When Rahul Gandhi claimed that “women are more powerful than men”, he implicitly provided an inflated sense of worth to the women listening to him. Yogi Adityanath, did pretty much the same when he claimed that women are “the symbol of strength” in his state-wide, 2020 I swear I Don’t Hate Women Tour™.
Besides, who could disagree? You certainly wouldn’t, I mean, you’re on feminisminindia.com. You love women. And as much as I do too, I do question how two politicians with seemingly opposing political views could propagate different ideas using language that is virtually indistinguishable?
As tempting as it may seem to respond to that question by yelling “IDENTITY POLITICS!” and end my piece there, I’d like to illustrate how feminist rhetoric can be re-appropriated by the ruling class to legitimize an unequal society.
Depending on your political beliefs, you may have had one of the three interpretations of the above statements.
A mother and a wife
Think of the “brave, loving, and overprotective” mother/wife archetype-like in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham or any of the multi-dimensional female love interests from Sooraj Bajrataya’s Oscar-snubbed masterpieces. The implication that all women are warriors is nice, but of course, being “brave” and “loving” comes with responsibilities. This homebound woman is defined by her relationship to her children and husband.
All successful societies are built on conformity, and religion is merely a more polite means of coercion than authoritarian state violence to ensure that everyone plays their part. In the following headlines Girl beheaded by father over an alleged affair; Girl murdered for wearing jeans; Queers afflicted by “corrective rapes”—there are descriptions of violence, unfathomable to many. In these situations, it is safe to assume that democracy and religion are at dissonance. The perpetrators might not be able to comprehend their wrong because if one’s unquestionable moral code-religion (with patriarchy as the foundation stone) states that queerness leads to an eternity of torment, then “corrective rape” is justified by the perpetrator as a reluctant act of altruism.
To better elucidate my point, think of how spirituality separates the body and the soul. In the aforementioned instances, the physical violence is justified or irrelevant because the sanctity of a soul is violated, and the body doesn’t matter. This violence is believed to have actually “saved” the soul.
When an NCP party member blames girls for staying out at late night, or when Imran Khan blames a rape crisis on women wearing very few clothes, or when they are not just implicitly blaming the victim, but precluding the possibility that some people would prefer to maintain agency over their mortal bodies.
I would propose, for these reasons, that religion is incapable of distinguishing between a rape victim and a voluntary sex worker. For me, the criminality in sexual violence is manifested when a individual loses their bodily autonomy, while sex work is merely a professional choice. For religion, however, both are breaches of what is regarded as acceptable behaviour for a woman: sleeping with anyone apart from her husband chosen by God.
You are strong, not special
Most readers, I imagine, despised the first category. “That’s how tyrannical grandpas and cranky Nazis think”, they think. These readers, coming across the first paragraph, might have conjured up the image of a muscular, Mjolnir-wielding Kamala Harris with a back tattoo depicting a monster-truck chugging absinthe.
These women rose up the ranks within our present economic infrastructure, fighting discrimination and, against all odds, succeeding. Liberals (I’m not referring to classical liberals but “liberal” in the colloquial sense, Eg. Hillary Clinton, Manmohan Singh) love this archetype. They suggest that girls too can thrive under a capitalist system.
For a crisis like the 19% gender pay gap between men and women in India, this gap can be explained by one of the following two hypotheses-
- Women are genetically inferior to men. (As suggested by fascists in the previous section.)
- Women are oppressed by an unjust society. (As suggested by socialists like me.)
Liberals rightfully reject the notion that women are genetically feeble, but they also don‘t seem to find the system unfair.
They place the blame for this sexism on individuals (often, lower-caste, working-class men) rather than the system (Capitalism) that incentivizes sexism for a variety of reasons. The uplifting “feminist” cinema or news about success stories of women-suggests that capitalist India is capable of treating women as well as men, so the system isn’t corrupt, it’s individuals.
Their well-intentioned proposals like reservations for women would simulate the diversity one would witness in an authentically fair and diverse society without uprooting the cause for inequality.
Liberals also ignore the unpaid labour women do on farmlands and longer hours they work in unstable sectors. And what about the 93% of unpaid domestic work that women do? What about protections for sex workers?
But who cares? If “women are stronger than men”, they can handle a double standard!
Much like in the previous section, we accept the empowering dogma bestowed upon us by an authoritative voice-because we like believing we are strong. Therefore, we are rendered subservient to that authority and we do as we are told by that authority, because we unconsciously barter away some of our freedoms for a part of our self-esteem derived from that authoritative voice. (Think of how people are petrified to criticize their nation’s actions because it may cause them to publicly lose their proud status as a “true patriot”.)
By being told that an individual just has to work hard to be successful, we are gaslit into accepting that our society is a fair one, and individuals alone are to blame for their misfortunes such as losing a job, being assaulted, etc.
In Time magazine, when atheist and “Amazonian feminist”, Camille Paglia argues that is it in men’s nature to rape and that the onus of preventing date rape falls on girls, she is explaining how girls should be stronger. The piece was a paragon for roping victim-blaming and “empowerment” into one.
This is also why people can claim athletes like Simone Biles or Naomi Osaka are “weak”. When Manika Batra or Mirabai Chauna were hailed as “real feminists” by the gatekeepers of Indian feminism-random dudes on Twitter, it was just a symptom of this double standard. These women surely are “role models” but these narratives legitimize the belief that women must accomplish exceptional feats physical, interpersonal, or financial prowess of to deserve basic human respect.
For the (centre-right) liberals, the dominant patriarchal thrust in society is no longer god, it is capitalism. Women are subservient to their bosses rather than their husband. (And very often, both.)
The two hegemonies I have discusses thus far are not emancipatory, at least not from the bottom-up perspective of individuals’ freedoms. The ruling class, legally and socially, pressures people to behave in accordance to their doctrine—work, have kids, die, repeat.
The real-world political impact of this recuperation of feminist rhetoric is evident in the BJP’s political performance following their recent rebranding where they managed to appeal to both traditionalists as well as capitalists. In 2019, they were supported by 36% of Indian women, as opposed to 20% for Congress.
The proposed U.P. population control bill is nothing but an excuse to deny benefits to eligible families, but what about their even more woke proposals? People (including self-identifying “liberals”) take to the streets to call for the death penalty for alleged sexual predators and justify mass surveillance to “protect the women”, despite the death penalty not being a deterrent for crime, it being used to target minorities, and the surveillance being used to further harass women. The Anti-Romeo Squads are designed to harass teens and triple talaq was criminalized even though it already did not dissolve marriages.
All of these, however, “protected” women. Here, to raise ethical concerns about overuse of capital punishment is to automatically become an enemy of all womankind.
“Why do you want this rapist to live?”
“Why are you scared of placing cameras on every street?”
“Will you please vote for me?”
Indian society is a perfect synthesis of the aforementioned ideologies that tenderly hold hands like a macrocosm of a co-dependent couple that tosses bricks at the non-binary socialists bicycling around their neighbourhoods.
As a non-binary socialist, my knee-jerk reaction upon reading Yogi and Gandhi’s superficial empowerment of women was a poignant exhale followed by a repulsed “so what?” What about the women who aren’t perfect mothers or perfect wage slaves?
The ultimate freedom is the freedom to remain alienated! The freedom to be single! The freedom to not work! A society is not free if its members are obligated-at gunpoint-to act a certain way.
The meta-narratives of religious fascists and capitalists are both as damaging as those systems themselves. As they both dominate the public sphere, we must acknowledge that while this new form of liberalism is preferable, we should set our sights a little higher. (Or, I guess, a little more to the left.)
Featured image source: Studybreaks