Feminism Needs Critical Engagement, and We Lack the Patience for It

Young women today need to be made aware that they are oppressed. | Image credit : Image by Karl-Heinz Gutmann from Pixabay

It may seem surprising to say this in the public domain, but feminism today needs a defence. This should be obvious to anyone who has conversations about these issues outside the machinery that paradoxically takes the burden of shaping public opinion and perception and a lot of times ends up covering for it too.

In this case the latter is happening as much as the former. Our rhetoric on feminist issues today I claim have become a cover for the underlying biases and ideological overlay present in the society. Our rhetoric in the media itself has over the years become removed from the everyday struggles of woman today. In fact, as someone who discusses gender in university classrooms, it takes me aback when I find young woman distancing themselves not just from the ideological aspects of feminism but also from its everyday struggles, this happens more often than you think. A female colleague once told me that it is surprising that young women today need to be made aware that they are oppressed.

This piece is a reflection on this problem. Over the years I have developed my own issues with the feminist movements of today, not because I feel feminist oppression is less important over things like class caste etc. but because I feel it is more important, as it needs a far more critical engagement than people today have patience for.

In my experience the site of oppression between man and woman is getting more and more covered with ideology, where most of us do not even know how to articulate this struggle. Our points of contact are always covered with a certain distance between the site of oppression and our everyday lives. We see this oppression only in the traditional and archaic, believing that are modern lives are structured without the asymmetries of power between man and woman.

Nothing can be further from the truth, in fact if anything the asymmetry today has broken down into pieces and permeated all aspects of our lives. Something that is present everywhere can seem to be present nowhere. Any reflection on the issue should make us see that our notions of equality, such that the woman should be allowed to work, get an education, get a share in property etc does not work, this is not so because these things are not happening but because these are no longer the anchoring point that sustains the asymmetry of power between man and woman. In fact, there are many households where these are not happening and yet the problem if anything is more severe.

I claim that this is precisely because of the subtle nature of this oppression that gender is becoming the centre and representative of struggles man/woman finds themselves at the centre of in today’s modern world. The struggle is that most of the times we do not even have the language to articulate our un-freedom as Zizek puts it.

In the struggles of woman, I meet today this is truer than ever. Either they have to fall back upon feminist rhetoric to create a victim space for themselves or they completely reject the site of feminist struggles itself. Either way they are only using the asymmetry that licenses their exploitation for negotiations and compromises that only further perpetuates the system. Yes woman are not only capable of doing this but are also fully capable of exploiting these asymmetries for their benefit also, feminist rhetoric today have given woman the bargaining power such that they have trades to make within the matrix of power of man over woman, without necessarily challenging the power itself. I don’t also blame them here though, most of the times encourage these trades also, but the ethics of this are a separate issue.

The problem is that today the exploitation is not done in neat boxes but instead is held together by a continuum of small differences. For example, some woman might get a share in property, but she can’t pursue her career in return of that. Another woman can pursue her career but can’t have her share in property. Someone else might get all three but instead it turns out she didn’t want this career at all, and subtly but clearly questions of marriage and family pushed her into such a career. Some can drive but can’t own a car and then vice-versa. Others cannot choose their spouse. Love marriages are allowed but the considerations that went into choosing a groom in arranged marriages have penetrated love marriages as well. It’s common to hear from my upper-class Hindu friends, ‘my parents have a strict no for Muslims and lower castes (for marriage)’. A close friend who dared this mistake came to realise that her modern parents weren’t so modern at all. I can go on like this, but the point is that these small compromises and negotiations that every woman makes today, sustain this structure of oppression and when seen as a system they are not small at all, but have large effects.

A system held together like this is not only much more stable but also much more difficult to give language to. All power accompanies with it points of resistance, but resistance as an act of agency becomes much more difficult in a system like this. It has also been the experience of many woman that once they resisted strong enough they were able to have their way, but the problem has been that most of the times one does not know at which point to resist, many woman confess to me that the point of resistance only became clearer to her in hindsight. In marriages one hears this often, ‘I should have resisted at that point itself’.

The operative word here is that women today are not only much more removed from structuring their lives the way they want to, they have almost no language to articulate this. Their freedom is structured by the compromises and negotiations that take place from the unsaid unwritten position of the woman that is inferior to the man. If you are thinking that these things happen to men too, then you are absolutely right, such constant unregulated negotiations never just harm one side but instead creates a spiral in which both the sides keep on creating a narrower path for themselves. The point here is man doesn’t enter into these negotiations from the same position as the woman does unless the man himself gets stuck with the gendered nature of other kinds of exploitations. Yes, there is a gendered binary present in caste and class too that I will not develop upon here. It is not uncommon sight to see how men who are very successful otherwise are stuck in the same negotiations and compromises in their corporatized work spaces after fancy MBA’s.

In all this there is one site where this struggle completely reveals itself. That is in the complete lack of autonomy with which women today have to raise their children.

Almost everything has been taken away from them on that front. The relationship has been sucked dry of all content and instead is filled with empty sentimentality. The phenomenon is widely reported and studied in childhood studies in sociology, education etc but its impact is many times underestimated.

The children’s growth for quiet sometime has been regulated by a certain scientific rationality, that governs the child’s development. But paradoxically it is the spaces left open by this rationality, where this rationality doesn’t find a legitimate ground to enter directly and regulate behaviour is where its effects are strongest, the anxieties highest. For example, there is no science behind benefits of a child learning language early or getting the highest marks in classes, especially early classes, or how fast did the child started walking and so on, but it is in these spaces that we find that the anxieties of the parents to be the maximum.

What comes to the centre is that the woman first and then slowly parents themselves no longer have the agency to decide what is best for their child, understand their failings but instead are put in the trap to constantly judge the child from their own inferior position of the power matrix of man and woman.

The complexities of this struggle I suggest have not been sufficiently understood, but what we know is that our observations of childhood in study after study tells us that the power of adults over children has getting its legitimacy from power of man over woman. These are not independent struggles that then have points of overlap, they just don’t feed of each-other but instead are sites of oppression that emerge from one another and eventually always add and never subtract the power that legitimises them. This is what causes the gendered projection of childhood itself, where the child is not a genderless category but a category that is governed by the asymmetries of power between man and woman. This is a problem that we see emerging in literature again and again.

We don’t realise this but this struggle in many ways is the centre of the cage, unfreedom of man today. And any way out of this would always involve engaging with this site of struggle, this means engaging with feminism. We may agree, disagree with the dominant discourse around it which we should continue doing but we should not leave this site empty and vacant.

There is a real threat that this site will be captured by the most tyrannical of ideas, sucking it dry of any debates and contradictions and eventually making it a homogenous space.

We may need new tools to fight these battles, but we must fight them, engage with these questions, even if it is at the cost of being excluded and labelled one way or another.

Chetan Anand is a research scholar at TISS Mumbai. His research interests are on the
intersections of Urbanism, Childhood and Education.

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