be described using one definition.

Earliest works on free market and mobility of labour transcending geographical borders such as that of Thomas Friedman, whilst useful in understanding the idea of nation-state in alternate ways, have made the arguments as though capitalism is a seamless phenomenon (and thereafter, a system) that works uniformly across all societies. Of course, those ideas have been severely contested by academics, in general, and economists, in particular. However, it was rather refreshing and very interesting (to me at least) when each presenter at the conference used their corresponding examples to show how making capitalism a ‘it’ does not work. For instance, Dr Jayson Beaster-Jones discussed this disconnect, between ‘popular imagination of capitalism’ as he accurately put and how values of capitalism functions in the society, using his ethnographic work on music chain-stores in India. He argued that there was an uneven upward mobility within the economic classes even if the social contexts within which representatives of such classes were working represented a different, imaginative and a rather rosy picture.

I want to extend this critique of capitalism, as a product of neoliberal economic policies, to the issue of gender norms and specifically, gender violence in contemporary India. For a while now, I have been attempting to formulate a way in which gender norms and identities can be understood within the context of neoliberalism (and capitalism) and to see what this interaction does to the questions of gender norms, gender equality and constructions of gender identities. These questions came to me after incidents of violence against women were reported by the Indian news media, more often now than in the past.

In 2012, the Guardian published an article citing a poll that India is the worst place for women to work. There is nothing specifically remarkable about the article except that India was ranked amongst all the rich G20 nations. Of course, there is a rationale to taking economic growth into account: arguably, when a country’s economy grows, the government can afford to provide public safety, healthcare, jobs, which ideally would help is closing the gender gap (I know am taking leap here with my simplistic assumptions as the article rightly gives the example of Saudi Arabia to make a case of not being so; however, economic indicators have been taken into account as a measure for gender inequality and violence, as the article points out). After the gang rape and essentially, murder of a student in Delhi in 2012, Ratna Kapur, a columnist wrote about the crisis (perceived…?) of masculinity that has occurred since women have entered the workforce.

Women’s entry to workforce has largely been due to the ‘economic expansion’ that set course in the early 1990s India. Until then whilst it was common for women to do engineering and science degrees, historically seen as fields of study for men, newer ‘economic boom’ certainly provided more employment opportunities for women studying these courses. In addition, women in general found positions in the outsourcing sector with increase in migration to ‘tech-cities’ such as Bangalore, Gurgaon, Noida, Hyderabad, Chennai, etc. One of the seeming merits of neoliberalisms is to create a common economic sphere where all gender identities can participate. Thus, workers/employees are generally seen as labour, in a broad sense, and their productivity is measured based on profits, surplus value, etc. There is some goodness in all gender identities being treated equally, right? (If we were to ignore Marx and look for silver lining here…!).

Running deep within this issue is the assumption that economic power awarded to women must result in gender equality and agency for women—this economic power, in this context, brought by these economic policies. Another assumption is that neoliberal policies will have a uniform effect on any society that either adopts it or is imposed upon. This neoliberalism of ‘popular imagination’ is severely contested when instances of gender violence are reported. [Note that I said reported and not occur because it is the naiveté of non-occurrences of such incidents that I am attempting to critique here]. The question then arises as to why economic opportunities do not solve all problems in a society. Of course, popular response to these incidents is that of ‘Othering’ the societies that do not conform to the ‘popular imagination’ of neoliberalism—to say, for instance, that these societies are inherently ‘backward’, ‘uncivilized’, etc. and hence no amount of economic progress can transform these ‘barbarians’. At least, the international media will be quick to come to that conclusion.

And here is where it helps to see neoliberalism(s) and capitalism(s), which I will discuss soon, in plural. Subjectivity of these economic policies within different societies is something that ‘popular imagination’ grapples with or overlooks completely. Call centres that predominately have night-shift work pattern might seem as creating an equal ground for all gender identities to work together. To be fair, companies with night-shift work patterns have organised taxis to pick up and drop off employees, mainly for the safety of female employees; however, so many incidents of rape-and-murder of female employees by cab drivers have been reported on a daily basis. Economic opportunities, for instance, does not help women in a context within which women are expected to learn self-protection skills to walk on the road at night, returning from work, to fight sexual harassment. As I have argued previously, it is very disconcerting to see that I have to earn my right to walk on a road safely! In contemporary India, women’s right to go to pubs is cited as a mark of freedom the ‘New India’ has brought. However, reports of women being attacked inside the pubs, and stalked and attacked outside is all too common. There are not many reports of sexual violence at work place, but does not mean it does not occur. The how question—what solutions we can find to end such violence is discussed by, if I may cite her article again, Ratna Kapur and myself here.

