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.

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India’s Women

I had put off writing a blog post about the horrific Delhi rape and death of Jyoti Singh, the protests in India aftermath, the trial of the accused, now convicted and on the death row, and the media coverage of all these developments. We were all shocked and emotional right after the incident. I remember having a mixed feeling of fear, uneasiness, sorrow and anger. This is not about me, it is about every woman in India. The fear and uneasiness came from the realisation that how each of us could’ve been Jyoti Singh; how each of us, when taking the public transport, have been sexually assaulted, harassed by men and yet how each of us had to make that journey again the next day putting the previous day’s incidents in the back of the mind. The sorrow and anger came from the realisation that all we could do was to feel horrible for a woman who, for no fault of hers, was attacked and put through unimaginable pain.

The incident is in the news again, with Leslee Udwin’s BBC documentary India’s Daughter to be aired on 8 March 2015 at 10 pm on BBC4. What began as a documentary on the ‘rape crisis’ in India focussing specifically on the Delhi incident, goes on to portray the psyche of gender inequality and gender violence. The Indian Government has banned the film from being screened in India, whilst TV stations have been banned from televising the interview of one the convicted rapists now in Tihar jail. The government’s rationale that this documentary ‘defames’ India on the world’s stage has been criticised by many in India and abroad. And the politicians also indulged in their favourite pastime of finding a somewhat irrelevant aspect of the issue to focus on hoping that the main issue would dissipate from the public sphere: in this case, wondering if Udwin had obtained legal consent to the interview the rapist even though she has documentation to prove that she wrote to the Home Ministry, and the rapists’ defense lawyers have also participated in the interviews! Censoring dissent or ideas/expressions that subvert (what are seen as) the norms, specifically pertaining to misogyny and heteronormativity, is not new in India (and I’ll hasten to add, in other countries too!). Famously in the 1990s, the film Fire was banned because it portrayed a lesbian relationship.

I must admit that when I read about the documentary, I was rather uneasy not because of the reasons given by the Indian Government but because I wondered why and how the family would have wanted to relive the horrific incident.  As it became clear that the family had consented to the film being made, my uneasiness diminished. I would like to clarify that I do want the film to be shown not only in the UK but also in India to remind us that rape and sexual assault must not be seen as a norm in any society and that the movement that began after the incident must not dissipate. That, I strongly believe, is the only way gender inequality and gender violence can be overcome. In fact, when this issue, of banning the documentary, was debated in the Indian Parliament, a Rajya Sabha minister (upper house) argued that “it is good that the documentary has been made because it will make several men realise that they think like rapists”. Although capital punishment was given to all the convicted rapists and during the legislative measure following this incident, many  insisted on the law stipulating capital punishment for rapes, this is not necessarily the best solution because as research has proved time and again, capital punishment does not serve as a deterrent for any crime. Having said this, Udwin has said that the judge, who heard the case, admitted that this was an exceptional circumstance and hence the punishment.

On the coverage of the controversy surrounding the screening of this documentary, Udwin (for many justifiable reasons) said how she found the attitudes of several men rather shocking and ‘brutal’. She argued that she wanted to understand ‘why do men rape?’ My skepticism with the documentary lies primarily in the way media has dealt and is dealing with the issue of rape/gender violence, in general and the Delhi incident, specifically. The question we must then ask is, what is the purpose of this documentary? In other words, what has the film maker, Leslee Udwin, attempted to do in this documentary? If the primary purpose of this documentary is to ‘keep the conversation going’, then yes, it is much needed in an environment where protests and grassroots movements need such impetus.

The sensationalism that has been created by publicising the interview of one of the rapists and how he blames the victims seems rather counterproductive. As Nilanjana S Roy rightly argues, whilst Udwin was right to interview the rapist, creating a ‘buzz’ for the film through this interview is in many ways giving a voice to the perpetrator. That he has no value for another human being, specifically woman, does not need to be proven. Additionally, the fact that Udwin claims that ‘things have gotten worse’ seems to only prove the point that a ‘shock factor’ is at play here. Women raised in India and familiar with this context would agree that since the Delhi incident more cases of rapes have been reported in the Indian media; how does Udwin claim that things have gotten worse? Or has she only now become aware of how widespread the problem is? Also, to call the movement after the incident an ‘Arab Spring’ is problematic. The use of the term ‘Arab Spring’ in the media for any grassroots movements is rather ubiquitous and unhelpful. If it is used as a buzz word to make a comparison to a sensational movement (actually ‘Arab Spring’ is not a monolithic movement nor is the term ‘Arab’ – but I digress), then it proves my argument above – the film-makers are using sensationalist terms to draw attention to the documentary.

One might say that I am focussing on semantics and that the core issue, gender violence, is being completely ignored. In this context, however, semantics is very important because then the issue transforms from a gender inequality problem to an Indian problem. We are thus no way closer to solving this, rather we are attempting to frame this as a ‘natural’, ‘psyche’ of the Indian society. In other words, we are taking an Orientalist approach to gender violence, which Rana Kabbani, in her fabulous text, has discussed in detail. Radhika Santhanam shares some of my critiques here.

What might be a responsible way for the media to address this problem?

The theory of Mediatisation (media shaping and framing the issues) is closely related to two other mass communication theories – Agenda Setting & Framing. The crux of the theories is that media has the ability – through its coverage, placing and framing of issues – to shape the viewers’ perception. Numerous studies have used these theories in various fields specifically in Political Communication and Journalism.Take the example of the UK’s No More Page 3 campaign or the campaign against so-called ‘lads mags.’ The fundamental argument of these campaigns is that by portraying women in a particular way, in this case unwarranted nudity, an association is made with sexual violence against women. Coming back to the specific issue of ‘rape crisis’ in India, an opinion article in The Hindu wrote about ‘normalising’ incidents of rapes by incessant reporting by the news media: the writer argued for a responsible coverage of the issue, instead of reporting incidents of rapes like that of daily weather.  This idea, that the media can influence public opinion, also makes a case for a responsible media. What might seem idealistic is in fact very important and practical here.

What do I mean here by responsible media coverage? If we are speaking of incidents of rapes and violence against women, we must also talk about the daily sexual assaults and harassment women face in India. I have argued on this blog and on twitter that within the context of India violence against women focuses mostly on rapes but does not give nearly the same attention to the daily sexual harassment and assaults women experience in the public sphere. Media institutions must come out against violence against women, yes – but not only as a matter of political correctness, they must avoid misogynist heteronormative coverage of news involving women in general. That is – a news organisation cannot condemn rapes on the front page and carry sexist articles about women in the entertainment section. This is far too common in many Indian news publications. It is hypocritical and counterproductive. It is important for the media to remember that gender violence exists across the world; the ratios are different but the issue still remains, something this article by Suzanne Moore has shown well. Of course, this does not say that I am using the ubiquity of gender violence as a counter-argument or even a defense for what happens in India. On the contrary, I am arguing that whilst it seems easier for the Western media to claim a moral high ground on how women are treated in the West, a favourite argument used whilst Othering Middle Eastern countries and ‘third world’ countries generally, it is important to remember that violence against women exists in every society. Using the argument of ‘it’s much worse over there’ is hardly an answer or a solution.

Grassroots movements are one important aspect to ending gender violence and gender inequality. And those who are familiar with the political system in India would know that it is utterly naive to expect politicians and the government to be the agents of change. If that were true, then every country in the West with a law to end violence against women should have achieved gender equality – and we all know that that is not true. Change must then come collectively from various sections of the society. Media, as one of the key players in a society, must aide these grassroots movements… responsibly!


Thanks to Dr Michael Marten for comments on the draft version of this blog post.

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.