Feminism is the radical notion that women are people said someone famous. That sums up feminism better than any long winded definitio...

Sunday, 31 December 2017

In Which Sulu Must Step Back

Movie Review : Tumhari Sulu

Let me state right away that I'm a fan of Vidya Balan's and I try not to miss any of her movies. I went to watch Tumhari Sulu with very little expectations, as the trailer promised it to be a light hearted comedy and I expected to come away with a few laughs. Anything but. 

The film turned out to be a good comedy specially in the first half, as happens with most Bollywood fare. The eponymous Sulu is played by Vidya. Manav Kaul, playing Sulu's husband, fits the bill of an average middle class man who slogs it out for a pittance of a salary, but by all appearances theirs is a happy family. (As an aside, who lives in that big a house in Mumbai, on that salary, with only one earning person in the family? A house with a balcony and that too with a swing in it!) Sulu and husband are happy, and there is a lot of affectionate banter between the couple. Vidya Balan is good with the funny and delivers her comic lines to perfection. 

Enter the weird extended family of Sulu, comprising her super achiever twin sisters and their father. This troika of father and sisters is out to humiliate Sulu, reminding her of her academic failures and bringing up her multiple misadventures in trying to launch various unsuccessful money-making schemes. This family takes being dysfunctional very seriously, with classism thrown in for good measure. 

Vidya taps into the cheerful housewife character well and we lap up the eternal optimist Sulu who charms her way into our hearts, with her pride in winning numerous small competitions. She pulls off just right pitch so that the cheerfulness doesn't get cloying neither does the humor turn cheesy.  

Sulu soon manages to land a job as a radio jockey with her "main kar sakti hai" spirit. Neha Dhupia as her employer and Vijay Maurya as her colleague, competitor-turned-friend put in efficient performances. However, it's a late night slot and Sulu is required and encouraged to tap into her sexuality as she talks to men in a sexy voice. Sulu anchors a talk show and is soon catering to men's fantasies. Her callers are often working class men who turn to the radio for a bit of easily available mush, and it's all fun and games, till it's not. Was the hint of sexuality in the role play the problem? We are never sure. 

With her new well-paying and satisfying job Sulu ends up neglecting her household chores and more importantly her duties as wife and mother. She tries hard to juggle both household chores and motherhood, but fails. The movie crash lands face down into pure melodrama territory, so out of character for it's protagonists. A loving, caring husband turns into a nasty monster just to satisfy the movie's need to create friction. 

It's not just the chores that she's required to do but also that she must care for her child and provide emotional support to her husband. Sulu ends up walking away from the job, because her family needs her. Even though she's earning the same salary as her husband, and he's almost on the verge of losing his job, yet it's important that the Indian woman be the mother and homemaker first. Why could she not hire a care giver or a creche for her child? Even more important, why did her workplace not help her on the home front so she could retain her job? 

Sulu joins the ranks of millions of Indian women leaving the workforce. Not only is there a decline in female work participation, but the total number of women in the workforce has shrunk. 67% of  women graduates in rural areas and 68.3% of urban women graduates don't have a paid job even as education levels among women are rising. Sociologists are figuring out it's partly due to lack of support with housework, partly a sense of lost honor if a daughter/wife works outside the home. Patriarchal attitudes more than anything else keep women away from paid work. What does it say about our culture when a medium as popular and accessible as cinema, supports this stigmatization of women joining the workforce? 

As many men happily pointed out, Sulu does launch yet another scheme. That portrayal is more a nod to the mandatory happy ending cos the film is comedy, methinks. It plays into the trope that Sulu is a fickle person. Her stint as a professional where she would stride into her office with confidence, is over. We go back to the non-threatening, bumbling good-for-a-few-laughs Sulu. 

The woman is back in the kitchen. You're safe, guys. Go home. 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Choice Feminism Is Capitalism In Slick Packaging-It's Not Worthy of You

"Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression"- bell hooks

There is no one single stream of thought in feminism and there have been different phases of the movement, both abroad and in India. Locally the women's movement has had a very different flavor  compared to its European counterpart, and with good reason. The concerns and life struggles of Indian women differ vastly from those elsewhere in the world. 