Where does the question of capitalism arise here? In everyday contexts, capitalism functions through the existing status-quo. It is, for instance, not entirely accurate to argue that capitalism perpetuates gender inequality- at least not in all contexts. If we were to rephrase that argument, it is accurate to say that capitalism feeds upon the existing gender inequality for its own end. There are multiple forms of capitalism(s) at function here: on the one hand, through neoliberal economic policies, women have been given the economic power to participate in the capitalistic economy. At the same time, capitalism functions on the existing gender norms and stereotypes that restrict women from participating with agency. Take the example of marriage industry. Women can now earn and pay for their weddings and have the power to reject dowry system. However, the marriage industry has become so bloated and extravagant, partially due to the same spending power of everyone in general, that staying unmarried is still not a socially acceptable option; rather, the market keeps emphasizing the role of women as a bride, wife and a mother. How does this relate to gender violence and specifically, violence against women? Marriage industry is only an example of the incongruences in the way capitalism(s) work. Whilst it gives economic agency (albeit limited due to various reasons) to women, it also functions in the public sphere by feeding on the existing gender roles and norm. Thus, we see an unevenness, a contradiction to the ‘popular imagination’ of capitalism. Cutting across this issue is the issue of class, which I do not wish to explore here. However, it is suffice to say that gender identities along with class complicates it further.

This is not to say that the economic opportunities available for women in contemporary India is a complete failure. Rather, it is helpful to acknowledge that economic development is not a uniform phenomenon that works across all societies. This helps in finding ways to address the problems of gender violence in a productive way rather than ‘Othering’ these societies. In addition, it will also help us to see that gender discrimination at work place, gender violence are problems that prevail in all societies, even in the ‘developed world’, that need to be addressed as Everyday Sexism project has been showing to us.

This argument is a work-in-progress for me; I welcome comments and criticisms to think through these issues more clearly.

Myths and Superpowers: “Metaphysical” Superheroes?

My blog post on the Critical Religion Association website on the language of “myths”, “mythology” and “religion” posted yesterday.

The Critical Religion Association

This blog post is primarily about the language surrounding “mythology” “myths” and along the lines of the thinking behind the Critical Religion Association, “religion”. I look at these terms as tools for categorization using stories of superheroes.

In 80s and 90s India, most available comics available were stories taken from “Hindu mythology” such as Ramayana and Mahabharata or stories based on these works in books such as Amar Chitra Katha. Also popular were the Jataka Tales, a collection of Buddhist moral stories. On the television front, we had two state-run television channels and programs on South Indian channels were dubbed versions of Hindi programs produced mostly in Delhi, the capital city of India. Dramatized adaptations of Ramayana (produced by Ramanand Sagar) and Mahabharata (produced by B. R. Chopra) were televised during these two decades. The personification of Hindu deities and demons, the grandeur of the production and film-sets…

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Agency (in/and) Artistic Performance

I have ignored this blog for a few months now due to several reasons including semester getting in the way, etc. However, this particular blog post has been sitting in my draft since February as I have been hesitant to broach this subject because a) I was not ready; and b) it is about a process that is very personal. Ironically, I started this blog to do precisely that: to record the process through which I am attempting to re-engage with music, in particular and arts, in general. I must confess that this exercise is a partially arrogant one: because I learned music for more than two decades, I am almost certain that there is some creativity in me that I can tap into whilst going through this process (I say ‘almost’ because sometimes I question my assumption). If I may add a line here in defense of such arrogance, I also believe that every person possesses creativity- rather naive one might say, but it keeps my world going! My other reason is that I strongly believe that arts is necessary for us to make sense of the crazy world that we construct and live in.

