Tehelka, a leading investigative Indian news magazine, has just published an article “Rape, and How Men See it,” that I hope will become an important resource for readers and researchers alike looking for the views of Indian men on women.
Although the writers try, in the popular journalistic tradition, to put a positive, hopeful spin on the story, the larger, more common reality of the Indian male attitude of deep, unrelenting hatred towards women cannot be hidden: “Hindu, Muslim, or Christian. Farmer, labourer, auto driver, scientist, lawyer or teacher. Educated or illiterate. Old or young. Haryanvi, UP-wallah, or Southie. Only one thing seemed to bind the men Tehelka spoke to: they had no concept of male accountability; no concept of the hijab of eye and action. The burden of social order lay only with the woman.”
But I have chosen to focus here more on what hope, in the article, Indian feminism, Indian feminists, have to offer Indian women. After reading instance after vomit-inducing instance of the vicious, soul-deep hatred so many Indian men feel for Indian women, one looks, in despair, for the only hope: feminist rage, feminist protest, loud, uncompromising feminist opposition. The article does speak of the “acetylene rage” with which the media has responded to a flood of woman-hating invective that has proceeded from Indian men, misogyny that is as old and as vocal, almost, as India itself. But here is the reaction of the one Indian “feminist” Tehelka chooses to quote in response to the outrage over the overt misogyny (though other activists also speak, Kishwar is the only one Tehelka refers to as feminist, and with reason, for she runs the country’s best known feminist magazine: “Madhu Kishwar, feminist and editor of Manushi).
Madhu Kishwar is scathing about the media’s tone. “What kind of imperialist vocabulary is this? If you treat everyone who does not agree with you as aliens and fools, if you refuse to accept them as your own people, what gives you the right to dictate to them? What makes you think they will even entertain your criticism?” she asks.”
There is a lot to respond to here. First, one can take Madhu Kishwar’s words as coming from a position of authority, since she is one of the leading and well-respected Indian “feminists.” That position of authority as “leading Indian feminist” is no doubt why Tehelka went to her in the first place when it wanted a quote. So, Kishwar’s words, given the position she occupies, may be said to represent an important, central viewpoint of Indian feminism. It is to words from women in Kishwar’s position that women like me, for example, might be expected to turn for hope and guidance. What she said, therefore, is worth looking at. What does she say and what does it mean and how should we react?
Well, as we have seen, Kishwar begins by excoriating the anger of the Indian press against those who have made public and vicious misogynistic statements. She calls such a response on the part of the press “imperialist” and says that the press needs to “accept” those who make such remarks, expressive of hatred for women, as “our own people.” Or we cannot expect them to accept our criticism. There is a good deal of food for thought here; let us fall to.
Kishwar’s choice of vocabulary used to critique those who stand up to Indian misogynists has an interesting provenance if we examine it closely. The opposition she sets up between “imperialist” and “own people” has its roots in the fact of colonialism, in India being ruled by the British for over two centuries. We are not, she tells us, to act like “those people,” the British imperialists, with “our own people,” Indians. According to Kishwar, that is what we are doing when we express our fury, our vocal and uncompromising disagreement, and implacable opposition to misogynistic remarks made by Indian men (and a few women in positions of authority, as well). Because those who make such utterances are Indian, she implies, standing up to them makes us a sort of oppressor, because, after all, they are our “own people.”
Kishwar’s words imply that those who take, with their words, an indefensible moral position are yet in the same moral position as those who spiritedly oppose them. No, worse; she tells us that, because we express rage and resentment at misogynistic statements, WE are the oppressors, not those who, by making statements full of hatred and contempt for women, take the side of the patriarchal oppressor, enable, encourage and perpetuate patriarchy. It is a curious inversion, and it seems that we are to accept those supportive of oppression as our “own people,” rather than opposing them, simply because they happen to come from the same country.
But Kishwar forgets, in her colonialism-inspired vocabulary, her worldview that still takes its metaphors from the long-collapsed British Raj, that the oppressed woman has no country. That she is exiled from her very birth in a country like India where she belongs to another (her husband’s family) from the moment she is born, if she has managed to escape being aborted for the crime of being female in the first place. The parents who would abort us for being female are not our “own people,” they, by their actions, have exiled us to the land of the “other.” The brother who snatches our deserved share of the parental property is not acting as our “own,” rather, his actions are “othering” us by their very nature of exclusion, of disinheritance, exiling us to an “other” country where we do not belong to our families, nor they to us. When our in-laws demand a dowry for the favour of their son marrying us, and when our parents pay it, neither our parents nor our in-laws are acting towards us like true family. And if we protest these injustices loudly, if we express my horror and anger, our rage and frustration, we are the ones—if we take Kishwar’s view to the logical next step—being divisive, we are the one being imperialist? One does not know whether one is on one’s head or one’s heels. There is a very upside-down feeling to all of this, that much is clear.
