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Issue in Focus: “Is that Book Feminist?”

Cartoon of a little girl walking down a road engrossed in a book.

The movie, The Hours (2002), has a wonderful scene where Leonard Woolf asks Virginia to join him at the dinner table, and she, turning around, tells him she can’t. She has “a first sentence.” As she proceeds to her room, we know, even if Virginia does not, that this is how one of the best novels written in the English language will begin:

MrsDalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Mrs. Dalloway will get out of her house, stray just a little bit outside the norms for a woman of her social class and stature, and inspire many women, in small ways, to dream.

In the movie, the book Mrs. Dalloway published in 1923, inspires Laura Brown in 1951 to leave her husband and son to explore her sexuality, and Clarissa Vaughn in 2001 to love her male friend and be in love with her female partner in equal measure. Like Clarissa Dalloway in the book, each woman in the movie, including Virginia Woolf herself, tries to find herself within a complex network of relations, which casts her in the role of mother, wife, lover, friend, and sister. Over all, The Hours manages to imagine a story around an imagination of Virginia Woolf’s that has, since its publication, sparked many women to imagine the world around them, if only a little, differently. What stands out for me as I reflect on the movie now is that no woman in the film questions if Virginia meant to write a feminist book or whether Virginia herself is feminist for writing the book. The movie simply follows the social life of the book, as it circulates through time and entering the lives of women, makes them dream against the grain of patriarchal norms. Do the small acts we see on screen make these characters feminist? We are not told. We don’t ask.

In other words, the movie, much like the book that inspires and moves its characters shows us lives that are lived outside of heteronormative expectations, but does not offer a commentary on whether in breaking this hegemonic norm, these lives – or the book that inspires them – have now managed to measure up to other expectations: feminist ones.


This article is about these other expectations – these feminist ones – that I have found recently too hard to ignore. Recent discussions over Lipstick Under my Burkha (2016), and whether the movie is feminist or not, particularly troubled me. Here again is a movie in which the everyday lives of its female protagonists trouble, challenge, question, or resist patriarchal norms to varying degrees. Like in real life, they only get away with it sometimes. And yet the excitement building around the movie – particularly because of the ban that initially prevented its released– seemed to force everyone to analyze these women very closely and ask, “but is this movie feminist?” Before this, I came across an article on, sparked by the release of Meena Kandasami’s book When I Hit You Or, a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Wife (2016), that had me wondering how many times an author had been chided for not being feminist enough in her actual life.

I feel a little torn: on the one hand is the labour of writing against patriarchal norms, of imagining deviations, and of performing them through fictional lives in books and movies; a labour without which I couldn’t breathe as freely as I do. This labour – of countless people of varying gender identities and sexualities – allows us to dream and to hope, to desire and to deviate. But on the other hand, I am worried about this question: is this imagination feminist? I cannot help but feel uneasy that there seems to be some form of gatekeeping here, on behalf of feminism. A yardstick seems to have come up to measure and scrutinize our imaginations and ask whether in dreaming against the grain of patriarchy we are dreaming like feminists?

Sometimes I wonder that this yardstick is another way to censor possible ways in which feminist imaginations can grow; that it is just another means of controlling non-heteronormative agencies.

At other times, I find myself cussing: Who the f–k are these high priestesses/priests who get to speak for feminism?

And at very different times, I find myself worrying: Am I one of these gate-keepers? Or worse: Am I not feminist enough because I went ahead and liked a book or a movie that these high priestesses disapprove of? Or did not like something that came highly recommended?


I don’t know that I have answers. I do, however, feel the anxiety.


The Yardstick

Janet Jacobsen’s[1] article entitled, “Queer Is? Queer Does? Normativity and the Problem of Resistance,” comes to mind. Here, Jacobsen asks if by defining what it means to be queer, we are not curbing the possibilities of the many things it could become – things we can only imagine as it becomes more mainstream; things we cannot already know or imagine, enmeshed as we are by the more hegemonic norm: patriarchy.

In other words, when we pre-define “queerness” aren’t we restricting ourselves and forcing ourselves to ‘perform’ our identity in specific ways in order to be seen, to become legible as queer? Instead what if it was open-ended: undefined? Of course, it comes with the problems of becoming a little less wieldy, but then imagine if we could learn about the limitlessness of queering, as we go on. Maybe we can become things we have hardly imagined in the past or in the present? Why limit these possibilities, and base them simply on what we can read from texts of the past, what we can infer from contexts of the present?

I want to appropriate her argument here and make a point for fiction: can we really imagine the lengths and breadths of feminism from where we stand today, all of us enmeshed within patriarchal worlds, irrespective of how we identify? So then isn’t it counterproductive to bracket entire works of long narrative fiction as one of the two things: feminist or non-feminist? Not even because we enjoyed the way it treated its subject, or because it inspired us to break a normative rule, but because we want to be seen liking the ‘right’ kind of book or film, and in doing so, be recognized as ‘feminists’. If only feminism were nothing but an appellation, a badge we could wear to be part of this elusive ‘club’ that some people seem to own the key to! If it were, then I would ironically appreciate all this work that goes into aligning oneself with the ‘right’ movie or book in a time when there is a tendency to shy away, decry, or disregard feminism (both as a term and a movement).

