Posted by Mini Saxena
In February 2020, during a session organised by the voluntary study group, Feminist Multilogues, Delhi, renowned Indian feminist and thinker Nivedita Menon spoke about some of the dilemmas in feminism. As feminists are not at a stage yet where they know their agenda, and the answers to some of these questions, she thought it useful to speak about some of the contemporary dilemmas in feminism. In political practice and theory, we are not trying to unravel these knots. Instead, we understand them as part of a pattern. However, this doesn’t mean we are arriving at a common understanding. She said we are past that moment in history when there was just one understanding for everything. These knots have been produced by people of multiple generations and different political persuasions, people from the women’s movement(s) and now the queer feminist movement.
- Triple Talaq: Nivedita Menon observed that there had been a series of judgments on triple talaq indicating that Muslims have not entered the mainstream and hence, have not “reformed themselves”, and as a result, continue with this antiquated practice. Then came the judgment under this regime. After this judgment, there were three voices:
- A studied silence from the women’s movement. If they celebrated it, they would be conforming to the agenda of the Hindu right; if they criticised it, they would be furthering patriarchy.
- The visible voices only on social media. They were not involved in groups or mass politics, but were individual women: young, educated elite women who were politically active secular feminists and practicing Muslims. They were critical of the mainstream women’s movement, which claimed to have no religious identity and felt it hence should have spoken out against the judgment. These women perceived the women’s movement as spearheaded by privileged Hindu-savarna women who had private Hindu practices but refrained from expressing this Hindu identity publicly.
- The third voice was the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a grassroots movement that took triple talaq to court. The BMMA insisted that triple talaq is a hugely oppressive institution for Muslim women. They felt let down by the women’s movement because nobody was celebrating the judgment. They wanted the patriarchy within their own community to be recognised.
The BMMA agenda predates 2014, but they are aware that this judgment was possible due to the current government, said Nivedita Menon. They were attacked by both conservative patriarchy and elite educated women who saw them only as pawns of the Hindu rashtra. While all the above three strands call themselves feminist, there is a mutual wariness, which is carefulness at best and suspicion at worst.
- Sex Workers vs Dalit Feminists
This issue started when the bar dancers case was won in Mumbai, observed Nivedita Menon. The bar dancers had been banned, but after argumentation based on the right to occupation, the ban was lifted. Soon after, there was an Autonomous Women’s Groups Conference, where the decision was celebrated. The Dalit feminists opposed this celebration, arguing that this was not a question of choice of profession considering how mostly Dalit and Bahujan women are forced to it due to tradition and poverty. They asserted that no Dalit woman would do this if she had the choice, and that savarna women were arguing about sex work on the bodies of Dalit women.
A couple of years ago, there was a public meeting in Nagpur where Dalit, Adivasi women among other groups, participated, said Nivedita Menon. Here, Dalit women including lawyers and activists said that sex work should not be celebrated. They said that BR Ambedkar was approached by Dalit sex workers who wanted to contribute to the freedom movement, but did not accept their earnings because he saw their work as contaminated. The group decided to park the discussion and stated that sex workers would not be called to such gatherings until a decision is taken (but this in itself was a decision).
So, here are two subaltern identities at an impasse, another knot in feminism.
- Expression of Religious Identity in the Public Domain
Today, practicing Muslim women with their faces covered are the face of the anti-CAA protests. Nivedita Menon said that a friend of hers is uncomfortable when women in hijab shout Azadi. This friend is a Hindu and calls herself a feminist.
Nivedita Menon narrated that she was invited to speak somewhere and a woman in the audience said the burqa is oppressive, but there is no space to say so. Menon asked her if she has any Muslim female friends, and to ask them what it means to them. Many see it as a relationship with God. The woman said she is a Muslim herself! That changed the question entirely, because then this argument was happening inside the community. Nivedita Menon recounted that she became uncomfortable, because she wasn’t sure she could answer the woman’s question for her and her own community! Who can speak for whom? Muslims are leading the anti-CAA-NRC movement, but also one has to figure out how to show solidarity and what forms it will take.
There has also been debate about the la ilaha illallah (There is no god, except allah) slogan forming part of the movement. Irene Akbar, who does not wear a headscarf, wrote that the slogan is fine, and using it is similar to non-Muslim women wearing the hijab in solidarity. On the other hand, another woman does cover her head disagreed and wrote that this cannot be a slogan in an all-communities march. She explained that it relates to one’s faith; Muslims need to build ally-ship with non-Muslims and therefore should not use such slogans.
- Queer Politics
Nivedita Menon said that trans politics is producing a category of cis as the opposite. Trans politics teaches that gender is malleable, and you are who you say you are. So there is no such thing as the opposite sex. The question then is, why should there be an opposite for gender identity? A cis person is described as someone who relates to the gender assigned at birth. But this is a flawed definition, because this task of relating is never complete; we are all performing our gender in multiple ways, and there is always a gap between how we are performing it and how we should be performing it. So why treat only trans identity as the identity where there is a deficit of connection to the gender assigned at birth? Describing cis stabilises this so-called binary, whereas the whole point is to open it up.
Further, Nivedita Menon notes that it is said that if you are cis you have cis privilege, in that you can pass. But trans persons also pass. One’s gender identity history is not evident as one walks in public. And what is the cis privilege of a lesbian woman? Or of a married woman who has to wash her husband’s socks? Privilege is also a spectrum; there is no acknowledgment of patriarchy in this cis-trans binary.
We need to go a step further than the current citizenship debate. Citizenship is an even more complicated question for Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam and the Northeast. Even progressives over there use birth-based arguments, othering people who have lived there for decades.
Instead, citizenship must arise from labor, said Nivedita Menon. This concept is already real in many parts of the world. Menon added that there are many US bhakts supporting rights for immigrants because they are immigrants and labor there, but they don’t want the same rights for labor here! Therefore, we need to have these conversations.
Mini Saxena is a lawyer from Delhi. When she’s not ranting about feminism, you can find her travelling solo, dancing like no one’s watching, or reading. She can be found on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Featured Image Source: TheWire