Feminism v. “Indian” Society

>> October 30, 2013

Much against all good sense, I was recently drawn into a ridiculous spat with that markedly vitriolic lobby in twitter more popularly known as the #RightWingTrolls.  Despite the total irrelevance of feminism to the original goings-on, the conversation rapidly degenerated into feminism-bashing and name-calling, and in the course of an hour I was compared to Zeenat Aman, Meena Kandasamy and Nivedita Menon (meant to be insults, it would appear, in their scheme of things), apart from being called a feminazi, a looney libtard and oh yes, a sau tunch maal.

I only found this mildly amusing until one of the more articulate trolls commented on what he thought was my skewed understanding of the Indian structure of gender relations. I am, as he explained to me, a victim of the “aggrandizement of the ego that modern society encourages”. The “Indian perspective”, he went on to say, is based on co-operation and not conflict between the sexes. Firstly, I’m not sure what makes his perspective more Indian than mine, but then that deserves a whole other post- which is why, secondly, I must begrudgingly accept that he is, albeit marginally, correct.

Traditional society in India was based on the foundation of collective structures. The joint family, for instance, is a classic demonstration of the so-called “co-operative” basis of the Indian (Hindu?) way of life. The joint family unit functions always as a singular whole – that is, as an entity which is more than the sum of its individual members, with notions of respect, honour and dharma thrown in for good measure. Decisions pertaining to the family were traditionally made by the oldest male member (the Karta) bearing in mind its consequences for the entire family. Interestingly, decisions pertaining to individuals were also taken bearing in mind its consequences for the entire family. The individual or the “ego”, as the revered ancient scriptures are wont to calling it, was the least important entity in anyone’s, including the said individual’s, scheme of things.

This sense of valuing communal consciousness above “selfish”, individual concerns survives in diffused forms across the country. The scant regard, for instance, that so many in this country appear to have for the notion of “privacy” is possibly a manifestation of this inbred sense of diluted “individual” identities. While I am often shocked by the utter nonchalance with which complete strangers in my village in Kerala seek out details on my personal life, for them this is normalcy. These prying questions are both asked and answered with ease and readiness- they do not think they are being nosy, only because they do not realise that there is such a thing as nosiness.

To return from the digression- it is, indeed, possible to argue that the so-called co-operative existence is idyllic –based, as it would seem, on the bedrock of co-operation, where collective interest trumps the possibly fragmented and narrow-minded interests of corruptible individuals. Except, in real life, that’s not quite how it worked out. The “collective” interest was never really representative of the interests of the weakest links (women in joint families, or lepers in general), resulting in the subversion of the interests of the most vulnerable -simply because the disenfranchised cannot hope to make their franchise heard or accepted. This is not only a function of numbers (majority v. minority), but also a function of the burden that dharma is popularly understood to place on those who are born to the wrong caste or the wrong sex.

It was into this broad framework of social and familial relations that feminism was brought in by ego-aggrandizing family-wrecking feminists. Feminism, by virtue of its very basic demand- i.e. equality for women –appeared to wreck a social set-up that had long gotten used to subverting “individual” concerns- let alone a lowly woman’s, whose very dharma was to be a non-individual.  In a society that had gotten used to a terribly lop-sided version of the greatest good of the greatest number, feminism swooped in and appeared to destroy the very fabric of social and domestic cohesion – because it highlighted the needs and wants of an individual (who had been considered secondary for generations), which necessitated breaking free from traditional roles assigned to women in the co-operative structure. And, this, perhaps, is why the dreaded f-word has come to be associated with conflict, confrontation, needless rebellion and whatnot in the minds of ready haters.  This is, in fact, not a contradiction endemic to Indian society alone. Even the west is now waking up to this fundamental contradiction between today’s feminism and its more tangential concerns with social solidarity - in a slightly different context.

The price we pay for being practical feminists (i.e. women who actively seek out equality in professional and personal lives), is to be placed ad hominem in positions seemingly contrary to traditional values of social cohesion and co-operation. That is, if I wish to assert my right to equality etc. as a woman today, I am forced to almost wrench it out from the claws of this “co-operative society” to thrive as a person with concerns independent of the more popular masculine context. 

This is a difficult state of affairs- because on the one hand, if the so-called co-operative framework had been literally co-operative, i.e. co-opting the interests of women as it did men, feminism may not have felt the need to position itself in such incompatible terms. On the other hand,  it seems to me that the traditional framework with its focus on solidarity and cohesion might have greatly helped the feminist counter the many other problems she faces today as an Indian woman- imagine if society worked to actually support women in their individual endeavours, enabling them to become equal occupants and active participants of the co-operative structure!

More importantly, contrary to what the misinformed #RightWingTrolls like to believe, feminism is not a western construct, as much as it is a response and a reaction to a patriarchal framework. It did, admittedly, emerge in the west as an organized social and political movement, but that was only because the scholarship of women like Tarabhai Shinde and Pandita Ramabai was never allowed to be part of the mainstream “Indian” discourse.  Feminism fought several battles, and rose as several waves before it was acknowledged as a legitimate movement highlighting legitimate concerns in the West, and what’s more, it continues to do so. If anything, the core values of the feminist discourse are, perhaps, more in sync with the traditional structure of Indian society than with the more free-wheeling conceptions that Western society appears to be based on.

As feminists, we would be guilty of utter naivety if we hope to reach out to those who belong to the #Vadakayil school of thought, because we must know they are beyond redemption. It seems to me, however, that it might be worth our while to attempt to reach some sort of middle ground between the wonderful ideals of a symbiotic society and the objects of feminism- in the same way that the #RightWingTrolls might actually aid their cause by correcting their warped understanding of what feminism is to bridge the obvious gap between these legitimate concerns and their notions of Indian society and values. 

9 Comment(s):

Priya October 30, 2013 at 5:09 AM  

OMG! sheer brilliance...love your sense of humour even as you talk about these annoying #rightwingtrolls we encounter everywhere! thanks for sharing sowm!

Meena October 30, 2013 at 11:49 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Meena October 30, 2013 at 11:57 AM  

Beautiful. Sowmya, really, beautiful blog post.

Shaili November 7, 2013 at 1:40 PM  

Quite agree with you about feminism threatening to disrupt the *normal* structure of society...and at the same time, like you said, if everything was fine with the system, then feminism would never have emerged as such a powerful movement.
The problem is that most people have a distorted perception of what feminism actually is...it seems threatening to many, it's how the privileged class suddenly feels threatened when the balance of power shifts and they appear to lose that privilege which they enjoyed since centuries

Dirt Digger November 8, 2013 at 2:55 PM  

News like this is daily staple for India feminist bloggers:
Man Sues Wife For ‘Ugly’ Children and I Don’t Blame Him

they get energized by this fodder

Igirit November 8, 2013 at 10:34 PM  

Actually no, we don't need to rely on irrelevant and false stories to stake our claim. That appears to be your domain, "Dirt Digger".

Igirit November 8, 2013 at 10:37 PM  

@P & B - Thanks for reading. :)

@Shaili - Yeah, that is perhaps why they are up in arms against "feminism", because they are threatened. Like the moron who commented above. No clue what the solution is- other than to pray that people start using their heads, I guess.

rasmi May 25, 2014 at 4:27 AM  

"And, this, perhaps, is why the dreaded f-word has come to be associated with conflict, confrontation, needless rebellion and whatnot in the minds of ready haters." Loved this, aptly put!

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