But maybe we can do a kinder, more forgiving feminism that doesn’t require us to perform in normative ways as patriarchal yardsticks do. Because if feminism becomes another virtue that women are supposed to aspire for, and fiction the yardstick by which that is measured, we are simply stuck in the same rut as before: stories will dictate how virtuous (and now feminist) women should live, what they should like, what books are appropriate to read, what movies appropriate to watch, how they should write, what fantasies they can have. It will be another censorial regime and the most censored will once more be the non-heteronormative person. And sooner or later even if we call it feminism, it won’t feel like it.


The High Priestesses

I merged from two words, black and feminist, because I was surrounded by black women who were very tough and who always assumed they had to work and rear children and manage homes.

Toni Morrison

Intersectionality is a word we throw around quite a bit. But do we really understand it? To recognize privilege at the intersection of class/caste/gender/race/religious affiliation is to understand that we can’t speak for all women, no? In other words, to be an intersectional feminist is to be able to step away from positions of authority and to listen to other voices, with perspectives different from ours, knowing we cannot embody all these various identities ourselves and therefore without the many differing opinions around us, we would be lost.

Basically, you can’t have a high priestess for feminism. You can’t even have a panel of high priestesses, each one representing a race, a caste, a gender, a class etc. That is to assume that there is only one Dalit voice, one Black voice, one Female voice, one Queer voice. And yet in this era where feminism is being equated to empowerment and the idea of feminist leadership seems to have captured our imaginations, do we begin to want to play that Messiah declaring for everyone else what a feminist is supposed to do? What is she supposed to read? How she must desire? How she must dress?

A kinder feminism knows that we emerge at the intersections of several worlds, and understands that as indiviudals we cannot know everything there is to know about female agency. This dawned on me, during conversations I had over Perumal Murugan’s controversial book, One Part Woman (2010), translated from the Tamil Madhorubagan by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. A friend felt betrayed when she read it. After the ruckus the right-wing created around the book for its portrayal of temple rituals and female sexuality, my friend expected a book that would have lived up to her feminist expectations. And yet, Ponna, the female protagonist, agonizing over childlessness and walking into an orgy only half-sure that she was ready to have sex with a random man, did not live up to my friend’s idea of ‘choice.’ And she was upset that despite the noise made by the patriarchal right, the book wasn’t singing the tunes of leftist feminism. Murugan was not feminist, she decided. Yet another friend found the book’s portrayal of female agency moving. She couldn’t put it down and could feel at every moment Ponna’s anxieties, and her struggle in trying to reconcile her own indifference to childlessness, with her need for social recognition among other women in her village. To her this was a feminist book. She thought Murugan really understood female agency.

I remember wondering then, as my friends and I argued about it, whether we needed to measure the entire book in such terms at all. Ponna’s story resonated with so many stories I had come across as a medical student treating women in hospitals, and later as an activist and then a researcher interviewing women on childlessness, motherhood and abortions. It felt real. Did she sometimes cave in and live up to patriarchal expectations? Yes. But did she celebrate and re-inscribe them as norm? No. Ponna was a thinking, feeling being whose life and its many textures underlined the subtle everyday negotiations we make with the normative rules that constrain us. Does she always win and come out making ‘choices’ that make her legible as an ‘empowered’ feminist? No! But then, don’t we all fall, all the time? Why punish Ponna? Or Murugan?

And really, who are we to castigate them, when we hardly are able to recognize the fact that we get away with some of these ‘choices’ because of class/caste privileges that help us even when our gender and sexuality may work against us? Instead, what if we let the story simply tell us the many small ways in which we all struggle, but struggle differently, against this hegemonic norm?


I want to end with this quote from Martha Nussbaum:

Storytelling plays a big role in the process of development. As we tell stories about the lives of others, we learn how to imagine what another creature might feel in response to various events. At the same time, we identify with the other creature and learn something about ourselves. As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories – in literature, film, visual art, music – that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world.

Fiction is a realm within which we can imagine the limitlessness of our feminist realities. By censoring fiction itself in an anxiety to perform what we understand as feminism, is to censor our imaginations, its subtle negotiations with reality and its potential in generating desires and dreams we hardly knew of. Does this mean we don’t critique books and movies? Definitely not! Critique is fun. Critique is important. Critique is how we grow. But the judgement needs to stop. Did someone like Lipstick Under my Burkha? Then ask why and try to imagine with them. It’s okay if you can’t. It’s okay if you can. The point is, it’s okay as long as it inspires you to make subtle negotiations against the norm.

[1] Jacobsen, Janet. 1998. “Queer Is? Queer Does? Normativity and the Problem of Resistance.” A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies Vol 4. Issue 4: 511-536. doi:10.1215/10642684-4-4-511

Cover Image: Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall