(Un)Seeing Like A Feminist

So, I’ve been trying to read Nivedita Menon’s Seeing Like A Feminist.

However, one paragraph of the book I wish I could just un-see.

On the Uniform Civil Code, she writes:

Shah Bano’s own trajectory, the Supreme Court judgement and the subsequent legislation overturning the judgement all mark the beginning of re-thinking by the women’s movement on the UCC, which was now revealed in it’s implicit anti-minority cast and its legitimising of the national integrity argument.”

 

“This disavowal of uniformity by the women’s movement in the 1990s is significant in that it marks the need to rethink the nation and religious communities as homogenous entities. Each religious community is a heterogenous one, and ‘Hindu’ ,’Muslim’ and ‘Christian’ practices differ widely from region to region of India, from sect to sect.

Some of these practices are better than others for women, and making them all uniform is not a solution to gender-based injustice. It is not a viable option-what is the uniform standard that will be adopted?”

“Was Shah Bano a ‘woman’ or a ‘Muslim’ ? Thus even an apparently obvious feminist issue such as gender-discriminatory personal laws, must be placed within other contexts to be understood in all complexity”

 

 

I’m sorry but as an Indian woman I vehemently reject this argument. I am a ‘woman’ and a ‘Hindu/Muslim/Christian’ yes, but I am also a free citizen of India first.

That we have laws against domestic violence and dowry are testament to the fact that India does have the legal will required to protect women despite the general endorsement of the former and latter by religious scriptures, culture and tradition. They are universally applied to all women, irrespective of the tenets of her religion.

That’s why I cannot understand why a ‘feminist’ would want to distance herself from a universally applicable personal law. Cutting through the BS , the distancing is actually code for I-would-rather-sacrifice-Indian-women-at-the-altar-of political-correctness-than-be-called-a-member-of-the-Hindu-right.

Honestly, Indian women deserve better than this brand of ‘feminism’.

As an Indian woman of *irrelevant religion* I demand that personal law  SHOULD NOT ‘be placed within other contexts to be understood in all complexity’. I demand that you keep my religion out of it irrespective of what prominent ‘feminists’ who pretend to speak for me say.

I only demand that these new personal laws are fair to women, and yes, fucking universal.

 

 

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The Politics of Insecurity

It bothers me that Hindutva, as a political creed, exists in India.

Hindus are a large majority in India, and it stands to reason that sheer numbers alone should be reassuring that our way of life and our religion are ‘secure’. That sense of security would then enable us to weave our personal politics based on more important concerns like education, health and economics.

To be fair,the fact that the Congress party has been so electorally successful in modern India is proof that most Hindus, historically, have resisted the notion that religion need affect their personal politics.

Also, in the present day, support for the BJP does not always imply a Hindutva stance.

Still, it is reasonable to assume that the groundswell of support that is predicted in 2014 for the BJP is in some part ascribable to it’s positioning as the defender of the Hindu faith.

This historical branding of the BJP (which, in this election it has avoided) not only implies that Hinduism needs ‘defending’ from certain elements , but also that this defence needs to be political.

Why would anybody buy this way of thinking? How did this insecurity find so many takers?

I’m no political analyst, but I have two theories, based on common sense.

One is history. And also the way it is taught. Most Indians know that the Mughal dynasty ruled large parts of India. That fact itself causes a degree of discomfort, a reminder that we were once ‘conquered’, despite being a large and diverse nation.

Textbooks rightly highlight the ‘best of the century’ type achievements of the emperors, but do not delve into the details of the common people (most of whom were Hindu) for reasons of delicacy, even though there are excellent historical records of Mughal rule.

This approach is wrong on two counts. First, by sweeping the truth under the carpet, a sort of mass denial of ill-treatment and religious persecution is attempted, which is morally wrong by itself. Second, and more dangerously, ‘editing’ the truth breeds exaggeration and distortion of it. The Ram Janmabhoomi Movement, a landmark event in political Hindutva and the Tejo Mahal, are examples of the latter, where fiction took the space that history was erased from.

Also, sometimes this  omission of history leads to stupid present-day policy making, like this plan to set up a university in Karnataka named, for some strange reason, after a Sultan who is documented as persecuting his Hindu and Christian subjects.

The other historical event, and perhaps more relevant to the existence of Hindutva, was the call for Muslim separatism at the time of Independence, also known as Partition.

Muslim separatism was similarly rooted in political insecurity, however, given that Muslims were a relative minority on the subcontinent, and the fact that the British Raj encouraged this insecurity, the demand for Pakistan was perhaps not unreasonable. It is my belief, however, that the rise of the Muslim League directly impacted the path that modern-day Hinduism took- providing both template and justification to potently cross nationalism with religion.

