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.