Sunday, June 17, 2007

What's wrong with being a feminist?

In the last two or three days, I have met several people who want to reassure me that someone or the other is not a feminist. Since I AM a feminist, this puzzles me.

I have always been a feminist, before I knew the word, before I knew there was theory to go with it, before I knew much about women's movements. The marvelous definition that Cheris Kramerae and Paula Treichler came up with ("Feminism is the radical notion that women are people") resonates in any time and space (which really is most of them) that dehumanizes women.

In the US in the early 1990s, I learned that it had become very un-cool for young women to be feminists. I did not understand it, but as all international travellers learn to do at some point, figured, "It's their culture."

It is beginning to bother me now. When someone assures me that they or another person is not a feminist, I hear a justification for middle class male assertiveness and bullying. A couple of years ago, at a seminar in Chennai on violence against women, someone had the temerity to say: "I do not understand what women want. Young girls these days are not even willing to make tea!" Now, this gentleman was only saying aloud what many people think, I suspect. When I hear statements like that by Pratibha Patil's Government Law College classmate (which I cannot find to link here) that she is not a feminist, which we are told is not something he finds appealing (do I care?!), then I go back to that moment at the seminar. It's an experience like nails scratching a blackboard.

When a woman tells me that she or someone else is not a feminist, I hear a quiet pride that makes me want to cry for all those feminists that made it possible for her to stand up and say anything at all and for all those women and girls who still need her help. I hear the contemporary public space equivalent of young middle class Indian girls who are raised not just to sew, cook and clean for their future sasuraals but also to sing, dance, play instruments and paint--to never have any of those gifts encouraged again. I feel like the woman is trying to curry favour with some patriarchal standard that should not exist in the first place.

And how can feminism not be relevant still in an age when reporters trying for the human interest angle on this presidential nomination, are getting us certificates for Ms. Patil being a good wife, a good mother, a modest lady, traditional looking but of scientific temperament. What a relief! What a tragedy if our woman-President should be dignified, competent, brilliant and experienced but not any of these things! Would India survive?

I have a pretty decent memory and it is now more than thirty years since I started reading newspapers with comprehension. I am pretty sure I never learned the answer to these questions so I will ask them now:
1. Was S. Radhakrishnan a good father?
2. Did K.R. Narayanan worry about disruptions in schooling when he was a diplomat?
3. Was V.V. Giri a good husband?
4. Was Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy modest?
5. Was Rajendra Prasad traditional-looking but scientific?
6. Did Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed do a good job of juggling household responsibilities with a political career?
7. And this is very important: did Giani Zail Singh fast a few times every week?

And some feminist ones too: Did any of them beat their wives? How many gave or took dowries? How many of them tried like Insy Winsy spider to have sons? How many observed rituals that were demeaning to women in their lives? I am going to give in to temptation and ask, how many were fit to head a state with a declining number of women?

Now, I don't mean to malign our former Heads of State. I am simply trying to point out that now that a woman has been nominated (and everyone wants credit for this "progressive" gesture that makes me want to curtsey with Eliza Doolittle and sing, "How KIND of you to let me come!"), we are being given all sorts of information about her that has no bearing on her appropriateness for that office. And if it is appropriate, did anyone ask these questions of the men that went before her? What's sauce for the gander, is sauce for the goose too.

A feminist consciousness would allow us to respect and discuss our Presidents and Presidential nominees without making reference to their gender, their adherence to gender stereotypes and standards and based, as we like to say in India, on the merits of each case.

Once, in another lifetime, an Indian man (a friend, even teacher) said to me, half in jest, half as accusation, "You say all these (feminist) things, because you studied abroad." I said to him, "No, it is because I have been meeting Indian men all my life." Now, I assure you that some of my best friends are men, but I must say, that there is no better grounding for feminism than a large circle of male acquaintances. But I am not a feminist because I know obnoxious, abusive, annoying, pompous or tedious men.