While Pakistan became an Islamic state,it is commendable that the Indian leadership, as represented by the Congress of that time embraced secularism.

My second theory relates directly to secularism, or more correctly, the distortion of it.

The word secularism in it’s purest form, implies a complete separation of religion and state. It is the sixteenth word of the Indian constitution, proof that it was once an idea dear to the identity of the nation.

The failure to enact a Uniform Civil Code in India, the Shah Bano case, the Hajj subsidy, and statements like these now form the broken signposts on the long and weary road that secularism has traversed on it’s current path, a path that has mutated it into an idea incompatible with a modern democracy that upholds the equality of one individual to another and divorced from intentions set out in the Constitution.

To be sure, upliftment and genuine affirmative action is needed and welcomed, but direct religious appeasement for political gain is another matter. Far from causing any advancement or uplift, all that happens is added legitimacy to the belief that not all religions are created equal in India, at least in the political sphere. This causes insecurity, a sense of misplaced victimhood, which only strengthens political Hindutva and leads to a birfurcation of the political sphere along religious lines.

 

 

I believe that Hinduism and politics should not be mixed.

Separating the two will involve the removal of the glue of insecurity that binds them. This insecurity is dangerous, more often than not misplaced and also pointless.

A genuinely secular India is the best antidote to Hindutva.

While history cannot be undone, it can be discussed more openly and honestly. The bastardisation of secularisation, on the other hand, can still be reversed, but will take time, political will (and more importantly), credibility. These are not qualities associated with either the Congress or the BJP. Wait patiently, we must.

The first Indian women physicians

Came across a wonderful article that chronicles the earliest Indian women who travelled abroad to the USA (perhaps alone?) to study medicine.

Considering that all this happened in the late 1800s, and this study of medicine took place after marriage, it seems like culture and tradition are/were/always feeble excuses to keep women in their ‘place’.

 

 

 

Wage Outrage

Italian campaigners  are calling for housewives to be paid a state salary.

The basis for asking for a salary from the state is the idea that the unpaid work at home benefits society in intangible ways, so deserves monetary compensation. I agree that there is a benefit to the society, but I disagree that it is economically intangible.

It is exerted through the working members of the family- in other words, a person doing unpaid work at home makes life better for their partner , who then potentially becomes a more productive employee/worker, earns higher wages, and pays higher taxes.

(I’m not sure if there are any studies supporting this theory, but I’m willing to assume that this does happen.)*

The benefits of a person’s unpaid work at home goes directly to their partner.

Any benefit to the larger society is thus indirect. It is a factor of the economic and social advantages that her partner gets.

This is why I disagree with taxing society- the ‘secondary’ beneficiary –  in order to pay this wage.

I however agree that a wage must be paid- and this must come from the primary beneficiary – the working partner.

I disagree on making this wage legally payable.

A family unit should  be left to negotiate this wage any which way they want- and governmental legislation of personal financial decision making doesn’t exactly make for good economic sense.

Instead, the government could create incentives (in the form of tax breaks?) for workers who share a part of their wages with family members who work solely at home. To claim it, the working partner would demonstrate that assets have been created for their unpaid partner.

 

* ETA- There is plenty of research work on this topic as it turns out. The theory is known as the Spousal Support Theory, and papers on it affect HR and alimony policy.

A meta- analysis which confirms the spousal support theory that I’ve referred to :Career choice in management and entrepreneurship: a research companion. Cheltenham, UK : Edward Elgar, 2007, pp. 101-126.

Full text available at at research website of the London School of Economics (http://eprints.lse.ac.uk)

Expectations while expecting

Pregnancy is a common enough state of being, but if you stop and think about it, it is a unique state of existence- whether on physiological, philosophical or legal level.

I have wanted to blog about pregnancy for a while now- on the rights and responsibilities of a pregnant woman-as a pediatrician, and as woman who is ‘pro choice’ in the American sense of the word.

On Abortion Rights:

I fully support the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy upto the period of viability. The age of viability is a medically determined goal-post that keeps shifting (it was 28 weeks a while ago, in certain countries it is 20, in some 22) and denotes the ability of the fetus to survive outside the uterus (with appropriate medical support).

I however do not agree with extending the right to terminate a pregnancy beyond the period of viability- even when the ‘rights’ of the potential human are non existent upto the actual birth. I cannot articulate why exactly I feel this way- morality perhaps?

