Keeping the Feminist Lens “On”

“. . . in many ways is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one. . .”  

C. Wright Mills

 

Feminists often describe their intuitive and instinctive understanding of feminist lessons as a ‘light bulb going off’ in their heads. It is as if all the vague feelings, thoughts, and concepts they have been dealing with suddenly get crystallized into a theory and a collective understanding of the world around them. We learn to see things, relationships, and the world differently, or “at a slant”, as a friend would say.  But what has been true in my experience and a few others that I have spoken to is that once the light bulb comes on, it doesn’t always stay on.  We quickly learnt that this new perspective –this new lens – was all too easy to lose. To keep it on, constantly, was going to require a tremendous commitment on our part. We have to climb the steep ladder to reach the bulb for it to be turned on, again and again. And after a while, it gets easier to make the journey, but you do have to make the effort every time.

 

 

But why is this lens so easy to lose?

 

The answer to this question is simple. Structures such as class, race, gender, religion b(l)ind us in some unique positions. It is from these (subject) positions that our worldviews are formed, structured, codified, and fossilised. We do not always understand our social privileges and positions ‘objectively’ because the world that we understand is translated and navigated from these subject positions. In simpler terms, we cannot be outside of ourselves to understand our relations with the world, as the world is interacting and reacting to the relations that we have formed with the world. It is a continuously reinforced relationship and it is one that we form and are formed by. And this reinforcement is a very powerful one.

 

We all function within it, and it is extremely difficult to see in the normal interaction of life. It is only visible at the breaks and at disruptions of social mores and social relationships. Consequently, it is surprisingly easy to illustrate. Next time, you are talking to someone from the opposite gender, stand 5 cm closer than you normally do. Watch the person’s reaction – if they move, move with them. And if they don’t react, move closer (Caveat: please do this with someone you are comfortable with!). You’ll notice that there is an unwritten code that we all follow on the proper distance that an individual stands apart from another, and while it varies dramatically by culture, all societies have them – a ‘proper’ distance. Likewise, our social lives are wrought with invisible social rules and norms that are so pervasive and hidden that only the violation of them makes them visible. So, a newly acquired lens can often be lost in the normalcy of living one’s life, in the normalcy of interaction, conversations, and relationships that do not necessarily reinforce, engage with and to some extent, even accept this new knowledge or perspective.

 

Also, interaction with social systems is rarely based on a singular identity or system. For example, in any social situation that concerns the family, the gender AND age of the person matter. In fact, age coupled with gender coupled with marital status coupled with family and caste customs etc etc. – otherwise known as intersectionality of identities and systems – can often create myriad rules that are understood implicitly, but rarely articulated.  For example, young Indian women, interacting with their families, rarely raise their voice against elders in the family, and are rarely taken seriously, even if they do. It might be true for young men as well, but men can get away with violations of this code much more easily than women can. So, if you are aware of these social rules that silence women systematically, and you are tired of the silence, will you take the risk of going against everything you have been taught, and still speak up – perhaps, loudly or rudely – against those whom you have been taught to respect your whole life? This is an individual question, and each of us must answer it, and therein lies our own commitment to the form of feminism we have to practice. The truth of the matter is that in order to put this new knowledge into actual practice, we are not necessarily fighting with strangers, with ‘society’, or even with our families. We are fighting with our own selves – our value systems, our core beliefs, our understanding of the world that feels very ingrained (and therefore, ‘natural’).

 

The internal struggle is also made tougher by the problem of visibility. In order to fight it constantly, one has to actually see it, feel it, and hold onto it.  We have to keep examining our actions, our habits, our modes of thinking to understand why they work the way they do. And self-reflexivity, self-reflectivity, self-supervision, self-analysis, self-critique – all of these are so easy to ignore, because the social norms that we grew up with are so comfortable, familiar, and safe. For example, why do we think that a clean house is a reflection of ourselves? Why do we think about career moves that account for future families? Why do we keep quiet when we are truly truly angry? The answers are not always palatable, and we don’t always change our behavior in accordance to our changing thought process. But that struggle has been and is constant.

 

 

But why make such an effort? Why try at all?

 

I can speak for only myself, here.  Feminists have different reasons to make the commitment, and this might be one of the reasons why feminism tends to be deeply personal. We have our own specific reason of why we are committed, and what shape that commitment takes. For me, the reason why I fight to keep the feminist lens on is: once you gain a perspective . . . once you gain a glimpse into another way of seeing the world, you don’t want to let go. My experience of the world has been richer for it, and it has helped me to see the social world in a decidedly different way.