Within the movement, there are academics and activists. Academics study and decipher history, literature, social codes and norms, our economies and art in order to discern how patriarchy was built, and how it holds on to power through systemic and structural placements which place men in positions of power. They envisage the methods through which the patriarchy may be dismantled and women earn greater rights. While academic feminists theorise, activists do the work on the ground. They are not cut off from each other, rather there is a continuous exchange of ideas between them. Many of them cross over from one side to the other or some exist and thrive in both fields. There is a continuous exchange of ideas between them. There are myriads of women who are fighting for their rights in multitudinous ways of existence and they each negotiate the patriarchy in different ways.

Some of these acts are individual, they may achieve liberation to an extent, and enable them to extend freedoms in certain specific ways. Certainly, those particular negotiations are feminist acts in themselves.

 Big media, the advertising industry, the fashion, clothing and cosmetics industries which thrive on and amplify each other. This close nexus between these. Feminism has become newsworthy of late and these entities have latched on to this. It's where the big money is.

Capitalism and it's handmaiden the beauty industry which encompasses fashion and advertising, keep you wondering about your worth, and your focus on trying to achieve this unattainable ideal. Desirability is a trap women work towards achieving all their lives, but never actually get there. You keep yourself devalued- it's a harsh critic, the voice in your head, which examines you for fuckability, and finds you failing, time and again. 

"My choice is like my fingerprint" spouts Deepika Padukone, ironically, yet aptly for an advertising campaign for a fashion magazine, very obviously titled, My Choice. But of course, your choice is not unique! None of our choices in today's world are; either because we are choosing from a limited bouquet of choices, where we are denied access to many choices, only a  few are on offer.  In reality, a great deal of the choice on offer to consumer-citizens is illusionary. All the posturing at empowerment seems to only just strip away the word of any power. The hoopla around the word "empowerment" has made it to such a sorry pass where the sound of the word grates on the nerves. It's now a shorthand for a lot of things, save power to women.

Besides, in order to go on living in the materialistic, capitalist society, we have to pick our battles. For example, as a professional, you're expected to dress a certain way, in what "women's magazines" call " formal wear" or "work wear". The fashion industry organized around this, makes multiples of crores of rupees. 

You would ignore these unstated rules at your own peril. You not only risk not being taken seriously, sidelined, but also probably lose your job. This woman who came to work as a receptionist, was sent home for not wearing heels  in a story that seems equal parts to illustrate the lack of common sense and senseless objectification. Let us not even get started on the aspects of emotional labour  women in the service industry are expected to put in. 

So often so many hard won freedoms by our foremothers may enable us to exercise choices which may not have existed even half a century ago. But making a choice is not a feminist act in itself unless the playing field is level and the opportunities available to women were equal to those available to men. For example the wage gap or the fact that women quit well paying jobs to stay home to raise babies. These acts are often justified as feminist because the woman chose to do so. That would have been a real choice if both partners earned an equal amount, and the man taking time off to stay home with kids wouldn't be sneered at and it was no loss to the family in any way, regardless of which parent stays home. In an ideal world, they could probably take turns and none would lose out at work, by being devalued because of absence. Indeed in a feminist world, people would be living a life of dignity, not as corporate slaves and wouldn't be nervous wrecks for having missed a day of work.

Chasing the illusion of "having it all" while pushing through "the second shift" cannot be the life women dream of having. 

Women continue to be paid less and so many of us depend on lowly paid workers to hold up the home front and provide care and house work, at very low costs, while we "get ahead". Do we realize we our role in passing on the oppression?

It is easy to forget that the struggles of upper class feminism are not the only feminist struggles. There are other feminisms and they are thriving, and they are also fighting capitalism and neoliberalism. 

The Chipko volunteers and the Bangalore powrakarmikas, the Dalit Women Fight activists are all pushing the feminist agenda everyday. Women Irom Sharmila and Essar Batool are fighting the hegemonic Indian state that wants to rule with violence, under the shadow of draconian laws. 

They do it quietly, away from the media glare and floodlights. These are the real assertions of worth. Feminism is alive, in a myriad of shapes and forms. 

Dear Amit Shah, We Don't Need Anti-Romeo Squads

 As the campaigning for the Uttar Pradesh election was underway, Bharatiya Janata Party supremo Amit Shah was quoted during an election rally in Meerut, saying that the BJP will form "anti-romeo squads to protect girls  in Uttar Pradesh"

The statement underlines a total disregard of the state's law and order apparatus whose job it is to tackle cases of sexual assault. How will the police respond once groups of random men are vested with extra-Constitutional authority?

