There is a significant difference in the articulations on choice, consent and experience in terms of interpersonal relations on social media and by academic scholars alike. The debate on these matters is not new. The recent undertaking on choice and consent validates all choices claimed by women as empowered and feminist. It reorients feminist politics shifting from the discourses of equality and social justice to celebrating difference.
The article is an attempt to contribute to the debate, delving into the intricacies of choice and consent by situating them in a society that is characterised by structural inequalities based on gender, caste, class, religion etc.
Problematising the universalisation of experience
The understanding of personal and individual matters is usually based on our subjective experiences, which are deeply impacted by our situated-ness within hierarchical social realities. The differences in the articulations on choice and consent are not mere opinions which one may keep and profess without being in contradiction with the other. Rather, these differences impact and reflect our overall approach to the question of women’s emancipation.
The articulation by a section of feminists who project their subjective lived experiences as universal needs to be problematised. What is universal? Are our subjective experiences generated by our social realities, or do the social realities generate these experiences? When we universalise our subjective experiences, we are considering women as a homogenous category, coalescing their experiences into uniformity.
This is not merely an articulation: it is a process of construction of knowledge. It is not just an expression of an individual self but is a process of theory building which shall guide contemporaries and coming generations to understand man-woman relations and patriarchy. From such an epistemological position, one renders the experiences of women from the working class, Dalit, Adivasi, OBC communities, and religious minorities invisible or a token representation of their voices at best.
However, an individual or individuals from one marginal identity may be an agency of oppression for the other when placed in a different context. When we decontextualise the individual and personal from the larger social scenario, we are ignorant or complacent about the power relations that operate in a given social scenario and may even contribute to strengthening these relations.
Consent and choice in a neoliberal world
Does existing knowledge, based merely upon one’s subjective experiences without acknowledging intersectionalities of social realities, communicate the manipulation and manufacturing of consent operating in consensual interpersonal relations across caste, class, religion etc.? How does one understand consent?
Consent largely assumes either parties or partners as equal entities dealing with each other out of their independent will. It is further propagated by the neoliberal market logic in which we all are individual entities contracting and trading with each other. The notion of consent between two individuals cannot, however, be adequately comprehended without locating it in the given power structures of the society entrenched within class, caste and gender hierarchies.
When we address the notion of consent, choice or agency, there is a need to historicise the oppression of marginalised identities and discern it within power structures impacting our lives. Various scholars have dedicated their lives to unfolding how the advocates of free-market economy project it in a manner suggesting that it has unearthed the hidden potential of individuals and liberated humankind. It has flourished through subtly transforming “social relations … ways of life and thought, reproductive activities…and habits of the heart” (Harvey 2001: 3).
In a hierarchical society, the relations among individuals are largely unequal. One cannot assume democratising interpersonal relations without conceiving a struggle to transform the nature of society at large. When we limit our assertion or efforts merely to choose one’s partner or the nature of a relationship distinct from the institution of marriage, we reduce the notion of women’s emancipation to individual choice and its exercise. This lacks collectivity and is an expression of a vocal section that fails to address transversal forms of exploitation of women from myriad sections of society. It works to depoliticise feminist discourse by shifting the focus from fighting the battle for participation on an equal basis in social production, against discrimination in economic and social aspects, against injustice and exploitation, to merely having the right to make choices.
“These processes take place against, and contribute to, a wider backdrop of intensified neoliberal governmentality of which a key feature is the expectation that individuals will make themselves into responsible, self-monitoring subjects” (Budgeon 2015), and hence the responsibility is shifted from social to individual.
While one cannot overlook that lack of choice as characteristic of gender oppression, its contemporary understanding, assumes women as empowered subjects who have overcome gender inequalities and gained the freedom to make individual choices. Choice is articulated in a manner that every choice they make is feminist. This implies that to take up even gender stereotypical roles is a feminist choice, like choosing to be a stay-at-home mom or choosing to undergo plastic surgery to follow unrealistic beauty standards.
Criticising these choices is projected as an act of disrespect or an exhibition of one’s bias. This counterposes the conceptual framework built by early feminists and their fight to transform society. While Beauvoir had argued that a woman is not born a woman, she becomes one, and the discourse has now shifted to embracing one’s femininity/womanhood, thus blurring the distinction between feminine and feminist.
The contemporary discourse of ‘choice feminism’ disregards how our choices are impacted and how it impacts others. For instance, choosing to hire a ‘help’ for domestic chores may relieve one of the rigmarole of domestic life, but it exposes women from marginalised sections to myriad forms of exploitation, both economic and sexual.
Our choices sometimes reinforce patriarchal structures. This may be exemplified by the articulation of a section of dwija savarna feminists.
The ‘choice,’ therefore in itself, cannot be progressive without carefully deliberating on its content. Merely emphasising the value of choice while disregarding its content would never allow us to critically engage with the masculine power structures that permeate in society.
One can also observe the shift in the key terms that largely surrounded feminist discourse and debates in its initial phases, namely equal rights, liberation, and social justice. These were replaced with words such as individual choice that diminishes the necessity of an organised mass women’s movement to address and transform the oppressive power structures.
In post-1970s, neoliberalism, accompanied by postmodernism, took over the globe as an economic and cultural thought that impacted our mode of life and our thinking drastically. In the words of David Harvey, “For any way of thought to become dominant, a conceptual apparatus has to be advanced that appeals to our intuitions and instincts, to our values and our desires, as well as to the possibilities inherent in the social world we inhabit. If successful, this…becomes so embedded in common sense as to be taken for granted and not open to question. The founding figures of neoliberal thought took political ideals of human dignity and individual freedom as fundamental, as ‘the central values of civilisation’. In so doing they chose wisely, for these are indeed compelling and seductive ideals” (2005: 5).
This dwelling upon lifestyle and individualism has replaced the politics of inclusivity and collective social struggle. The change in the grammar of feminist discourse had similar consequences. The discourse of personal politics brought the focus of oppression on intimate relationships, which was no doubt a significant contribution, but it eclipsed the structural oppression of women by the state and capitalist structure. We tend to forget the larger question of social justice, which demands the struggle to radically transform the social structure in which our interpersonal relations are situated.
The need is to locate the structures of patriarchy in its intersection with the oppressive structures of caste, class and sexuality to build a comprehensive understanding of women’s issues in order to address and transform them. Extensive efforts need to be taken to incorporate and fight the struggles faced by trans women.
Articulation solely from our locations may result in a skewed understanding of women’s oppression which may result in incorrect or misleading responses to women’s oppression, or worse, may harm women’s movement at large. In order to build a democratic society, the need is to address and radically transform our social relations.
Monica Sabharwal is an Assistant Professor, Department of English, Punjabi University, Patiala. Jatinder Singh is an Assistant Professor Department of Political Science, Punjabi University, Patiala.
Featured image source: UN Women