 

For one thing, it has made me more empathetic.  I slowly realized that having another lens allowed me a way to understand other people’s worlds. When you start to understand the effect of social rules and norms on yourself and on social groups, you start to look beyond a person’s individual action or behavior to make connections to the larger social structure, norms, and narratives. So, instead of merely disengaging or resisting social rules and norms, I started to look for reasons why these rules and norms exist, what purpose they serve, and how individuals use them. The more I looked, the more I realized that despite my initial understanding (frankly, cynicism), individuals do use their agency (loosely translated as ‘will’) to engage with these social rules and norms. While a lot of us don’t always know the manner in which social rules act upon us, we also resist, acquiesce, and reinforce them in many interesting ways.

 

Of course, this sounds a little bit like a rainbows, sparklers, and unicorns kind of world. . .but this empathy, this new understanding, and (to some extent) acceptance of human behavior is not an easy thing to do either. C Wright Mills when he talked about the sociological imagination described it as a magnificent lesson and a terrible one. In his famous piece on sociological imagination, he extorted those of us who wanted to enter the field of sociology to possess a level of gumption, because the lessons you learn in sociology (and to the extent that it is relevant to feminism) are not comfortable or comforting. It requires a critical inner eye that questions, that looks within, that looks beyond, and asks the hard questions. And that requires the inner eye to be constantly active, and to be constantly active is to be constantly fatigued.

 

For me, feminism means asking the questions AND living with the uncomfortable answers. It requires knowing why women never ever question why cleaning is always their responsibility. It requires knowing and understanding why a woman police officer who is a terror in her workplace comes home to be beaten by her husband. It requires understanding the social mechanisms by which a successful woman in a male-dominated field has to play by the man’s rules and be called a ‘bitch’ for her efforts. It requires patience to understand why men feel alienated in a world that they benefit hugely by. As a feminist, this looking inward and outward is even more important because the most famous slogan associated with the feminist movement – the personal is political – is not an empty statement. I know and understand that our individual actions are important and essential – because they reinforce and reify the cultural and social tropes. So, if we are to be committed, we have to be committed in our personal lives as well.

 

As a feminist, it takes something out of me to watch and live in a world that treats women (and men) in the manner that we do, but I also know I cannot fight everything all the time. So, I draw boundaries, make realistic decisions, let go of some battles and choose my own personal battles to fight. This doesn’t mean I do not sympathise, empathise, and extend solidarity with other feminist causes. It just means that I create spaces of advocacy and action in my own life that I deem are most important to me, and trust that there are enough of us who will do the same. Of course, not every feminist make these compromises, and life can be hard for them. And I owe these feminists a great deal . . . because I know through them, life is made easier for me. They are fighting the battles that I am not. And that knowledge – that I am living in a world of my choosing because someone else is not – can feel both safe and uncomfortable. And when I start to feel very safe, and when I start to cruise through my life without discomfort  – that’s when I know  it’s time to take the good old lens out, clean them up and put them back on – to see the world anew, again.

 

Solidarity and the Harvard Controversy

One of my cherished experiences of graduate school was finding a whole community of feminists to engage with. I remember being very excited about my feminist theory class, and finding that not only do these women understand my language, they can enrich it in so many different ways. None of my co-students were in sociology – they were in English Lit, Philosophy, Education, Political Science , Geography, Psychology, and so many others. None of us shared any interdisciplinary lens, and yet, by grappling with the most difficult of texts, we were able to construct our own language to talk to each other. We learned much about the theories of solidarity and the hard-won practice of it that winter.

 

As I moved through the different courses, I soon realized that this was not really an isolated incident – that themes of solidarity and difference are prominent not just in our personal/political relationships with each other, but also in the theoretical debates about the fundamentals of feminism. How do we recognize difference? How do we form relationships of solidarity with other feminists who are fundamentally different from ourselves? What of one’s privilege and power? How do we speak and represent another? These are still very important questions we are dealing with, as evidenced by the recent Harvard debates that exploded on Kafila (here, and here).

 

A friend wanted to know why there was such vitriol against an obviously well-intentioned move to understand problems – to build solidarity. And I remember writing to her and a few others about a few things that seemed self-evident to me, that according to another friend, ought to be made more explicit. I am reproducing the letter, with a few modifications:

 

I think the major problem about the statement that was released by the Harvard, at least for me, stemmed from two different sources. I’ll try to be brief about both of them.