As activists have pointed out, because of the terrible manner in which their concerns are addressed, many women prefer not to report sexual assault.

That the "protection" and safety of women always trumps all other considerations is well established. Our media and discourse are rife with stories and articles alluding to the lack of women's "safety". The latent unstated fear, is that women will be sexually harassed or assaulted and it is from this that they must be kept safe.

Why protection only of women, dear sir, and from whom?
At the core of this mindset lies the assumption that women need "protection" because, god forbid, what if they exercise their right to choose their own partners for love or for marriage? The horror!

Don't forget that there is a specific group of people who pose a threat to these "girls" who are really grown women. It is only reasonable to assume an adult should be able to take care of herself. But calling an Indian woman just that is nothing short of an insult. Till the time she's married, a woman continues to be addressed as "girl".

This statement of Amit Shah's is nothing but dog whistle politics, signaling to his supporters the bogus  "love jihad" claims of his party. A fake phenomenon cooked up by the sangh parivar, yet another stick to beat minority men with, specially Muslims. This propaganda has been around since the days before Indian Independence. Charu Gupta has written in the Economic and Political Weekly in detail about the unproven allegations that Muslim men were abducting Hindu girls in the 1920s. Yet it is a bogey that refuses to die down.

Good Hindu upper caste girls are expected to remain virgins till they are married to men of their parents' choice. This custom underpins the caste system. Caste is built and maintained through purity of the bloodline. Ensuring the paternity of the offspring to whom property will be passed on, is crucial. It is paramount to ascertain the virginity of the bride.

The worst form of dishonor that a Hindu man can imagine is that his daughter chooses a partner of her choice. Had it been really women's rights or their safety that our political leaders or elected representatives cared about, hundreds of crores of money allotted to the Nirbhaya Fund wouldn't lie unused, year  after year.

Besides, once the genie of vigilantism is unleashed with groups of men taking the law into their own hands, who knows where this will lead? It's a slippery slope best avoided. Besides, violence or its threat as a solutions to social ills have never worked.  It's high time we call out our politcians on their attempts to curtail women's autonomy in the name of safety. We are adults and we are free! Get used to it, uncleji!

(This piece was first published in Feminism In India ) 

Friday, 22 December 2017

Violence Against Women in India- some thoughts.

"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." 

In order to understand gender inequalities which often lead to gender based violence, we must first appreciate the relationship between gender identities in their various social, cultural, economic and political contexts. 

We need to study the feminine, masculine and trans gender identities and explore the power relationships within the contemporary gender landscape. Dominant ideals of manhood impact women and different ways of being men, as also those who fit neither category. 

Let us remember that historically the male gender is naturalized as the universal. 

Masculinity is the socially produced and embodied way of being male. It manifests itself in many ways such as manner of speech, behavior, gestures, social interactions, a division of tasks and a position of superiority to its perceived antithesis, femininity. Because masculinity is valorized, its consequences are many and varied not just for women but also those men who do not perform the dominant model of masculinity.

In order to stand in a relationship of superiority to the feminine, masculinity must be represented as the binary opposite of the feminine identity. Dominant masculinity has certain identifying characteristics. Embedded in these representations are an inventory of behaviors and roles that have been historically valorized as becoming of ideal masculinity. Discourses on sexual orientation i.e. heteronormativity, class, race and conjugality all lead to the manufacture of this dominant masculine identity. 

Gender is produced historically and socially. Indeed the discourses around the production of the proper masculine behavior stem from the fact that masculinity is not naturally endowed. Masculinity must be constantly reinforced, hence, it's tenuous and fragile nature. Masculinity is enacted rather than expressed, as it is not something already inherently present. 

Patriarchy is the systemic relationship between men and women, placing men in a s superior position.  It privileges all men. Masculinity produces superior men who are privileged over all women and lesser men. While there are strong cultural expectations that women will be chaste and obedient, no such expectations attach to men. Such a mentality and practices that stem from it result in oppression and exploitation of women. Women themselves tolerate and rationalize this subjugation and see it as natural
In a most recent survey published by India Spend, a web based ortal while 65%Indian women are literate, only 5% have sole control over choosing their partner and 60% practice some or other form of fcae veiling or head covering. 

The law perpetuates gender hierarchy. It is tasked with the protection of women and this is manifested in paternalism as a form of safety. 