I realized, long ago, as a woman beaten in childhood by her father, and a witness to the repeated physical abuse of her mother by her father, that a woman has no country. As a woman who watched her mother being refused her share of the parental property which was kept aside for her two financially independent brothers, thus forcing her to return to her abusive husband, I realized that a woman often has not even a house to call her own, let alone a country that grants her full and equal citizenship in any meaningful sense of the word.
In India, a woman is exiled and “othered,” and that exile and “othering” is in your face at every gut-wrenching, thorn-ridden, blood-stained step. It is not some distant foreigner, some evil white colonial British bugbear, who betrays and oppresses you, it is bone of your bone, flesh of your flesh, who shows you, and shows you unmistakably and without possibility of misunderstanding, just how “foreign” you really are, how much you don’t belong. I realized that the people whom society tells us should be our nearest and dearest can exile us, empowered and encouraged as they are to do so by the larger disenfranchisement perpetuated by Indian society. Mere ties of blood, or local or regional or even national ties do not a sense of community make. Such ties, violated and travestied for hundreds of millions of women like myself because of the simple fact that we are born female, are not what make up family.
The “aliens” and “fools” of Kishwar’s statement are not, then, those people who support and celebrate misogyny. The “fools” and “aliens” are women themselves, made such by society’s actions and attitudes that strip us of our self-esteem, that rob us of our independence and our rights. Such an alienation can take place and be felt within a community, within a nation, as well as without it. In India, it does take place within the community; those closest to us are often the very ones who make the most distant aliens of us, who drive us to the furthest possible margins of “otherness,” whose equivalent no “foreigner” can possibly accomplish.
The British conqueror and the Indian conquered are not the only possible binaries, especially not when it comes to Indian misogyny, for which the British are in no way responsible. When it comes to misogyny, there exists an Empire within India’s borders, run and administered by Indians themselves, by both men and female enablers who do the dirty work of patriarchy for personal gain, even as local Indian collaborators once did the dirty work of the British Empire for theirs. This Empire of Indian patriarchy, where we are our own imperialists over one another, where men and female enablers become the oppressors of all the women who are victims and targets of misogyny, is every bit as pernicious and bloody a reality as any foreign-controlled domination ever was. As I have pointed out elsewhere, it’s time we got rid of the colonial hangover as it applies to the British. India’s misogyny is an honest-to-God, desi, made-with-pride-in-India product. We even export it abroad in the persons of Indians living in foreign countries, people with excellent educations and jobs who still prefer male children, who cling to our charming Indian practices of sex-selective abortion and performing all kinds of poojas and vratas for the birth of the coveted male child. It is the misogynistic actions of such people that “other” us, that reduce us to the status of strangers in a strange land among people of our own country, our own community, our own region, our own family. The concept of “own,” when it comes to women, must be re-evaluated. The usual ties do not always, do not often, apply.
Nor is womanhood the only sphere of alienation, the only space where our “own people” can ruthlessly “other” us. The usual ties did not apply, for example, when Martin Luther King, whose legacy we commemorated this month, was engaged in his historic struggle for equal rights for African-Americans. Both European-Americans and African-Americans belonged, and still belong, to the same country, the United States. Yet it was African-Americans who were alienated, othered and exiled in their own land by European-American racism. What should King have done? Not vigorously protested racist statements, racist facts and attitudes, because they proceeded from his “own people,” fellow Americans?
If we follow the logical implications of Kishwar’s remarks, then Dr. King would have been the imperialist one for daring loudly and unequivocally to oppose the racism of his fellow-Americans, rather than those racist Americans for having made those statements and adopted those attitudes in the first place. This is looking-glass logic for a looking-glass world, where the protestor of injustice and those who support and perpetuate injustice occupy the same moral space. Now take Kishwar’s logic one step further and imagine an African-American saying to Dr. King that he, Dr. King, needed to “accept” the statements of racist European-Americans as coming from his “own people” rather than excoriating such statements with the unyielding opposition they so richly deserved. Now you get the blatant absurdity of Kishwar’s admonition that it is “imperialist” to stand up to imperialism merely because the oppressive woman-hating statements happen to come from those who would be issued the same country’s passports and speak, perhaps, the same language as oneself.
Kishwar’s words are not so far removed from those of Asaram Bapu, the Hindu guru and religious leader with a large following of devotees who declared that the victim of the Delhi bus gang-rape could have survived had she pleaded with her attackers, (who raped and beat her brutally and one of whom thrust an iron rod into her vagina with such force that he disembowelled her) held them by the hand, and called them “brother.” Is this not an extension of the “own people” argument put forward by Kishwar? Bapu is also invoking a quintessentially Indian meme, the festival of Rakhi, where women tie a thread to the wrists of their brothers, their closest blood relatives, and invoke the protection of those brothers. Many Indian women also tie Rakhis on men who are sexually harassing them, in a bid to invoke the brotherly protection rather than the predatory ravishment.