 

The first is the Northern white privilege, that goes unnoticed, unacknowledged and is largely invisible to the North and South audiences . The thing that pisses us ( those of us who think of ourselves as the Southern feminists) no end is not only the manner in which White Northern feminists take over, but the fact that they rarely acknowledge the historical privileges that their voices have. When they are brought to the table, they are automatically heard. Their voices are always considered more ‘evolved’, more articulated, and often more authoritative. And feminists have been crying themselves hoarse for eons about why this practice, this pattern has to be deconstructed, how this has to be dismantled, and how these processes have to be dealt with more sensitivity by feminists themselves. I think, given this long history of engaging with power even within our own circles, we feel frustrated when someone, especially if they are feminist , comes along and ignores all of this. It feels like a slap in the face of all that effort we have made to understand, deconstruct, and deal with our privileged positions.

 

The second is the importance of self-reflexivity in feminism. It is perhaps the cornerstone of most feminist philosophical thought. We are taught that our views are the product of where we stand, with respect to the intersection of various multiple identities. So, if I am a Hindu non-Brahmin Middle-class Woman, then I must acknowledge the various biases, privileges, blind spots and opinions that come with that position. So, we are trained to engage with these positions and statements tentatively. We are not ‘holders’ of truth, we are not ‘definers’ of fact . We are trying to view the world from our own warped positions, feminism is the lens we view this world from, and that is our perspective. Our conclusions, when we draw them, have to have this element of self-critical engagement, and more importantly, self-reflexivity. It has often descended into excessive navel gazing. But the reason we do this as a method, as a practice is because we are aware how invisible privileges hurt all of us – we have to be aware of our ‘subject positions’ to understand the ‘dimension’ of truth that we are examining. And that ridiculous paragraph in the Harvard blog had nothing of this nuanced idea of solidarity. It is so self-congratulatory in its tone about the linkages of different forms of violence. . as if they are the first to have ever come up with the idea. I think it can piss off anybody, as far as I can tell.

 

I think what happened was because these debates are so internal in the feminist community that it can often go unvoiced in the diatribe against the Harvard post. I think it is important to voice why we are pissed off, not just for us, but also for the students of the Harvard community. They need to understand that because they are at the table, they automatically, by the power bestowed upon them, exclude others on that table. They have to ensure that those voices are heard, and that that system of exclusion is highlighted.

 

So, I get the vitriol, I get the sarcasm, and I get the anger. It comes from an old wound, yes. . .but it also comes from the disappointment of having to suffer a new one, once again.

 

Feminism and Me – Introductory Note on the Series

A friend of mine, Vinay, told me the other day that I might be a fake Mallu or a fake Gult, but I am a true blue Feminist. For people who work and live with me, being a feminist is one of my primary identities. Most people have come to know, perhaps a little painfully, that I don’t let things go, especially when it comes to gender, sexism, patriarchy, harassment etc.  I can be the quintessential rabid feminist, and most of the time, I am proud of it. A lot of people have asked and will continue to ask of feminists: why are we so angry? My friend, Priyanka, said it best: Because we have reason to be.

 

An often-quoted fact about feminism that gets a lot of publicity, but very little understanding is that feminism as an ideology and practice is very diverse. We can have radical feminists, liberal feminists, ecofeminists, third-world feminists – we come in all shapes and sizes, and it is difficult to say that there is one feminism, and one type of feminist. People often state it, but rarely examine the implications of it. The most obvious consequence of this form of diversity is that if we take a bunch of feminists together, and put them in a room – we will hate abortion, we don’t mind abortion, we want to ban prostitution, we think prostitution should be made legal, we think porn is exploitative, we think porn can be made for women, we hate capital punishment, we want rapists to be hung . . . and it can go on and on. We are a lot of things, and we believe in a lot of things. And one of the most common things that we believe in is that we ought to have our own opinions on what feminism means to us. For us, one of the fundamental tenets of feminist thought is – we define it, we recreate it, we make meaning of it in our own lives. All of us who identify as feminist define, learn, re-learn, understand, disagree, grapple with the overarching principles, ideologies, and the grand narratives of feminism, and we use this engagement to examine the world around us.

 

So, this series – Feminism and me – is really about my personal and professional journey of what feminism means to me. It will be my attempt to articulate why I identify with feminism, not just as an ideology, but also as a lens, as a methodology, as a tool to understand social life, social problems, and the social world. In doing so, I want to be clear that I cannot speak for feminism, or feminists in general. I can only speak of my experiences with feminist thought, action, pedagogy, and methodology. So, this series will be primarily about my experiences as a feminist in social research.