In the previous blog posts and my PhD thesis, I have explored my relationship to music, specifically the tradition I was trained in, i.e., Karnatic Music. As discussed in those blog posts, I have had a complex relationship with Karnatic Music. I learned and performed it reluctantly and yet, music came to my aid at different points in my life. And in this blog post, I explored the subjectivity in experiencing any art form. There have been times when I wanted to reject music completely but was unable to do so because: one of the epiphanic moments was when I realised that, to me music is a language; and I learned it simultaneously whilst learning Tamil (my first language) and English (the medium of instruction). Therefore, to shut music out was to stop using a language that I am familiar with. Moreover, as an embodied being (as we all are), language is our primary tool in understanding the world around us. Music was an evocative (and to a certain extent, non-verbal) way of understanding my context, embodiment and identity.

I am currently following several wonderful artists on Twitter, most of whom are photographers. I know nothing about photography (except to say ‘oh, that’s a nice image’). But what interests me most about the works of these photographers is the process through which they arrive at making a particular image. The process involves not only what that particular image means to them but also how they articulate what they want to, through the image. The articulation is not always successful, of course. But, it shows both the photographer’s relationship to the image and more importantly (to me at least), the limitations of language, specifically verbal communication, that can be overcome through the image. It made me realise that all along I have been asking the wrong question pertaining to music. Instead of asking ‘what does music do to me?’ I should be asking, ‘what is music to me?’ There is subjectivity of experience involved in both. There are differences though. Whilst the former assumes that music as an ontological entity, the latter approaches music as a construction. Following that argument, the primary distinction between the two questions, is the question of agency. The latter allows for music to be constructed the way one wants and therefore, experience it the way one wants. There is room for agency here. And thus comes my ephiphanic moment described above. It is the realisation that music acts as a language to me. I relate to people through music; they do not need to be musicians or any kind of artists. It also gives me the agency to construct and re-construct music the way it suits me best. It is also one of the many reasons why I could not engage with Karnatic Music within the framework of the tradition- i.e., kutcheri format, etc. If the following up question then is, whether all sounds are music, I don’t know the answer to that nor will I attempt to answer that. My aim here is not to make any universalising statements about experience that I see as fundamentally subjective. Rather, I am pointing to my personal journey or process in understanding this subjectivity and finding the agency within it. This is a work in progress for me. I am only beginning to understand these issues. And having been raised within the strict Karnatic Music tradition, I know that these questions do not come up on a daily basis within the tradition, except to approach them as metaphysics.

I am still not entirely on a comfortable ground. But I see this as a process and for the process to keep going, to enable self-discovery, to be on an uncomfortable ground is to some extent necessary. My mentor once gave the analogy of being in a row boat on a river- we move with the water. This process is a perfect representation of that analogy.

Agency, Authenticity and Positionality

Recently, I saw a blurb on the back of a text that I like. This text, called Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India, is an ethnographic study on devadāsis about whom I have written a chapter in my thesis and hereThis particular blurb written by Janaki Bhakle commends the text for providing with a ‘sensitive’ portrayal of devadāsis. Devadāsis were marginalised and rendered voiceless, and eventually subaltern, by the on-going nationalist movements in the early 20th century South India, as the author of the text, Davesh Soneji, argues. But my issue with both the text and this blurb is the problem of lending voice to the ‘voiceless.’ Soneji gives a very detailed historical and contemporary narratives of devadāsis as being marginalised by a system that constructed its ideas on ‘ideal Indian womanhood’ that was based on the Victorian notions of morality, hygiene and eugenics. Soneji’s work is unique in that, whilst works have looked at historical developments in relation to devadāsi communities, it is an in-depth study of devadāsi community and he has gone a step further to talk about what happened to contemporary devadāsis who lived through the ‘reform’ and/or experiencing the effects of the ‘reform.’ However, for a remarkable text this is, Soneji does not acknowledge his positionality (Western educated, middle-class, male) whilst writing about devadāsis, which makes the reader wonder whether he was lending his voice to devadāsis or speaking for them. And the blurb mentioned above is a representation of it: he provides a ‘sensitive’ portrayal of devadāsis. Both Soneji and Bhakle do not see how problematic (not to mention, patronising) this is. It raises questions on the agency (or lack thereof) of devadāsis or questions on whether when they do speak, he, as an ethnographer, was actually hearing them. If the intention of the text was to critique how devadāsis were deprived of their agency  by the ‘reform,’ to not acknowledge the ethnographer’s positionality from which these discourses are made (historically and in this particular text) is to make the same mistake that the ‘reform’ did- making assumptions about what devadāsi voices were. In Soneji’s defense, he lets devadāsis speak; but therein lies the problem- not that he provides a forum through his text for them to speak but that he does not acknowledge that it is his forum.

