Cataloging Gray Areas

As a person who is born and identifies as a (dusty) lady, noticing how my ‘body’ or the space it occupies is as natural as breathing; though this space is hued coloured over and eventually pushed to the fringe. As I’m considerably tall, it would be hard to not see me, one would assume. In fact, there are so many places where I slip in and out of corners and rooms without anyone noticing, sometimes this sort of partially-cloaked-conscious invisibility surprises me too. At first, this un-seeing of my body — whether consciously done or otherwise — seemed liberating. I could spend hours in my room reading or writing before my mum or aunt would come to check in and see what I was up to, generally hours would pass before they’d notice, or at libraries I would take in the smell of old musty books without the clerks giving me cold stares. Lately, this is changing as I’m “growing up” and my “womanly assets” are becoming more evident¹, but this hasn’t affected my (in)visibility. All that has changed is a few parts of my anatomy now stand for my whole person, and I remain as faceless as ever in most public and private spaces. I was self-absorbed enough for a while to think I Was The Only One and yesterday when I heard a lady behind me yelling at a rude dude who brushed past her, “Can’t you see I’m standing here?” when it hit me that being or identifying as a feminine body is more than enough to render anyone (in)visible. Interestingly, even when I’m in NotIndia, my body is more-or-less (in)visible, but what glows is my epidermal tissue. The Feminine Body — assigned or chosen — is more or less voiceless, especially if we’re hued bodies — how else will infinite access and possession be assumed univerally?  — and this is the voicelessness of a privileged, able-body. Which is exactly why hearing about the women in most psychiatric wards left me numb and horrified last week. I thought I was (in)visible partially, when these women are seen as bodies devoid of complete agency.

Like most things we do say think assert about most aspects of behaviour is mediated, specifically from Olde DoucheColonial Standards to the New Standards Of The New Empire, especially when it comes to matters of psychology, psychiatry, medicine, sexuality and everything else, so do our definitions and boundaries of ‘crazy’, ‘insane’, ‘normal’ are still incredibly Western in chalking these lines, and as young as 40ish years in establishing the Indian Association Of Clinical Psychologists. The intelligence tests we take are Weschler’s revised tests, not all of them necessairily suit the Subcontinental Mode of learning and studying, most of these tests fall apart once we question the colonial mode of education that we still follow. I remember learning poems like ‘Daffodils’ and ‘Death The Leveler’ ‘by heart’ as a child; I’d be asked to recite these poems and the grown ups in the room would look at me patronisingly while saying, “She’s such an intelligent child! And the pronunciation! Perfect pitch!”, today I push those memories away as a violent master-slave dichotomy forms whenever I see yet another kid made to perform such poetry-acts. The doting adult steps in the shoes of the Omnipresent Coloniser, rewards the child for obeying the Empire’s mode of speech; all this while the text seeps in the skin and is absorbed by the ‘body’ as it were. Which is precisely why having the access and ‘command’ over English is seen as a matter of pride, not privilege. Psychology tests that are suited to Indian sensibilities were made first in 1999 and revised in the last few years, however most don’t take this colonial intake of knowledge into account²; similarly tests that detect ‘mental’ illnesses and disorders are still crafted for a part of the globe that isn’t as hued or as caught in colonial chains as we are. If the (in)visible feminine body is cataloged as ‘crazy’ (read deviant), and even ashrams as fluffy looking as this one — I don’t know what a white lady is doing in the header — become sites of dislocating and disrobing  agency and consent as ‘those crazy women don’t know what they want anyway’. And this is one of the few spots that doesn’t peddle ‘crazy’ women as prostitutes as many government hospitals do, mainly because the ashram caters to women with class and to an extent, caste privilege. Meanwhile the detongued-subaltern-woman-animal that women and other feminine identified bodies roar silences as their caste, class and religion puts them in a position open to exploitation and manipulation.