Right to property plays a crucial role in power imbalances within households. Devaluation of daughters as they are not entitled to land or other property leads to the difference in treatment of girls and boys from childhood. Women internalize these limiting characteristics, this lessening of their rights to everything from space, to education to nutrition and even medical care.  


The adverse sex ratio of females to males in India is a case in point. Recently the women and child welfare minister said that about 2000 girls are killed in India everyday. A girl is only seen as a burden. As her basic duty in life is to be a housewife and care giver and producer of babies, parents see her as a burden to carry till such time as she can be married off. The dowry that needs to be given as compensation to the man and his family poses further economic burden on the girl's family. 


"Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male."
— Simone de Beauvoir
The body of a man makes sense in itself quite apart from that of women, whereas the latter seems wanting in significance by itself. She appears in essence to the male as a sexual being. Othering of woman is centuries old, and with mothering comes treatment of being sub human. With the institutionalizations of the other, woman cannot be equal. 
Martha Nussbaum has identified the seven different ways in which objectification works:
  • instrumentality
  • denial of autonomy
  • inertness
  • fungibility
  • violability
  • denial of subjectivity.

“The body is the instrument of our hold on the world.”

― Simone de BeauvoirThe Second Sex.

The body as our instrument in the world is completely available to men. Boys are encouraged to explore the world, step out into it and have far greater control over their bodies. Women have little control specially in a hierarchical society like India. Girls are indoctrinated into thinking of themselves as less and they also self - identify in a sexualized way, so they may mould themselves into an version appealing to men. 

The ease of commodification of women has increased with globalization. Easy access to TV and phones which help sell women and their sexuality in various ways. There were recent reports that men would rape women and film the act. These videos would then be easily available fir as little as 50 rupees in the market. Easy dissemination of such videos via multimedia messaging has made access to such images of the commodification of women and their bodies.  

The personal and intellectual capacities of women are denied, and the woman spoken of as a body only, or even just a body part. In prostitution no woman stays whole, and certainly not human. The dehumanization and dismemberment of the female body is necessary in prostitution. Pornography is media and image based prostitution where again women's bodies are commodified. Sexualization and commodification are two sides of the same coin. 


This is yet another product of the sexualization of women's bodies driven by large multinational corporates and advertising conglomerates which form the nexus which drive the huge beauty industry, comprising of cosmetics and body image changing such as cosmetic surgery and of course fashion and garment industries. The time when we would clothe ourselves for protection are far behind us. 

The meaning of being a man or woman and notions of manhood and womanhood may vary but masculine identity is usually associated with experiences and assertion of power. Paternalistic cultural models encourage the view that men protect women from harm, thus giving the impression that women are incapable of protecting themselves.

Incidents of sexual violence involve elements of control, power, domination, and humiliation. In order to gain power and control over their victims, perpetrators of sexual violence resort to practices such as abduction, isolation, manipulation, coercion, threats, and sexual abuse. 

While men may not necessarily find the act sexually gratifying but the sense of power may override other considerations. If a woman resists sex, it may be perceived as a threat to a man's masculinity. Such a crisis of male identity may contribute to sexual violence. It has been reported that victims who attempt resistance or escape from the situation are more likely to be brutalized by the offender, giving an inflated sense of power to the abuser.
In patriarchal cultures, any resistance from the woman is perceived as an insult to his manhood further provoking him to resort to more violent means to control the victim.

Rape is seen as a tool of a dominance. Societal attitudes toward women may help condone rape. Such stereotypes are often internalized from the male dominated culture at large. 

Sexual violence results from a misogynist attitude prevalent in our culture. Indian girls and women have no independent control of their sexuality. They are expected to get married and produce children, thus shifting the control of their sexuality from one man to the other. 

Till the burden of being sub-humans carries on, no woman will be free from violence. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

Are Families Above Women?

Recently the Hindustan Times published a piece by Shashi Shekhar called Modern Families: Let's Keep Our Loved Ones Close.
Some aspects of the piece were quite bothersome and while attempting to decode it, I present my point of view here.

let's scratch the surface and take a look: what does the glorification of the family mean and who does it benefit?

The traditional definition of the family is: two or more people living together, related by birth, marriage or adoption. As members of a unit, they are supposed to support each other, in their general pursuit of a life of dignity. What if the unit turned against one of its own? 

Let us remember that historically, women were bound into the heterosexual, monogamous family to further the rights of men over their property, so they could be certain that the property they passed on, went only to their own offspring. Men leaned on the assurance of monogamy to ascertain that the child he called his own, was indeed his. The family has evolved to harness women's productive and reproductive labour for the benefit of the family and the man at its helm.