It goes without saying that late terminations should be permitted when the life/health of the woman is at stake, or when the termination is sought for humane reasons- like birth defects which are fatal or incurable.

On harmful choices made before the baby is born

This includes smoking, drinking and substance abuse during pregnancy. All of these affect the fetus inside the woman, during its development inside the uterus and also its life once it is born. While I believe women should not be subjected to excessive ‘policing’ while pregnant, I have seen first hand the disadvantages some babies are born with, and this informs my views on this issue.

I think appropriate support should be extended towards women in order for them to make better choices and modify their harmful behaviour antenatally. Still, I  think children born with disabilities/disadvantages resulting from maternal alcohol/smoking/substance use should be able to sue their mothers in court.

A landmark claim in the UK is currently being filed to determine if compensation can be claimed from a woman (on behalf of her child) for drinking heavily during pregnancy, causing her child to be born with developmental problems.Obviously, fetuses do not (and should not) have rights, but children do, and all children were once fetuses, so it will be interesting to see if the law can ‘punish’ a woman for ‘poisoning’ her child when he was a fetus.

On choices made during labour:

I’m conflicted on this. Sure, it is the woman’s right to choose et al, but most obstetric decision making in labour is anyway centred first on the woman, and only switches to fetus-centered mode if there is no additional risk to her.

I’ve attended lots of deliveries as a pediatrician to resuscitate babies who were born in suboptimal condition BECAUSE the mother made an anti-cesarean choice in a desire to go ‘all natural’. In the quest for ‘autonomy’ over her method of delivery, I’ve seen a woman’s baby end up severely disabled for life- and it was heartbreaking and enraging, to me, as the baby’s doctor to know that the baby would have ended completely and totally FINE , if not for the C-section refusal.

Decision making goes hand in hand with taking responsibility for that decision, and while I’m sure there is a lot of guilt and horror on a woman’s part when avoidable damage is caused by her decision, the fact remains that it is primarily the child who has to live (or die) with the consequences of that decision.

I’m not sure how I feel about  seeing such children also empowered to take their mothers to court over cases where multiple healthcare professionals advise strongly against/for  an intervention and are over-ruled by the woman in question. I’m worried how punitive it can potentially become. I think holding the woman legally liable in unwarranted because the intent to harm is absent- that happens collaterally.

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I must clarify that these stances of mine are applicable only to normal pregnancies- and if there is any threat to the woman’s health from pregnancy or labour at any point, right up until the baby is physically outside her body, she (the woman) should come first, no matter what.

In Defense of Mallika

A guest post by CNG

Mallika Sherawat has been in the news for calling India a ‘regressive’ and ‘depressing’ place for women, in an interview with Variety magazine at Cannes. The Bollywood fraternity, predictably, has wasted no time ‘slamming’ her for it , in newsspeak. CNG, a friend of mine and the author of this post, rises to defend her- sort of.