In addition, true to the thickest stereotypes about us, there are a few communities who believe in the existence of witches and tantrics — not witches as one sees and identifies in the Western world, but rather as perpetrators of evil. Leaving aside the reviews of Nice Imperial People like the REALL organisation that published articles which say “Will These People Ever Learn?“, most incisive commentary like that by Mahashveta Devi shows the extent to which mental illnesses in women are largely another form of body policing  and cataloging most deviant female bodies — we don’t care if the assigned gender roles match or no, especially not after the body is assigned as the ‘crazy’ one — to confine and restrict this perceived deviancy. In spaces where worrying about ‘pesky’ things like ‘postpartum depression’ isn’t a privilege, women tend to ignore symptoms, or no one pays attention to them till it escalates to a state of ‘lunacy’ — I can hardly blame them, when one is fighting for survival, mental health isn’t an important priority or most women don’t have the access to such knowledge — and the village or the community gets ‘rid’ of them. Women with multiple ‘miscarriages’ (read abortions to get the Precious Male Child) are often misdiagnosed as ‘crazy’ or ‘barren’ and left to fend for themselves, the Municipal Psychiatric Ward in Mumbai attests this horrid excuse. Even in popular media depictions, it’s the ‘husband’ (generally from a wealthy family) who is married away to a women from a lower class/caste background than him, she is more or less tricked into this marriage or her family pawns her off — remember Koshish, Ek Asha? — and her ‘love’ and ‘dedication’ (read servitude) ‘cures’ him of his ‘mental illness’. However, when women go ‘crazy’ they’re called ‘witches’ and are disposed³.

In these intersections of ‘madness’ and ‘being woman’ are gray truths I almost didn’t want to hear last week, I wanted to run away listening to anecdotes of these women — generally from lower ‘caste’ and class backgrounds — who have been identified as ‘crazy’ for being ‘queer’ or openly identifying as ‘not-women’, a few ‘insane’ women who checked themselves in after years of abuse and other ‘certified crazies’ who were diagnosed with ‘schizophrenia’ since their childhood. There is no doubt that people with mental health issues exist, but the less class or caste privileged you are, less amount of agency you have over this decision, less choice with what happens to your (in)visible body. Women and feminine-identified are stripped of their voice, identity and consent — some are given new names too — the moment the catalog on their body reads ‘crazy’. I can’t decide what bothers me more, this manufactured (in)visibility or the fact that most times it is their male-counterparts (fathers, husbands and/or brothers) who decide ‘what is to be done about these women’. I confess, I don’t even want to know.

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1. My great-aunts come up with the most delightfully-cringe-inducing phrases, always.

2. See Gauri Vishwanathan’s ‘Masks Of Conquests’ for more details about the ‘colonial intake of knowledge’.

3. Mahashveta Devi’s play ‘Bayen’ is an excellent example.

 

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Looking For My Body

It is nearly impossible to be a Dusty Lady and not have your body become a canvas of comments, critiques and opinions; specifically the one’s you didn’t ask for. You know the ones by orthodox ladies — and sometimes, not so orthodox people — who say things like, “I liked it better when your face was fuller, now you just look like a vegetable” or “You call that a chest? Pfft. How will you ever rear children with that?”¹ without lowering their voice or taking their eyes off of you, and then the next minute your head starts hurting and you think to yourself that you will never, ever again go to these silly events again, after which you get your cousin to spike your drink which makes the whole evening bearable, blissful even. Only when you next see these people again, you remember that promise you made to yourself; smack your head — figuratively, for your real hands must never do such a thing in public — and then start looking for a cousin to trick into slipping very suspicious liquids in your fruit juice, so that you can nod and let the words float by you till the time you get home and vow to never, ever go to such silly events till the next time. I don’t know what is more amusing — where amusing becomes the new migraine — that people don’t see the effect their words on the bodies they are commenting on or the fact that I’ve accepted it as a routine activity. Only when this week, some trolls made similar remarks focusing on the body alone, did I start to unravel and start re-acting to their statements and assumptions.

Bodies, dusty bodies particularly almost never speak. We are spoken for — of course colonialism still lives on! What do you mean the British left 60 years ago? — in true imperial fashion,  and this tilted-equation even translates to the way we see, read and frame bodies. Last week, in a study break I ended up watching TeeVee for a bit. And just my luck, I ended up watching two minutes of Dabangg and I couldn’t help chuckling and then sobbing how this less-than-3-minutes trailer encapsulated perfectly how we view bodies. Here’s a convenient list:

  1. Land is feminised — very subtly, I must give them that — so it’s ‘lawless’ and must be ‘disciplined’. Land becomes a deviant body and of course a dude has to ‘bring it back to its place’.
  2. Dudely bodies are mobile. Feminine bodies move in the periphery. And this mobility is not restricted to just physical activity, it shows up in how feminine bodies are dressed too; dudes are in pants and shirts, most women in saris, bringing another form of ‘bondage’ and ‘restriction’ to play, as the sari needs to be physically and compulsively wrapped around the body².
  3. A privileged dudely body need not respect any other bodies. Disabled or feminine, especially not if this body is a ‘criminal’. Bodily agency is for taking, obviously.
  4. When a dudely body transgresses socially, it’s allowed and forgiven. When the dusty lady transgresses — talks back in this case — she is threatened with ‘romantic’ violence³.
  5. If any dusty lady is portrayed as ‘mobile’ then she surely must expose her ladybits for a living — which as society routinely tells us, is a truly terrible, terrible thing to do. Because no ‘good’ dusty female body transgresses; if dusty ladies start doing vile, vulgar things like dance in public, who will cook and rear sturdy boy-children then?

As an upper-caste Hindu lady, I will never know how my identity as a ‘body’ is taken away communally, the brutal way in which Dalit bodies get erased or may never have to veil myself because of religious dictats. In that regard, my body does have privilege or a few liberties anyway; however this doesn’t change the fact that in most cases, because I’m a dusty lady, my body reads as one without agency, as the caste and social status come in later. What fascinates me today is how we’ve ‘accepted’ and mainly shuffled around the Olde DoucheColonial Standarde when it comes to keeping the feminine body free of annoying things like consent and autonomy, especially since we’re a country which claims to have ‘shed its tracts of being colonised’. But I digress.

I don’t really listen to any radio stations — dusty or otherwise — but whenever I do, in about a few minutes I have to compulsively turn it off as every other song is about ‘taking’ love (or bodies as sung by dudes or dude protagonists) and giving ‘herself’ up to the “man” or “husband” or ‘settling in her in-laws’ while every time my LadyBrain screams, “what about her?”. This isn’t to imply there are no songs where the female protagonist of the film gets to voice her point of view — such generalisations are the reason I’ve stopped reading the Times Of India — but that most narratives are built and written around the male perspective, sometimes  even when it’s written by a lady! If I were to set out, figuratively or literally to ‘look for my body’ in re-presentations of our culture, say in mainstream Bollywood movies or songs, I come away with a big gaping void. The Feminine Body™ as it were, doesn’t exist in most representations. We do see a caricature of what femininity or ‘womanhood’ is supposed to be, but characters that are multi-dimensional and dynamic, radical and practical are almost never dusty ladies. This probably explains why I’ve taken to words and poems of Kamla Das, Eunice De Souza and Gauri Despande, almost like an addict, as these are the few spaces where the Body is aired and allowed to be. It may not be my body, or the way I even view the Feminine Body, femininity or even being woman, but such re-presentations reassure me that this body too, has breath and a voice.

Whenever I’ve spoken of such gendered dis-memberment of the Body to my LadyFriend, she laughs and then sighs, as for a person who claims to see the body-policing as a ‘routine’, there are many things that make me uncomfortable and livid. So then yesterday, I asked her amid a rant, “What do I do then? Ignore that I can only be at peace when I hear a few selected Ladies, who are generally white and sadly, dead? Why do I need to go read Dickinson every time I crave for The Body to come alive, or go through reading Das again, even when she says ‘he takes my body away, and I didn’t even nod my head this time?’. Do you suggest that I should learn to not think of how much this epistemological violence the ‘absent’ body undergoes?”  and she told me, “You do what most women in your place did. They wrote”. And that’s what I did, in hopes that The Body isn’t voiceless, yet.

——

1. There are many variants of such body-policing, and these are just examples. The real thing is much worse. You can thank me for sparing your lobes later.

2. No, people who wears saris aren’t ‘bound’. But the way the sari functions, and the way we wear it does bring to mind restricting bodies to certain kinds of mobility. And by ‘bondage’ I didn’t mean to imply kink. Because dusty bodies never do such ‘Western’ things. Not even when you tempt them with coco-cola.

3. ‘Romantic’ violence is violence done or implied by dudes (generally) to feminine bodies because they want to woo them. No, it’s not scary at all, because they always fall in love and get married, so then violence is clearly ‘for a good motive’.

