The past two weeks, the US-ian leaning feminist blogosphere has been on campaigns against the horrid and religious-state sanctioned policy on codifying when can one press charges for being ‘really’ raped; this way the State-Religious-Oligrachal system that embodies most US-ian policies, can re-define a person’s right to abortion, which in not so pleasant terms comes down to only when the State deigns the person to be ‘really’ raped¹. I don’t need caffeine in my system to conclude that this is one of the most heinous laws I’ve come across; I’d probably file it under the law that proposes to normalise a particular hijra body over another and above the one that anyone who is NotWhite needs to identify themselves and prove their ‘legitimacy’. Last week I was chatting with a self-proclaimed ‘White Feminist With More Privileges Than You Can Count’ when she said, “I’m just glad that abortion in India is legal and you don’t have to fight such basic human rights”; and these words haven’t left me. She’s not wrong, well not wholly anyway considering abortion laws out here are pretty diffident to encroaching on human rights — there are definite loopholes when it comes to trans*, hijra, ‘mentally unstable’ bodies — and that the Govt doesn’t seem to want to start an overt war over reproductive laws. Not yet anyway.
But, like most narratives seen only through the Western lens, this one is too simple too neat too easy to consume without challenging it. Under this narrative, our only challenge is access and the patriarchal control of female — queer identities get erased yet again, of course — bodies; but when we look at it theoretically, the law is in place to all protect the right of uterus-carriers at least. This assumption is all too familiar that all we have to fight against is Our Orthodox Culture, the age-old trope that if we have to be
patronised ‘helped’ it is to ‘save the brown women from the brown men’ and that our ‘problems’ exist in this horribly restrictive frame only. Here, the Third World Woman’s body — quite literally — becomes a palimpsest to be written over, She is simply a medium through with competing discourses of Imperial Feminism and Irate Conservative-Nationalism represent their claims, yet again written over with words of other’s desires, other meanings.
If I am to go by traditional representations of women from both nationalist as well as imperial feminist perspectives, the feminine body is more or less coloured invisible, especially since both ask us to choose between the ‘woman question’ and anti-colonial discourses, dichotomising not only our (in)visibility but also lived-experience. More often than not, it’s at the intersection of race, gender, class, disabilities, caste that the Third World Woman is positioned in; and choosing one over another is almost always impossible — though it does not have to be the only alternative — and as we fail to choose, the gendered Subaltern is once again robbed of a voice. Quite predictably, one of the most theorised topics in Indian feminism by the First World is female feticide, child marriage, honour killings and dowry deaths, all in the name of furthering philanthropy; while at the same time, this system as seen as quasi-acceptable as there are no ‘real’ barriers to abortion, theoretically speaking. Barriers of access — caste and class based — social stigma that is at once local and specific most ‘female’ bodies, that follows abortion and counter-conception discourse around gets ignored as once again we laud the legal framework. Such imperial hazing-over largely ignores the sanitising space the ‘Home’ is, where the vile idea that ‘females’ and feminine-identified bodies should only be Seen And Not Heard, where the ‘Home’ in essence must remain unaffected by the Evil Scheming And Cultureless West, Untouched By Material Realities and that ‘Woman’ is the embodiment and representation of this dance that sways to supposed equal parts tradition and ‘progress’. Meanwhile, the ‘Woman’ remains ‘bound’ in the Inner Veranda or the Inner Courtyard², steps one more step toward invisibility.
Reproductive rights are close to non-existent when we look at minority bodies of Dalit or tribal women, if you add disabled to this mix, these reproductive laws get chipped away even further; when we see here too there is a State-sanctioned and controlled framework when it comes to human rights — usually funded by the West. What is interesting is how the Third World Woman is at once the object of pity, of wonder, of disgust and of ‘well-intentioned’ condescension; she simultaneously is the pitiable statistic of female feticide as well as the one with ‘free’ legal access to abortions. Meanwhile, in the ‘real’ dusty realities we are too fighting to be heard and to be visible when speaking out against sexual assault considering many rapes against caste minorities are State sanctioned. Just like E. M. Forster’s ‘memashib’s in A Passage To India, many imperial feminist constructions of the Third World Woman locate the blame in native men, in their attempts to forge alliances with the ‘colonised’ woman who at times is the center of her sexual frustration, as well as a model of kinship as both seemingly live under fairly patriarchal standards. In the words of Mrs. Callender from the novel, “The best thing one can do to a native is to let him die”, the fight over possessing and territorialising the Third World Woman is between two inherently masculine modes of discourse, which slice her body in half, both want to ’emancipate’ her on their terms.
We need to localise our histories, forge bonds with hybrid realities and identities in order to fully and faithfully engage with the ‘Woman Question’. Neo-colonising-Empire-licking practices will simply not do.
1. This game can also be used to determine Who Is Really Oppressed as we all know that any form of oppression exists solely in a void and is quantifiable, no?
2. Most traditional houses have ‘women’s spaces’ in the Inner Courtyard, where there are barriers — physiological and psychological ones — between ‘women’s spaces’ and the world outside.