In Defense of Mallika

Well, not really. This article is more a commentary about the state of our nation than it is about the marginally successful actress who has managed to attain a level of fame and importance that is well beyond the merit of her talent or work. Everybody knows the story so far. Mallika labeled our nation and its attitude towards women in general to be so “regressive” that she finds it “depressing”.
Not surprisingly, Bollywood was quick to react with many actresses taking offence and clearly expressing discontent. The blogosphere was less forgiving with many self-proclaimed columnists making no effort at hiding their contempt for the actress, even as they mocked her newly acquired, strange, alien accent. However, such attacks don’t work well in any arguments. It is called ad hominem – arguments that are made personally against an opponent and not against the opponent’s argument. It is a strategy that never fails to betray the inner hollow when employed. But as already confessed, this isn’t about what Mallika said, or the right and wrong of it. Not for me. The reactions that followed Miss Sherawat’s comments call for more outrage than her original statements do; and for a number of reasons.
   First and foremost, India is not just the largest democracy in the world, but also has one of the lengthiest constitutions; written to incorporate all the finest elements from the other great constitutions of the other great democracies. Or so we are taught in school. It is a fundamental right we are told. The freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed to every Indian citizen, they have us believe. The words do look inspiring when you are a teenager staring into his book, complete with the four lions of our national emblem adorning and overlooking those very words; promising words indeed. But then, you grow up eventually, and sooner than later, every other day, very often at times, you have this thought in your head, and then you hold back. That is just about it. The thought gains no voice, sees no ink, reaches no audience, and causes no ripple. It just dies like the other thousand that did before.
This is the narrative for every ordinary citizen in this country. Being one among them myself, I feel comfortable voicing my problems about any number of people as long as they are other ordinary citizens. But that is the beginning and end of it. That is all the freedom my country allows me to exercise. Step across that line, and I wouldn’t be sure anymore. A twitter tweet is all that is required before you get into trouble with the law enforcement. It does happen. Though the incidents are few and sparse, sound logic dictates that there should be none at all. Freedom of speech does not have an asterisk attached over its head. It was meant to be unconditional and absolute. This isn’t about a rich and poor divide where different rules apply to different sections. It doesn’t matter where you stand in the hierarchy, every strata comes ready with its own version of what is deemed acceptable. You could be a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from Bombay, and get away with that scathing article about our Prime Minister; you could probably even get away with attacks on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi; even Mother Teresa perhaps. But try Lord Ganesha for a change. I know Salman Rushdie couldn’t. Deepa Mehta will vouch for him.
All of this may force you to arrive at the conclusion that the only real threat to this very basic fundamental right is fuelled by religious extremism, but that isn’t the whole truth. India is a country with a very poor record in law enforcement and human rights. The judicial system does little to inspire confidence in public; while hatred, intolerance, violence can all be easily manufactured and propagated by any person or group with a vested interest of its own, not necessarily religious always.
So, here is the question begging to be asked. Why would anybody in his or her right mind talk? It is better to keep your head low and not rub anybody the wrong way. The situation may not be as bleak as my words suggest, but the danger is real. I am not sure about everybody, but I am constantly editing and censoring myself all the time, even as I write this piece. It is the big players that I fear. It is that fear which curtails my expression. However, are we really going to impose this on one another now? It sure does sound like that. We don’t need politicians helping us land in a hot mess anymore. Apparently, even well educated, well traveled, well off fellow citizens would want Mallika to just shut-up already. And that is just unconstitutional to me, only the first of my problems with these folks.
Secondly,in all honesty, you are better off being a man than a woman, regardless of the country you reside in. That is the simple but sad truth.
While the Nordic countries fare exceptionally well in terms of closing in on the gender gap, the rest of the developed world too is trying hard to make amends and bridge this gap. We see constant discussions about gender inequality and its problems. There is a lot of talk surrounding the under-representation of women in government and the top offices of the corporate world. Hillary Clinton has long acknowledged the glass ceiling which still does exist; and she was talking about the United States, not Nigeria. Sheryl Sandberg has had to come out with an entire book addressing women and work place.  The Fair Pay Act may have failed to pass yet again, but America continues to talk about the income inequality between men and women. Same job, same hours, less pay – that is the harsh reality for women in almost every country. Call it what you will, simple disparity or plain regressive, it is all one and the same.
But there appears to be a silver lining when you realize that the majority of the populace is not in denial about this key issue. Not in the first world at least. And that is where our problems multiply in a country like India. Mallika’s statements forced the patriot out in every celebrity. And they came out chest-thumping, flag-waving, and deriding. They need to understand that debate is good. Meaningful dialogue is essential. Only a fool would risk being dismissive about the appalling state of affairs regarding women in India. In a nut-shell- they are not wanted at birth, but the parents shall tolerate them even as they continue to remain hopeful about a future boy; her education is not a priority; her nutrition is less important than that of her brothers; from an early age, her duties include washing, scrubbing, cleaning, mopping; her responsibilities are not limited to self and family, but extends to the community at large; her employment options are dismal; she has no say in her marriage; her husband gets to verbally/physically/sexually abuse her on a regular basis; if not set on fire over dowry harassment, the husband gets to decide on the number of sons he would prefer; she then gets blamed for bearing a daughter; is depressed and over-worked; neglected and under-appreciated, soon to hit menopause. As dreadful as this may sound, a majority of women in India are subjected to all of the above or some of the above. They live through it only because they don’t know any better. Ignorance helps them. But when a smart, educated woman such as Priyanka Chopra tries to discredit Mallika’s statement, I am not sure if she doing anything other than pandering to the media and public.
Priyanka Chopra may have made one sweeping remark claiming that India is indeed a ‘progressive’ state, but then again, this isn’t about class divide. A girl born in rural India is probably going to be battered and bruised for life. My sisters on the other hand will definitely not be battered and bruised; however, they are not allowed to wear certain clothes, or drink certain beverages. Being male, I am of course free to do all of it and some more, even if condoms be necessary. But a girl engaging in pre-marital sex is a whole different matter, regardless of the girl’s standing in society. Unlike my sisters, Miss Chopra may have all the freedom to dress/drink/party as she pleases, but do you really think that when she turns forty-five she would be paired opposite a twenty-something-year-old new male lead in Bollywood. Not a chance in hell-O!!! Meryl Streep gets to work in Hollywood while Rekha and Jaya get to skip Parliament. Why aren’t these two lovely actresses working in cinema today? If Steve Martin can pair-up with Diane Keaton, why can’t Shah Rukh work opposite Juhi? This is regressive. This is depressing.
India is regressive even by Indian standards. I am not bringing up the topic of pregnancy outside wedlock. I am not even talking about legalizing prostitution. Indian women are simply held to a different standard as opposed to the men. Remember that scandal in Karnataka when unsuspecting politicians were caught watching porn while at work? Now imagine if it were female politicians that were caught watching porn while at work. You get my drift, right? Well, note to all the female actresses in Bollywood, the first rule to solving any problem is- don’t do an ostrich! Get your head out of your hole. And stop with the denial.
   Finally, it is time we spoke of shame. It seems to appear that everybody is up in arms against Mallika mostly because she was talking to VARIETY, being interviewed by a firang, while at Cannes. If it were Kiran Bedi that described India as regressive and depressing during one of those segments on NDTV where you have a plethora of experts on the panel, I doubt we would be seeing this reaction. I am not sure why anybody would grant less respect to the words of a beautiful woman. Beauty does not necessarily mean a missing lobe. But, that is another topic for another day. Heading back to the point I was trying to make, Indians are more apologetic than they need to be.  There is no point in painting a rosy picture for the western media. Had Mallika been addressing these same issues in an African country, she would be hailed for her contribution to the cause. If Angelina Jolie were to visit the slums of Bombay and express her shock and sadness at the state of Indian women, the Indian media would again no doubt applaud her. This is a simple case of how the Indian public is not comfortable with an Indian woman talking to an outsider about problems back home. My folks chide me every time I poke fun at their disputes in the presence of visiting friends. The root cause is shame. You feel it only when you know you are in the wrong. My folks know deep down that they shouldn’t be quarreling like cats and dogs. And the Indian public knows of the massive disservice it does to its daughters. And the public feels this shame. You deal with it by battling the problem, not by shooting the messenger. This is who we are. This is us. There is no harm in calling it as it is, and admitting the need for more intervention. That is the only way out of this shame.
   On a closing note, I would like to point two things. Yes, India is hypocritical as Mallika claims. Of course, more than half our population would pick the sunny sands of Los Angeles over the crowded Chowpattis of Bombay. Mallika was only brave enough to say it out loud. Secondly, she is wrong when she claims that India is a regressive country for women. India is just regressive, period.

