Let us try and analyse one of the latest ads that invited veiled threats from the ruling government (Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra to be specific), intolerance in the way of abuse on social media, backlash from the custodians of Indian culture and tradition, and so on. Yes, we are talking about Dabur Fem’s Karwa Chauth campaign that aimed to celebrate “equality” and “inclusivity” by showing a same-sex (lesbian) couple glam up for Karwa Chauth. Now, as progressive as the ad intended to be by defying the heteronormative definition of marriage, the execution was grossly misplaced. One error cannot cancel the other.
As a ritual, Karwa Chauth is one of the many manifestations of patriarchal hegemony that must be denounced instead of being glorified and that too through a product which is, again, a bleaching cream that helps women “glow with pride”. Why is “glow” invariably associated with “fair” and “white”? That is another debate. On the one hand, the ad discussed here intends to show two women breaking away from the “accepted” gender norms of matrimony. Progressive. On the other, in doing so, they are eventually shown ‘wishing’ to fit into a custom which is sanctioned by the patriarchal institution. Regressive. One of the women even goes to the extent of gesturing her partner to touch her feet, an act a wife is “expected” to do as a marker of obeisance to the husband, the “lord”. Here too, a hierarchy between the two women partners has been established. One of them is clearly the master, the other, a subordinate. They are not equals. One is superior to the other. Therefore, if a same-sex marriage comes to mimic the characteristics of a heteronormative alliance, where is the resistance, where is the rebellion? This is how misogyny manifests and thrives.
Sexual violence too, is institutionalised in a similar manner. In this regard, the essay ‘Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence’ (1983) by Catharine A. MacKinnon is an important intervention.
In the essay, MacKinnon examines the system of gender inequality through a feminist lens and makes it clear why she prefers to use “sex and gender relatively interchangeably”. Since sex is associated with the biological and gender is viewed as a social construct, MacKinnon delves into the relation of each aspect to sexuality, which according to her, varies. The nature-culture distinction is an important consideration for MacKinnon who argues how the male or masculine standpoint is imposed on the woman, who is compelled to oblige to patriarchal norms and emulate or adhere (as illustrated in the previous ‘Karwa Chauth’ example) to a certain way of living as sanctioned or approved by the male.
MacKinnon (1983) deconstructs the meaning of ‘objectivity’, which is invariably aligned to the ‘systemic’ and ‘hegemonic’ male perspective. As a departure from Sigmund Freud’s concept of the ‘penis-envy’ in his theory of the Oedipus Complex, MacKinnon makes an emphatic assertion, “Male is a social and political concept, not a biological attribute.” Therefore, sexual objectification becomes a part of a social process, which is further ruled by the tenets of ‘objectivity’ as an epistemological stance, dictated by the male. So, the question that one must pose is: where is the woman’s standpoint? Or, why is the woman’s standpoint missing – has it been silenced within a system of male hegemony?
Some examples: Is a trans woman woman enough?
One of the recent debates that went viral on social media was centred on Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her views on trans women, which invited backlash from the transgender community against the trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFS). In March 2017, when asked whether a trans woman is “any less of a real woman”, Adichie answered thus:
“…trans women are trans women… and I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
In May 2021, Indian feminist and activist Kamla Bhasin’s remarks on the transgender community invited condemnation from feminist circles. During a workshop, while speaking on patriarchy, feminism, and gender, Bhasin said, “Gender, feminism, and patriarchy are limited to male, female… (where gender is restricted to the socio-cultural definition of a man and a woman) … it doesn’t mean caste, it doesn’t mean race”. Later, she also insinuated how “menstruation is what completes a woman” and made disparaging comments about the body of trans people.
Both Adichie and Bhasin, otherwise revered for their feminist concerns, somehow gave in to the patriarchal definition of a woman’s anatomy. Not only did their remarks indicate treating ‘trans’ as different, secondary to ‘women’s’ concerns, they also fell into the trap of masculinist tropes of gender politics that they themselves seek to challenge and break away from. Such a reductionist, regressive, and exclusionary meaning of feminism goes against the principles of intersectional feminism which is about propagating inclusivity and diversity. A woman’s movement for empowerment and emancipation cannot be treated in a singular, linear way. If a trans woman is made to feel less of a woman because she is in a flux or is navigating the dynamics of gender, then she must be made to feel all the more included and wanted, and not be labelled as someone ‘different’ and against the ‘normal’ within what Judith Butler calls the ‘heterosexual matrix’.
These examples lead us back to what MacKinnon is trying to unpack and unmask in her essay on feminist epistemology and how it must challenge and rewrite the official ‘male’ narrative. The struggle for consciousness is paramount in understanding the differences and the labels we create that lead to sex inequality. Transphobia, as explained through the previous examples, is a position that is often defended, misleadingly so, because it threatens the socio-cultural definition of gender.