Ever since December 16, 2012, the public sphere, at least in Delhi, has been flooded with articulations of 'feminist' outrage.
Feminist is in scare quotes because for many of us, it became quickly clear that even genuine outrage might produce deeply problematic politics in terms of feminism. The horror of standing next to men and women carrying placards calling for death penalty, chemical castration, 'chopping' in response to raping and so on is alive in many of us. What became obvious to us is that counterpublics are not necessarily or automatically progressive and that what for many of us were by now feminist commonplaces were still things that needed to be introduced and explained to others.
The latest offering to go viral on Facebook and other social media is a film called She in which a bunch of young women speak up about how badly women are treated in India and how they will not take this anymore.
A female student of mine sends me the link asking me what I think. She is a bit disturbed by it, she says, and wants to know what I think. She finds it melodramatic and victim-oriented. This student comes from an RSS family. Over the three years that I intermittently taught her English Literature, I have seen her move from a somewhat uncritical and even offensive attitude to questions of gender, class, caste and religion to one that is exploring and questioning.
I watch the video and find it problematic but on grounds, I tell her, quite different from hers. What is missing from it completely is any account of women’s complicity with patriarchy and with misogyny. It is, I realise, a variation on what my student has articulated as the victim complex.
None of these young women ask why they subscribe to these sexist views at all, why they rate each other on the basis of them, why they seek acceptance and remain terrified of breaking the norms, why they tentatively have to say 'sometimes one's family can be wrong' instead of saying the family as a structure is problematic in a foundational sense, why the righteousness with which they speak is itself based on a highly conservative sense of women's sense of self and self-expression.
My critique is also a variation of her melodramatic point because there is a quality of melodrama (historically a transitional form) in the articulation of this 'feminism.' Even though there is a second-long call to fight with oneself that is articulated only as the need to get over one's fears and see that the true enemies men and patriarchy, as if all enemies are outside and not within ourselves in deeply psychic ways.
Gendering happens in damaging ways in the video only for women not for men. Sexual harassment happens only to women, not to men. Women are only victims in riots, not perpetrators (when we know they are perpetrators too).
Rape is only about power, when we know that is not the case. It is about many other things, including sexual pleasure. Decency is only an issue for girls, when we know it is also an issue for boys. All melodramatic stuff, to be sure. When the boys do come in, they are, as expected, full of shit and say things like we should respect women because they gave birth to us. The boys should not have been in the video at all but this is North India and the boys will never be left out.
I remember the protests post-December, 16, 2012 where North Indian men told North Indian women that this protest should be led by men and when reprimanded asked how dare their gender politics was being questioned given that they were progressive men. But the larger problem with the video remains the idea that if women just got together, it would be the end of patriarchy.
If only things were that simple. Patriarchy works to see that women don’t get together. Women work actively to see that they don’t get together. Women worship at the shrine of men. This film has no sense of its own utter heteronormativity, its caste-blindness (welcome to North India), its class-blindness, its naïve faith in its own utterly ridiculous telos: The next generation will change things. If only women get together!
If only it was about ‘one act of rebel (sic) as the film puts it, from each one of us as individuals. Even as we are asked to stand together, we are asked to firmly start with ourselves. Unfortunately, feminism is about the daily struggle to change our own collective and individual hardwiring, a tussle with the tissue that forms us as much as we form the social. Feminism is the hard work we have to do every day. It is not an arrived state.
It is not only about being ‘logical’ (the film comes to me from a source called ‘The Logical Indian’) replete with the shittiest, most anti-feminist nonsense about women finally ‘speaking up’ and of course (this is North India) all the shit about being real men who are not insecure about ‘respecting’ such women.
Farhan Akhtar zindabad!
What’s left is the men telling women that its their own fault and they need to fight back as Akhtar does. Such a film only shows us how far we are from reaching even the most elementary feminist goal. We have not come a long way at all, baby!
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Ashley Tellis is Associate Professor in English at the Jindal Global law School in O.P. Jindal Global University and a gay rights activist. He lives in Haryana.