 

Hark! I Hear Whispers Of ‘Hysteria’ Again*

As it is required by the Handbook of LadyBusiness, I do have a mandatory LadyFriend who helps me pick out books and bags, nods in agreement after I’m done talking and sometimes talks; and even then only talks about me. Fine, I embellished a little. The truth is, often we agree so intensely on so many subjects, it seems like we’re speaking a language only the two of us understand. It’s an equally flattering and jarring experience to see yourself reflected in someone else, to such an extent. So a few weeks ago, I was down with what are commonly known as VulvaBlues, where once a month a monster looms over you and everything you say comes out lined with fire. In the middle of one such rant, I lost it and started crying, hysterically. She managed to calm me down after a while and we left it at that. Later that week, she confessed she had these fits of emotions too from raging fury to a suicidal calm, from feeling euphoric to wanting to be left alone, all in the span of a few hours. She thought she was the only one with these “mood swings”. Over the next few days as I discussed the same topic of ‘Female Hysteria’ with my professors, friends and some ex-students of mine, one thing became clear. We’re all ‘hysterical’. Just like the time in Victorian England, a woman would be silenced and put in the attic — Who can ever forget Bertha? — under the notion of being ‘hysterical’, seems like we are also labelling ourselves ‘abnormal’; for this ‘fury’, ‘rage’ and ‘anger’ that we feel can’t be normal, can it? Especially when we know just where the problem lies. Or that was the assumption, anyway.

All these women I speak of are either feminist, Marxist, (closeted) atheists,  political activists or involved in some or the other form of an anti-establishment philosophy; in addition to occupying traditional patriarchal spaces of being wives, daughters, sisters, mothers and so many other categories that are too complicated to ever pin down. I don’t mean to insinuate that somehow these women I speak of are ‘different’ — and by extension inherently superior (Ick!) — or that women who don’t fit any of the above labels have never witnessed the same ‘fury’, but rather that I identify strongly with these women, I could discuss at length and even seek permission to personalise and localise this collective ‘Cultural Hysteria’ that we feel. As it turns out, despite being so politically active, most of us lead ruptured lives, where what we are in our Personal Skins is so radically different from what we perform to be in our Family or Public Skins, revealing the TrueSelf only in a few safe spaces, having the Public Performative Identity gulp down huge chunks of our Private Skin. And to say from this fracture between the Public and the Private comes the ‘fury’ and ‘hysteria’ would be to easily and anthropologically further fissure our fragmented lives. Also being ‘culturally hysterical’ myself, such simple unraveling is a tad hard to achieve People of The Olde Interwebes.

This ‘cultural hysteria’ I speak of is a common experience that manifests itself in the simplest and in daily tasks. Some detest the idea of having to ritually bow down to patriarchal authority of their fathers, husbands or brothers; some feel oppressed by the system that requires them to be ‘good mothers’, some are simply frustrated for not being allowed to voice themselves, some face direct and systematic sexism each day (LadyFriend, I’m winking at you!), some are just freaking pissed off for being a part of such a model that encourages and ensures women’s silence. In brief, we’re those Pesky Angry Ladies you were warned off, ready to snap your head off the moment you cross a line. Or not. In fact, one of the biggest problems that face us everyday is this deep stated inaction and not the other way around. I can state my views firmly on the Olde Interwebes, but at family dinners and other social events, I am silent. Rather, I’m required to be silent; like any smart Oriental woman who knows what will happen when this silence isn’t granted, I comply, often against my will. Like many others, the fury seethes and dances right under my skin, the words almost tumble out of my mouth and then I remember where I am and then the tongue is heavy and curled inwards again. Another Pesky Angry Lady told off her superior and she lost her job, one cannot reconcile the idea that she is supposed to be an obedient daughter-in-law for people who think daughter-in-law is the NewAge code for Happy Servant! And SpineLess worker! What is interesting here is how our ‘hysteria’ turns inwards and comes to bite us. Similar to Lee Maracle’s beautiful poem ‘Hate’, we are too “Blinded by the niceties and polite liberality/ we can’t see our enemy/so, we’ll just have to kill each other”. This sentiment of having our hysteria paralyze and disable¹ us isn’t new. The very fact we’ve internalised it isn’t exactly a revelation. What really struck me here is the way this ‘cultural hysteria’ manifests itself; like the Madwoman In The Attic, if we’re not careful this ‘hysteria’ comes out and spews venom before we can stop. One artist I know says she waits till she is ‘furious’ enough to paint; crying and painting at the same time and yet can’t seem to decipher how those rips and tears come up on the canvas. Sometimes I write a post or a poem and when I re-read it I can’t almost believe that it’s my writing that is so dark and jagged, out to wound instead of heal. After these outbursts of ‘hysteria’ comes the deep sense of helplessness, we cry and then reclaim our senses. Stop. Rinse. Repeat more times than humanely imaginable. My LadyFriend confessed she is ‘going completely nuts’ every other day; and then she said something that still chills my bones. She said, “At least, this is the one constant companion I know I have” and again she mirrored what I felt, said something I didn’t want to put it in words. We exist on the hinge, choked to claustrophobia with ‘hysteria’, yet comfortable — where comfortable is the new learnt helplessness — being this numb.

