The problem with theory

Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

I HAVE always been conscious of the inequalities of gender and caste. A series of matriarchal, independent women in my family had been asserting and stretching their roles in society even before I was born. My great grandmother, Neelamma, set aside her caste prejudices to get her younger daughter — my grandmother Lalitha — married to an engineer from another sub-caste. Lalitha Krishnaswami had passed her Senior Cambridge exams, become an honorary magistrate, and worked with leprosy patients in the slums of Madras. I knew her as a tough woman and a genial grandmother. She cleaned public drains and fought for justice with the principal of the Men’s Christian College in her flawless English, draped in a traditional nine-yard sari!

The politics of and discussions on women’s equality, its gross and subtle manifestations, always existed in the conversations at home. I had an instinct that prompted me to combat injustice. I could never let a derisive statement be; it forced me into arguments, disagreements and hostilities. I continued to be denigrated for my “aggression” by those who saw femininity enshrined in traditional and submissive stereotypes.

Compared to the restrictive social norms of the 1960s, there is a sea change in the visibility of women and in their acceptance in various milieus and vocations today. Women have entered the consumer world as professional equals. But the market, too, while providing jobs, has made inroads into basic feminist concepts and rights. It has pushed to the forefront the male vision of a competitive, aggressive, economically unequal world, and the attempt to fight class divisions among women has got hidden behind the smokescreen of modernism. The battles won a few decades ago against dowry and insane expenditures around marriages have been replaced by complacency and compromise. The right to choose a spouse has been partially won among the elite, but the opposition to lavish spending finds few supporters.

The feminist vision of equality at one time threatened and challenged the vision of a male dominated world of exploitation. The assertion of a woman’s vision as distinct from the male’s was based on demanding equality and justice with compassion and concern. It is not an ideology that owes its origin only to thinkers such as Gandhi, Marx, Ambedkar and Buddha, but to the lived experiences of women across generations. Today, feminism has got somewhat lost in the tidal wave of the consumer world. Women who have realised the dream of equal and well-paid jobs or political positions have given in to an acquisitive society that keeps encroaching upon our hard-won battles.

Although I’m diligently against any labelling, the most acceptable definition I would adopt, with caveats, has been that of a feminist. My basic political understanding of collective leadership, and its axiom that many minds are better than one, comes from a woman’s perspective backed by feminist theory. The greatest vindication of that for me has come from the public movements I have been involved with. The campaigns for the RTI brought together a collective of equals across gender and other divisions, working together to realise a value that would ensure political equality. The campaign for employment guarantee combined the fight against class and gender inequality.

Violence against our bodies has always shored up women from different castes, classes, religions, races, nationalities. The vicious attacks on half the world’s population and the cruelty unleashed on them expose the hollowness of any kind of claim of equality.

In recent years, with women’s political action, the solution has come from the sharing of this pain and raising collective voices. The issue of violence inflicted by upper castes on the Dalits still gets neglected. Even today, women accused of being witches are attacked and sometimes killed. And they are almost always Dalits. From the high-profile Roop Kanwar sati case, to the Bhanwari Devi rape case and other atrocities on women that we have fought against, the women’s movement has reinforced our belief that if violence is used against women, we unite to fight it.


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