As a Lady who is more often than not publicly and loudly UnSubtle (why yes she speaks!) (when she is allowed to that is), I get my fair share of thoroughly silly people who will sprout the most ridiculous reasons for the most inane things. Last week I had to convince someone that I didn’t kill people who disagreed with me, that I can talk about things beyond feminism without being entirely sarcastic and the fact that I am still capable of (perhaps?) making jokes despite ‘cutting off my fallopian tubes in exchange to be let into the uber cool club of the world’s humourless feminists’. Sometimes I just have to say, “I like puppies” and I’ll still get some nincompoop call me a ‘man-hater’ as a sort of reflex to using as little common sense as possible. I am sure you know the type, the one who will cower the moment you give them your MedusaGlare for insinuating you can’t be a feminist, simply because you are not lesbian or aren’t as hairy as the yeti or have an inordinate liking for bras or so many inconsequential reasons. What actually struck me today when someone accused me of not being feminist or feminist enough because I’m not particularly fond of body hair — call it the parting gift of colonisation if you will — is how deeply Western this slur was.
Feminism as a concept isn’t one that is inherently Western. Of course, the feminist cannon, where you can see Beauvoir, Mary Wollstonecraft, J. S. Mill and perhaps even Elizabeth Cady Stanton (conveniently excluding Sojourner Truth) dancing around or playing cards while (existentially!) pondering over The Woman Problem In Their Respective Time Zones is as Western as the concept of SystematicCulturalDomination LiberalHumanism itself and just as problematic. Contrary to popular myths, feminism did exist in other ‘culture-less’ places, even in the very heart of supposed darkness, even in places as far off as India. I remember hearing about Meera Bai as a part of cultural folktales growing up, who rejected her husband and worshiped the idol of Lord Krishna. Today, beneath the QueerLens, we can assert judging from her poetry that this was a conscious decision, involved full agency and choice. She addresses her husband’s impotency in a ‘religious’ couplet to Krishna — always under the larger umbrella of religious movements such as the Bhakti movement so as to escape harsher punishment — even talks about his (small) penis and articulates the exact way she’d like to be loved. All of this addressed to a piece of stone — her Krishna idol — or to the ideal man of her dreams enters the realm of a Queer framework. Doesn’t she fit, rather squarely the definition of a ‘feminist’ as we have today? Where she identifies the dominant ideology, subverts and perverts it by mixing erotica with religion. And she is a cannonised voice of sorts herself as she is seen as one of Krishna’s most devout followers (no one mentions her sexual transgression though). What about those countless Meera Bai’s who never recorded their thoughts, who never wrote or sang out loud? So because of lack of documentable proof, do we exclude those mutated muffles?
And this isn’t to prove one country’s feminist history over another, just an example that feminism isn’t necessarily a Western fruit, or nearly as Western it projects itself to be. Many people often question me why do I choose to align myself to an ideology that has excluded so many voices of colour over the years, and is often privileged, dominated by White women and so on. People often forget, I learnt of the Indian feminists before I learnt of Western voices, that I read Kamla Das and Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain before I ever cracked open ‘The Feminine Mystique’, that I learnt firsthand, at my Grandmum’s feet about Radha (another lover of Krishna) who was older and more sexually experienced than him, who chose to remain celibate for the rest of her life — something we still can’t exactly choose today. My association of the term allows for inclusion instead of alienation and Othering. This isn’t to say ‘feminism’ has to go uncritiqued, but just acknowledge how that term isn’t all-pervasive.
What is infinitely interesting is that anyone who is feminist automatically becomes synonymous to ‘Those Western Girls’ and sometimes even entertainingly, ‘Those Western Sluts Who Kiss Boys Full On The Lips And Did You Know They Hold Hand In Public Too?’; as if this country has never seen smart, independent people who don’t buy into the gender construct. Agreeably, they are few and far between, often under the framework of a bigger movement — the Freedom struggle, the Reform movement and so on — but between these cracks and springs one can see rebellion and resistance. Almost as if by discarding any Indian association with EvilFeminism, people want to deny women any agency over their bodies and minds. By constantly Americanising ‘feminism’ as we do everything else; from Coke to jeans, we form specific (homo-sapien-y) dichotomies that would have Descartes whooping with joy as we yet again settle into, “American = feminist = Evil + Hairy” and “Indian = NOT feminist + preferably waxed and glazed as a shiny floor”. This nationalistic (sic) boxing helps keep us in control as like any GoodOrientalLady, I too know being Western is worse than being half a person. Ironic considering almost every other Indian will be ready to chop off and sell their internal organs just so their children can be a GoodIndianCitizen and get a graduate degree from a reputed American university. But I digress.
In the light of such blatant ‘Othering’ even committing BrainCellMurder watching 90210 becomes an act of rebellion (who knew this day would come?) where the viewer gets a sense of empowerment from seeing semi-anorexic waifs straddled in loincloths, walking hand in hand and doing countless things that are restricted here or sometimes just the sheer joy of pissing one’s parents off — which all of us know is such an entertaining sport at any given time — by engaging routinely in watching such a predominantly White and by extension anti-Indian (supposedly) TV soap. You can see how many cultural codes and contexts are exchanged in the show’s journey from the US to India in the span of one episode, where it mirrors one culture and provides fanciful recreation in another. Just like that, this term ‘feminist’ doesn’t hold the same connotations of exclusion.
However, the general view is that feminism is a Western ideal (code for Indian women don’t need it) therefore the slurs it embodies must be Western itself. For practically speaking, we never had a phase where women burnt bras, in fact they don’t even star in lingerie commercials so the term ‘bra-burning freak’ doesn’t apply to us right? But like most DoucheColonial tendencies India has espoused over the years, this one serves to just dismiss off ‘those noisy pesky’ women who ask for their rights in a convenient slot of American or Western (because both are totally the same thing!) optimisation of the EvilPlan of world domination. Never mind that we’d make the same choices in their position or the fact that these countries are far from being feminist utopias themselves, using constant Western associations strips us of any cultural subjectivity we may have managed to bring to the concept at all.
There is no solution or magic antidote that will make such negative associations go away, neither will willing ourselves to systematically disentangle our collective colonised persona can help; for there is no such thing really. Today, this WesternSelf collides, co-exists, co-opts, concerns, covers, covets, converts our ‘Indianself’ (whatever that means). Is simply shedding labels enough, especially when they can create such great safe-spaces? At this point, is it even possible?