It is one thing to believe “the personal is political” and quite another to live by it. To practise feminist ethics while getting through one’s life is a business of constant radicalisation. It could mean being wary of the sweatshop labour used by fashion brands as well as calling out your best friend when they do something wrong. It could mean you may end up living a very lonely life as a feminist killjoy yet your life in itself will be a disruption to many.
How we treat each other in our daily lives informs our feminist praxis. How we fail each other in our daily lives through the use of unkind language, dismissal of mental illnesses, making fun of one’s own choices, disrespecting personal boundaries (and so on), also counter our feminist praxis. Women are often bullied at the office, at family functions, and in social gatherings for being feminists. When women ask for better work conditions, equity, accountability, or acknowledgment, they are faced with an impending threat of joblessness, homelessness, loneliness and are left to fend for themselves on account of being ‘too opinionated’. In India, women are often shamed in public for asking for empowerment. The degree of shaming varies from being moderately disturbing to being outright debilitating.
Let me draw out an example from my own experience.
One night after coming out of the theatre I was sipping tea with a group of female artists from the city and figuring out how to get home safely. It was suggested I take the local train but my experience of riding a local train late at night has left me with a fear of being stalked and harassed repeatedly. I said, “I am scared of local trains at night.” The response I received was, “Pfft, you want empowerment yet you are afraid of local trains at night!” I then walked to the nearest bus-stop and was harassed while pedestrians looked on and did nothing.
What does fear of harassment have to do with empowerment? The silence of the bystanders, the display of male entitlement, the victim’s chastisement, adds to the making of a perpetually unsafe space for women. This nexus of complicity works to sustain the environment of rape culture. Feminist struggles for empowerment should not be delegitimised because women are afraid of the direct manifestations of rape culture; in fact, those fears should inform and transform the movement.
Recently, a slew of reports on sexual crimes have resulted in men offering to provide safety for women, en masse. Men in possession of internet connections, bikes, hockey sticks, cell phones, and WhatsApp have started offering safety for women in their locality. This misguided reaction is categorically different from the public outrage observed during the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case. I distinctly remember men and women unanimously wanted to hang the assaulters after the report went viral. This time, however, the same regressive solution has been recast as a concern for women’s safety, in a bid to come across as a true feminist ally. It has been widely criticised across social media platforms by feminists for its refusal to critically engage with and address rape culture. This form of surveillance and supervision normalises rape culture while shifting the burden of safety onto the shoulders of women, further constricting their freedom of movement and expression. Ideologically, it shares an ominous resemblance with the moral-policing and regulation of female sexualities unabashedly practiced by right-wing outfits – anti-women campaigns such as Love Jihad, Ghar Wapsi and Romeo Squad immediately come to mind.
Writer Nandini Dhar, in a personal communication[i] amongst friends on social media, has identified this form of vanguardism as an example of benevolent patriarchy. The same structure that keeps women in check also provides certain women with conditional and limited access to power so that they don’t question structural oppression and continue safeguarding the status quo. It benefits some women for a very short period keeping them from challenging the intermingling nexus of caste-class-gender based oppression. Awareness of the privileges one may accrue through benevolent patriarchy could be a step towards the practice of feminist ethics and feminist interventions.
Inclusion of a feminist praxis in everyday lives has to translate into focusing on the small, the banal, the petty, the space that has been traditionally meant for women: the place of everydayness. From a gendered perspective, men must re-position themselves in their homes and learn how to be better allies. We must realise that rape culture in India is aided and abetted by caste and class. The double burden of housework that women belonging to disadvantaged classes bear while men look on will have to be factored in before rapists are chased with hockey sticks in true Bollywood style. We must realise that rape culture can’t be chased away by hockey sticks. Women have been saying ‘no’, withdrawing consent and safeguarding themselves through various kinds of self-defence mechanisms. These tactics have never been recognised as defences or have been thought to be a series of ‘feeble no(s)’. This omission of women’s daily struggles, protests and negotiations to defend their bodily integrity leads to men offering to save women’s ‘honour’ with hockey sticks. Women use defences like safety pins, insect repellents, brooms, utensils, pepper spray, bodily defences, and whisper networks to safeguard themselves. The choice of the weapon depends on the societal position they occupy. These objects of self-defence used specifically by women are completely overlooked and undervalued because they don’t conform to patriarchal rules: they are mostly used by women, they require no institutionalised skill to be operated and they can be transformed as per the requirements of people with visible and invisible disabilities. Household objects turning into objects of self-defence by women to fight rape culture is common in India. These objects of defence also testify to the visceral fear women feel, as has been archived by Blank Noise’s ongoing Museum of Street Weapons Of Defence or can be observed in the Kalighat paintings where women are often seen hitting ill-behaved and unruly Babus with umbrellas and broomsticks to protect themselves from harassment. Defending women’s honour has nothing to do with women, upholding their right to voice their critique of rape culture, however, does.
Feminist killjoys are ostracised for our constant critical engagement with the manifestations of rape culture in our everyday life. This form of punishing ‘difficult’ women works to strengthen the clutches of the biggest cancel culture of our times: patriarchy. The cancelling out of feminist killjoys need to be addressed and protested to radicalise the banal. Reinforcing our faith in basic human rights should make us engage in better feminist praxis, not disparage feminism.
[i] Permission received to refer to this
Cover Image: Pixabay