AJIT CHAU – FEMINIST?
A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri, January 2013
Residents of the Shriram College of Commerce hostel in the early 1980s would remember the philosophy of not letting a girl pass by unappreciated – a philosophy that resulted in us honing our whistling techniques as girls moved in the space between the college and the hostel that our windows overlooked. We saw it as social service – this was the one place where homely girls got an opportunity to toss their hair, turn their noses up, go ‘Hhmmpppffff!!’ and saunter off simmering – and we were therefore not selective in our attentions. For some reason our college girls, despite many of them gaining confidence and life skills thanks to our efforts, did not see the benefits as we did, and most hostellers spent three years in college without speaking to a girl. But, in our own worldview, by virtue of not discriminating on shallow parameters such as looks, dress, size and carriage, we could have been labelled feminists.
I was turned away from feminism in the 1990s, when ‘feminist’ turned into a label for that angry and humourless woman in the ‘gender cell’ of whichever organization I happened to be drawing a salary from, and for illiberal bra-burners and lesbians who rejected the institutions of love, marriage and family and other values that most women, to my knowledge, held in common. The feminist did not speak for the women I met in the field; women who faced obstacles, violence and discrimination in every sphere of life with a mixture of courage, optimism and resignation, women who I admired very much and who I would do anything for. Instead, feminism seemed to stand for elitist women who had everything and wanted more, and to be fanatically dedicated towards a world of rights without accompanying responsibilities in which men were the enemy, and in which ‘date rape’ was a crime on par with paedophilia and mass murder (those who feel this is too strong, please Google ‘Antioch Rules’). I was not alone – many women were asking whether the feminist movement had gone too far down an extremist road whose basis lay in discredited totalitarian ideologies – Christina Hoff Summers, in her 1994 book ‘Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women’ stated the charges clearly, and others included Elizabeth Fox Genovese (‘Feminism Is Not The Story Of My Life’, 1996) and Katie Roiphe (‘The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism On Campus’, 1993). Was it possible to be a feminist, and in favour of equality, without holding radical and unpalatable views?
Summers argues that yes, it is, and makes a case for the ‘equity feminist’ (as opposed to the ‘gender feminist’ of the radical persuasion described in the previous paragraph) who believes that women should have full legal, formal and actual equality with men, but no special privileges. She quotes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who in 1854 said; “we ask no better laws than those you have made for yourselves. We ask no other protection than that which your present laws secure to you.” She suggests that, once the battle for equality is won, nothing further should be demanded – women were perfectly capable of competing with men on a level playing field, and concepts such as ‘positive discrimination’ and ‘golden skirts’ (reservation for women in boardrooms) were as paternalistic and stultifying as their predecessors in keeping women down.
I would have been comfortable with this viewpoint had I not come across the book ‘Sex and Social Justice’ by Martha C. Nussbaum in the IRMA library (I suspect that the first word of the title drew my attention – like seeing an AK-47 in a Buddhist meditation complex) and read the chapter in which she makes a case for radical feminism. She suggests that women have agendas that are not addressed by ‘equity feminists’; that violence against women is still common, and that legal developments that recognize asymmetry of power between men and women are required so that sexual intimidation and harassment in the workplace and in public areas, domestic violence, and marital rape can be effectively prosecuted as criminal offenses, and so that women can bring a charge of rape without testifying to their previous sexual history. She says that ‘gender feminists’ have won recognition for bringing these problems out, are best positioned to contribute effectively towards addressing them, and that further pursuit of the radical agenda, and not its abandonment, is required for progress towards equitable gender relations. An interesting argument that makes as much a case for a radical element to any movement as it does for the promulgation of ‘gender feminism’.
So, am I a ‘feminist’? This does depend upon whether, as a male, I am allowed to be one in the first place – and I have sometimes felt like a black guy trying to get membership in the Ku Klux Klan when I ask the question. And, if I were one, what category of feminist would I fall into (and what is my thinking on the feminist discourse on divisions between ‘strategic’ and ‘practical’ needs and stuff like that)? My wife has an answer – she says I am a ‘faux feminist’ (she actually uses a much ruder term that I am unable to repeat here) – the type who knows all the right words and has the ability to come across as enlightened at meetings, especially when there are impressionable women around, but is an unadulterated pig deep down where it matters.
I’m not so sure! I was at a workshop in Afghanistan recently in which I got into a debate with other participants on whether women’s inferior position in society was a result of the inviolable laws of nature, and they looked at me as though I was a bra-burning lesbian for arguing that the we would all be better off if our homes were more equal. I must confess that I also snidely enquired as to the whereabouts of these inviolable laws of nature when the (female) US Secretary of State visited the country and decided their budgets. Meeooww!!
It would be convenient if such views were confined to places where they could be passed off as those of uneducated peasants who don’t know better. Sadly, anyone following the run-up to the last US Presidential election would know that this is not the case. Worryingly, the presence of many successful women out there (who have made it on brilliance and hard work, i.e. not the wives, mistresses and daughters of the powerful), while providing a visible contradiction to the ‘women are incapable’ viewpoint, does not decrease subscription to the ‘natural laws’ argument. Is society actually better off if women stay at home? Is a community with a large number of unemployed women nicer than one with a large number of unemployed men? The fact is that many people think so! Feminism, at some point of time, will have to address the problem of male insecurity. To do so, the movement will have to include of a wider variety of viewpoints. To conclude – it is in the interests of feminism for the likes of Ajit Chau to be feminists. Here I come, ladies!