Not even a modicum of real equality

Narendra Modi spoke to the ladies of FICCI flo- an organisation representing entrepreneurial Indian women. The organisers had indicated that they wanted him to elaborate the steps he’d taken in Gujarat, to empower women, and encourage both increased employment and entrepreneurship.

He did speak very generally, and seemed to aim his words at more ordinary women than the illustrious who’s who of Indian industry in front of him. The main thrust of his speech seemed to be praise for non-professional women- homemakers, women in rural India. This gem of an idea unfortunately translated into a wholly unimpressive speech .

Here are my thoughts on the speech:

The good:

He spoke about entrepreneurial initiatives like Lijjat Papad, Amul and a certain Jasuben’s Pizza- the first two especially are wonderful examples of small home-based industries , initiated by women or run by them, that have evolved to become companies that corner large pieces of their respective markets. It’s inspiring to hear of these skill-based industries, obviously,but it’s important to remember that the CEO and ‘top guns’ of these companies are still male-with good reason I’m sure, but I still feel it’s misleading to hide this fact. Also, these two companies predate Modi by many years- and it’s wholly wrong for any political outfit to claim any sort of role in the success of these companies.

The Bad:

The absence of any mention of the rural women who play a major role in grass-root implementation of various governmental schemes-the auxillary nurse midwives, ASHA workers, and  anganwadi workers.While a lot of women in these roles have limited education and training, they are vital to the success of all state programs- it’s criminal, in my eyes, to omit their contribution in any discussion of rural women’s achievements.

The ugly-

Like many politicians, the approach was indubitably patronising.He resorted to stereotypes of burnt fingers while making chapatis which have NOTHING to do with women empowerment or entrepreneurship, and serve to place women on some exalted pedestal that they are supposed to aspire to!  Another example of this was the constant use of  maa-behen to describe women- I found it extremely problematic- considering he uses ‘mitr’ (friends) while addressing men.

P.S. This is not about his politics, or my assessment of his suitability to lead the country in 2014.