Rakhi, and the Bengali version, Bhai Phonta, no matter what positive spin one might try to put on them, are essentially festivals that honour men who promise to “protect” women as their sisters, thus reinforcing women’s identity as vulnerable entities and that of men themselves as predators from whose unwelcome attentions women need to be protected. How would it help to see rapists and rape apologists such as Bapu as our “own” people when they are the ones responsible for othering and disempowering women? This insistence is like begging our assailants by appealing to our common humanity, a commonality that they themselves, by their words and actions, have utterly repudiated.
One anecdote may be worth a thousand statistics; let me, therefore, recount an incident my mother narrated to me in my childhood, which may serve to illustrate to the reader, as it does to me, some of the misogynistic attitudes and behaviours to which our “own people” our own families, subject us in India. No Indian will be surprised at what I am about to relate, so common and normalized is our misogyny, so much is it a part of ordinary, everyday Indian life and social intercourse.
My mother had just given birth to her first-born child, myself; less than two months later, her older brother also had his first-born, a boy. My mother’s younger brother, then an unmarried youth, went to the hospital to see my male cousin. As he entered the house on his return, he remarked, with pride, “Amader chhele hoyeche. We’ve had a boy.” To my mother, listening, this was a double whammy: her brother’s use of the word “we,” effectively told her that as a married daughter she was not part of “us”, i.e., no longer part of the parental home, that she was outsider, “other.” The pleasure in the male child, of course, also diminished her in that she had evidently come off second-best in bearing the second-best, inferior goods, a girl rather than a boy. That a girl was certainly second-best was brought home to her anew when the same younger brother brought gifts for the two newborns; the toy for the girl was much smaller, as befitted the inferior child who didn’t even belong to the family, being as she was only a daughter’s, not a son’s, child.
No, as a woman I have no “own people,” by virtue of the same race, religion, geographical region or even family, because as a member of a perpetually oppressed class, I have no country, no place to call home. I have not alienated myself; alienation and othering are things that have been brutally done to me against my will. But I do have my “own people,” and they are people who stand with me against oppression, no matter where they are from. Feminists of either sex are my “own people.” Thus defined, I have family from Ghana to Ireland, from Bangalore to Munich. In the hearts of my allies is my only home, the one home I have ever been allowed as a woman “othered” from birth by my misogynistic culture. And I will not stop loudly and implacably protesting against misogyny, even if, as so often, it is Indians or my own blood relatives who are the ones making statements that express hatred of women. They are my fellow-human beings, and I support their human rights as I support my own; but they themselves, by their words, their attitudes, their actions have dis/owned me. I will not beg them; I will not cajole or coax or plead; I will not, as Kishwar it seems would have me do, appease them by appealing to our commonalities, for appealing and begging is not only fruitless, it is also humiliating and destructive to one’s self-esteem. As an exile into my own country of womanhood, I find many others exiled with me. They are my people.
Kishwar’s words fill me with disappointment and sadness, not hope. They offer no guidance, no validation, no support; they disempower and humiliate me for the legitimate anger I, and millions of other women like me, feel at Indian misogyny in its myriad forms and expressions. If Kishwar is representative of the best in Indian feminist thinking, as would seem to be the case when she is approached by mainstream news media looking for the feminist point of view, then I take my stand far away and worlds apart from such “feminism.”
I stand with Anubha Sharma, the young lady who read a courageous and moving poem “Let there be no mothers/Let there be no wives/Let there be no daughters/And there will be no crimes,” where she located the source of misogyny firmly where it belongs: in that basic unit of society, the Indian family, in the often toxic relationships that we are supposed to honour and cherish but that so often demean, objectify, exile and disown women. Sharma wrote this poem after an argument with her father. Kudos to her for not taking refuge in the comforting illusion of family ties and, instead, coming forward to claim as her family those who do not diminish her selfhood as a woman, those who honour and cherish her as she deserves: the audience for her poem. Kudos to her for stepping out boldly to find her family of allies in shared feminist values.
I stand with Taslima Nasrin, the Bangladeshi writer and freethinking feminist, another woman who has also realized that women have no geographical home, as she declares in the title of her blog “No Country For Women.” Yet Nasrin, in being exiled from her beloved Bangladesh, has found a home in the hearts of thousands of admirers from a variety of countries, who follow her work and who resonate with her progressive ideas.
These women are my home; they are my family; they are my people. Ideas are the ties that bind us. Our rebellion holds us together and makes us sisters.
I stand with them.
Pubali Ray Chaudhuri is an Associate Editor of Intrepid Report. She lives and writes in the California Bay Area.