In the Indian context, the family has served as the basic unit of caste. Endogamy is the device used to ensure the perpetuation of caste. Endogamy or marriage within the same caste (while prohibited within certain kinship i.e. gotra) keeps the caste system thriving. A prerequisite for this is ensuring the virginity of the girl being given in marriage and even now in the year 2016. You need only glance at the matrimonial adverts in national newspaper to ascertain this. You'd be forgiven were you to think that you'd been transported bak in time. Certainly nothing gives away the fact that you're in 2016.

The normative heterosexual family is the unit of the state and it has been well established that the modern state functions in the image of the family. The power structure of the family is replicated at the state level and the sate defends the existence of the family and safeguards its interests.

Parsing through data collected by government agencies like National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), we find that among all registered cases of violence against women, the largest share was cruelty by husband and relatives. Women are most at risk with their own families. The safe haven that is the family, is certainly a mirage as far as countless married women are concerned.

Large numbers of women are are kidnapped every year and forcing a woman into marriage continues to be the chief reason to kidnap her. As per NCRB data, just last year, in 2015, close to 54% of all abductions of women were carried out to force them into marriage. 

The report also says that police sources said much high numbers of kidnapping are probably due to the fact that parents of girls who eloped for marriage often registered cases of kidnapping against the man the girl eloped with. That's the loving family for you, which refuses to accept a woman's right to choose her own life partner. The unmarried woman is unsafe with her own family.

When harassed for dowry, a woman is left to her own devices, often facing torture and cruelty not just at the hands of husband but also her in-laws. Parents usually tend to have used up every resource on organizing the wedding, hence a return to the natal home is out of the question for most women. Often, women don't survive the torture and are either killed or commit suicide. 

Over the last three years, 24,771 dowry deaths reported which translates to roughly one dead woman every hour and that is just according to the government statistics. We know that the number of case reported are only a fraction of the real numbers. 

While the writer pines for the elusive happy family, all this freely available data makes not a dent in the carefully constructed halo around the sacred entity.

Let us look at a few of the statements made in the piece.

1. "The police suspect that even after coming out of prison, they wouldn't desist from such activities."
This reference is to youth who commit crime and have been to prison. If our concern is to have them desist from crime, they must be provided with appropriate tools,  such as counseling, set up with alternatives for a job, and everything else required for their rehabilitation should be provided. 

2. "Even our law enforcement authorities find themselves helpless when it comes to bringing misguided youth back into the mainstream." 
This is what happens when we confuse the job of one person with another. The police aren't counsellors or psychologists. 

3. "The rapid pace at which India's family traditions are breaking down, also has sociologists worried."

Really? I thought change was the only constant and societies and their structures have always changed and will continue to do so.

4. "Here we shouldn’t forget that Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra have higher literacy levels than other states in the country. But that doesn’t seem to have an effect on the incidence of disputes within families." 
The higher number of disputes in educated families indicate only one thing: women are asserting themselves. With education and a paying job comes economic independence and this helps women to assert themselves. They may have a greater say in how their families are run, specially economic ones. Having become contributors to the home economy in different ways, they may also take part in the decision making. Is that so terrible? 

5. "The Hindi heartland might compete with these states in the spheres of industrialisation, per capita income or literacy but they are not too far behind in cases of marital discord."

No sir, a woman asserting herself, her individuality, to gain economic independence or just to live life in her own terms, is not bringing about "marital discord". The traditional marriage, is set up in such a way as to be heavily loaded against women, and men have disproportionate power in the relationship.

That a mainstream media house would publish such an anti-woman drivel today is not surprising. To discuss the family without discussing the welfare of women who are its integral part, while blaming them for the dysfunction of the institution is myopic at best.

The piece clearly stresses family over women. This plays into the mindset that results in untold atrocities against women, across the country, everyday. It wouldn't be a stretch to assert that the family ordained murders of women called honour killings  and burning of brides for dowry and killing 2000 baby girls everyday  (usually female fetuses in the womb) are all extensions of the same mindset which stresses family over women. 

Traditions which dishonour a member of any group group need to be amended or, better still, discarded. It is time we looked up a new version of the family or like other endangered species it will also become extinct.  Good riddance, says my feminist heart. 

A version of this post appeared first on the website of  Feminism In India, here