Within this numbness, another thing we do piece and byte ourselves further — some overplay the Public Performative Identity, some of us blog to retain what was once there and (perhaps?) retrieve it, some chain smoke cigarettes though they hate them, some indulge in violent sex as a release. And after the chosen method of UnRaveling the Self, we conveniently slot ourselves as ‘Pre’ and ‘Post’ fit of hysteria; as if they are two neat shelves where our Skins sit, as if we really have a choice which Skin will manifest itself. We blame the cavity between the Personal and the Private for this ‘fury’, understand when the Dudes we associate don’t get our ‘hysteria’ as they’re not the ones being robbed off agency and choice and then tell ourselves, “this too shall pass”. Little do we know, how completely it chars us inside. We say we know where this ‘hysteria’ stems from, it’s the freaking society that makes us so, and we all fervently hope for the Unicorn Revolution to come save us. At least, this LadyBrain does. But like everything else, it’s not simple to get the root of this fury. The best I can do is, say it’s like living the inside story while being an outsider to your own life. And somewhere caught in between, is the TrueSelf; amalgamated with the Madwoman In The Attic. Waiting to snarl and bite. Am I the only one who feels this way? Or this is just another ‘hysterical’ woman writing from her hysteria?

1. I don’t mean to trivialise disability but instead shed light on the real side-effects of this ‘hysteria’. Some women I mention have sunk into depression, been catatonic for days. Sometimes when I’m ‘hysterical’ I forget words and meanings and need sedatives before the tiny fit becomes a full-blown panic attack.

* I can’t write just about me, because in cases like this, the collectively felt ‘cultural hysteria’ is both at once a public and a private experience; to obliterate other’s voices would mean losing mine too.

Writing From The Mud Edition Of Stereotyping

As a ‘natives’ of what is still considered today ‘The Third World’ sometimes we get asked the silliest questions, as my students and I were discussing today. It never fails to amaze me how deep and inanely hilarious — where hilarious is the new heartbreaking — stereotypes are. Especially when they are as sensitive as, “Have you ever seen an American toilet?” or “Eaten waffles?”. Another popular one is the assumption that Indians smell of dogs with rabies or something more pungent; we laughed when I brought this one up today but I remember it wasn’t nearly as funny when my friend called me in tears from the UK where some woman got up from her seat just so she could be ‘saved’ from the obviously Poisonous Emissions Of The BrownPeople. Another favourite anecdote is when a woman told me “I didn’t know people could be so educated in India” after I’d given her directions in fluent French. Or when in movie after movie, Indian culture is exoticised, appropriated and eventually reduced to the country that “makes that pepper thingy”, my skin just leaps up in joy. I am not talking about how my pride as an ‘Indian’ — whether I will ever be able to say ‘nationalism’ without sarcasm is an ongoing experiment people of the Olde Interwebes — is tarnished when I hear or am asked such questions but rather how tiny and contained my ‘box’ as this ‘Indian’ is.