The question of agency is problematic, especially for Postcolonial Studies scholars. As works of Gayathri Chakravorty Spivak, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Saba Mahmood and Lila Abu-Lughod have shown, the questions such as ‘can the subaltern speak?’, when they do, how do we hear them, etc are difficult to answer. And closely associated with such a question is that of the author’s positionality. Harper-Scott has recently written, eloquently, on this issue. He argues, what he calls the ‘authenticity condition’, that ‘It is the belief that unless A is a person of type X, A cannot understand X’ as problematic and that, it does not allow for emancipatory politics. In other words, specifically pertaining to my argument, who gets to speak for whom? If I may extrapolate this problem to a larger context, to argue for ‘authenticity condition’ would then render every white, male, Postcolonial Studies scholar from former colonial powers ‘unqualified’ from writing about colonial/postcolonial histories. Pertaining to feminism, the argument then would not be that the First and Second Wave feminism failed to address ‘third world’ women, rather the ‘third world’ feminists alone are qualified to speak for themselves. Harper-Scott is right in arguing that ‘the authenticity condition must be rejected because, far from representing a view of the world that entirely denies the possibility of Truth, it actually supports the capitalist Truth.’ Thus, to argue that devadāsis must speak for one another then does not ensure ‘authenticity’, rather keeps them marginalised. They have been rendered ‘voiceless’ and therefore, there’s much reluctance to hear them, should and when they speak. In that sense, emancipatory politics is affected.

But, the problem of positionality and of agency is prevalent in every historical/ethnographic work. My own arguments here might seem contradictory: on the one hand, position of privilege does not always let us hear the voice of the Other. On the other hand, positionality should not be seen as an impediment to understanding the work of the author in the task of chasing for authenticity of the voice. Is there a way to subvert this contradiction? It would be helpful to see that there are different dimensions to what is considered a marginalised group. There is a normative identification of who the Other are. Thus, for instance, in a patriarchal society, as a woman, I might see myself as belonging to the marginalised group. But in the contexts of ‘lower-class/caste’ communities in India, I am (raised as a upper-caste, middle-class, Western educated academic), the privileged. It does not discount my marginality, but as Harper-Scott argues, should not disqualify me from speaking for the ‘lower-class/caste’ communities. In that case, the best way to address the issue would be to acknowledge the positionality of the author, as I have argued above in relation to Soneji’s work.

Marten discusses this issue, pertaining to medical knowledge in the 19th and early 20th century Palestine, in a very interesting essay about the positionality and subjectivity with which historical knowledge was acquired (within a specific colonial context). Amongst other issues, he argues that listening when the subaltern speaks is one among many answers to the question of agency. But what he does really well is to address the positionality of who acquires the knowledge and has the voice to speak, that is, the dominant; whilst doing so, he addresses his own positionality (as a middle-class, white, male, academic) from which he is critiquing the issue. This, I would argue, is the starting point to navigate the line between speaking for the Other and looking for the ‘authentic condition.’ It does not give the author the liberty to lend voice to the Other or to assume what the voice is. Harper-Scott rightly argues that any interaction is mediated. Therefore, I am not arguing here for an ‘objective’ method of listening to the Other, if such a condition exists at all! Rather, what I think is the most productive way to engage with these issues is for the author, by addressing their positionality, be self-aware of the contexts within which their argument is made. This is will help the author from decontexualizing themselves and the Other.

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Marten, Michael. “On Knowing, Knowing Well and Knowing Differently: Historicising Scottish Missions in 19th and early 20th century Palestine.” In Transnational and Historical Perspectives on Global Health, Welfare and Humanitarianism, edited by Ellen Fleischmann, Sonya Grypma, Michael Marten, Inger Marie Okkenhaug, 210-238. Kristiansand: Portal Books, 2013.

Spivak, Gayathri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak.” In Marxism and the Interpretations of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271-313. Macmillan Education: Basingstroke, 1988.