Last year, I was sitting at a coffee-house, reading a book and a woman walks up to me and starts inquiring about the book in a rather loud tone. Then she asked me if I could understand the book considering it was in American. Surely, now I cannot think of this anecdote without openly laughing but then I felt as if she was talking to a different version of me, preferably one that was three centuries removed from the present time zone and I was expected to be that way. Frustratingly and sadly these aren’t the only instances of such blatant Othering I can remember. And I’m surely not the only one with such experiences, I’ve heard similar accounts from many people all highlighting that “we” as a culture are somewhere lost in the space-time continuum and can only squeak out a few words of English when addressed to in an ear-shattering decibel and/or accompanied by hand gestures. The point here isn’t how incriminating these remarks are — well not too much anyway — but how people are so ready to stereotype and box people, cultures and ethnicities. Readers of the Olde Interwebes, you will probably defend yourself by saying, “I don’t stereotype people!” or even better “I’m an extremely progressive person with Liberal leanings. Surely I don’t fit into these slots” to which I can only say, let the LadyBrain explains what she means.

When thinking of India, probably the first image that comes up is hordes of people gathered in a crowd, preferably looking uneasy. Or the global favourite — The Charmingly Poor Indian Who Squats In The Mud With The Flies Around Zie’s Face. One assumption is that somehow all Indians squat in the mud, for the longest amount of time; as if squatting in the mud is something that we do, regularly, professionally and perhaps even recreationally. I will not say that we never squat in the mud but just that it isn’t exactly a hobby, to put it delicately. There are hordes of Indians that set out of their homes with a small bucket of water each day, squat on railway tracks while pooping. Again, this isn’t a choice or even remotely entertaining. Instead of considering Indians to be ‘mud-squatters’ it’d do people good if you look at the conditions behind the said mud-squatting. Perhaps tiny annoying facts like neo-colonisation by capitalist markets, cultural imperialist reasons that allow some people to exploit other broken backs, acute and harsh desperation will make one see how mud-squatting isn’t as culturally neutral as it seems. That way, tourists won’t specifically ask to see ‘slum people’ and then proceed to take their photos as one would for a biology study. At least, I hope not.

Despite all your vehement denials, most liberal spaces — virtual or otherwise — even the ones specifically dedicated to ‘Radical Inclusion’ will reserve seats for the ‘limbless handmade paper maker’ (preferably with a few flies always abuzz his face) but will have no space for people that fit into my demographic. This barrier can be easily overcome if I can possibly procure old and historic looking documents that would affirm that I do descend from the MudSquatters as well, hereby reaffirming my comfortably exotic status, ripe for exoticising and appropriating as one wants. Attempts at pathetic humour aside, I get many comments and e-mails that praise my ‘good grasp of the Western world’ along with a remark or two about how UnIndian I ‘seem’ like because apparently I don’t talk like someone who spent their whole life huddled in the corner of a ditch. Or in some backwater place where all sorts of germs and diseases have infested my body. For what use is a healthy person of colour? But, I digress.

The point is, for a person like me i.e. educated, occasionally smart, comfortably affluent and searching ways to negotiate my colonised body and psyche to a space with as few ‘isms’ and ‘ists’ as possible, I (or my ilk) get either spaces dominated by the Canon, White discourse or a space culturally so removed — ironically all the ‘tokens’ of my culture are present there — that I end up feeling alienated. I’m not condoning the activity of encouraging less privileged people as the ever attractive MudSquatters a chance to voice themselves but rather displeased that this middle point of access that I currently embody means nothing to so many people. I used to teach at a school for children of low socio-economic background, donors would request me and other teachers to give whatever they wanted to offer only to the ‘truly needy’. As if the kid who is slightly better off economically speaking doesn’t deserve the perks the other ‘truly deserving’ — another phrase that has yet to be said without sarcasm — get. Even in popular media, either the plot revolves around a rural setting or the extreme élite. The middle-class representation is evidently missing, as if this stubble called the ‘middle ground’ never existed. Similarly, as a WOC, I’m expected to fulfill Cartesian roles : Either to be as far removed from my culture as possible that I’m ‘assimilated’ into the bigger White default discourse or be so ‘exotically’ and ‘consumable’ that my culture becomes a marker for all that I am. It all comes down to ‘To Squat In The Mud Or To Not To Squat In The Mud’. There are no easy answers, except for this one thing I firmly believe in — No matter how much I represent ideal Indianness or not, I’ll never ever be able to do anything just right to anyone’s specifications. So to end with the ever quotable Dorothy Parker, this is my message trying to fit anyone in a cultural box so tiny that even Matthew Arnold wouldn’t like —

” But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do;
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you!”

Is The Great Detachment The New Saviour?

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?

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