I am a feminist because I am alive and I can see, hear, think, have empathy and feel. Being a feminist is not a grafted set of preferences but the natural outgrowth of seeing women treated as less than human in many settings, of being silenced, patronized, dismissed or elbowed out (or seeing others treated that way), of growing up around strong women and not knowing I had a place that I had to know. Being a feminist for me has been and remains being a woman who will exercise the right to think for herself, to have her own preferences on all matters across the board, to disregard limits and limitations placed on her and to act when moved to do so. It is the right to dream without a framework and the right to make my dreams come true. It is the right to speak my mind when something is wrong and to speak for something I feel is right. It is the right to be a person.

What's wrong with any of this? What's wrong with being a feminist?

Friday, June 15, 2007

High Office, High Status?

In the sixtieth year of the Indian Republic (which it is not), the nomination of Pratibha Patil is being greeted as a mark of Indian respect for women (which it is not).

Let me address why I do not think this is a mark of respect for women. The post of President in the Indian Republic is a symbolic and ceremonial one. If it seems important today, that is a function of the character and calibre of the incumbent. It has not always seemed like such a significant office, and while there was always some politicking that preceded it, the fuss this time is a first. It is because President Kalam brought his energy and enthusiasm that the office has begun to seem like it might matter. In sum, if the next President has a different temperament and energy, the Indian Presidency will be back to ceremony, symbolism and etiquette. And it really won’t matter except in a crisis who occupies Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Am I saying the Indian presidency doesn’t matter? Of course, not; of course, it does. But less in the ways that are suggested when someone says that a woman becoming President is a mark of respect for women. It has been hugely important to have a President whose integrity is unchallenged, whose imagination and openness to ideas were inspiring to many and whose energy and attention to detail made a difference in many places starting with the running of the presidential palace itself. The President, we have seen, can really be a role model—a youth icon, to use the language of MTV. But the Indian president wields very little power, and that is the acid test here.

Moreover, there is a difference of value between direct and indirect election. While the latter is sometimes more convenient, in a democracy, it never has the value of a direct endorsement by those who cared enough to vote. The Indian President is not directly elected (nor is the American, theoretically) and therefore, never has the independent mandate or power base that the American or French or Sri Lankan Presidents have.

The second reason why I don’t think this nomination is a mark of women’s progress is clear if you contrast the fact that Sonia Gandhi, who is undoubtedly one of the most powerful people in India, is never described as the woman president of the Indian National Congress. Ditto Jayalalithaa. When you qualify any office by gender or any other identity marker, it becomes clear that symbolism and tokenism are at play. If in fact, women had significant access to power at all levels, their ascension to high office would be routine. There would neither be a glass ceiling of the sort Hillary Clinton is trying so hard to shatter nor would there be a ‘coup by affirmative action,’ which is a nasty thing to say, I know, but quite likely an accurate description of the thinking that preceded Ms. Patil’s nomination.

The third and most important reason that President Pratibha Patil will not signify the progress of women is to be found in the homes and workplaces and streets of India. When women are safe in their homes from the men who claim in public to respect and worship them; when they can step down from those pedestals and altars long enough to earn a living and build a good life for themselves and those they care about; and, when they can consider careers in politics in the way that they do in engineering and medicine so that parties don’t have to make a conscious choice to nominate and appoint them, then women will have progressed in India.

Moreover, and this is my final reason for not over-reading this as a landmark for women, women in high office, or any office, do not necessarily make a difference in areas that concern women. It is an essentialist myth that a woman in power will address the needs and concerns of women. She might, or she might not. She might not care; she might care but lack clout; she might have other matters that seem more important to her. And then she might address these questions (like violence against women; access to livelihoods, credit and property rights; reproductive health issues) but do so in ways that are retrogressive. After all, all women are not feminists. And the rise to power makes its own demands. The track record of women in power working to empower is not as good as one would hope.

Having said all this, it still feels good to think of a woman occupying Rashtrapati Bhavan and one who has worked hard through her political career. I grew up with Madam Prime Minister and as I am fond of saying, did not know that you could associate male pronouns and adjectives with this office till I was in Junior College. I want small girls beginning to read newspapers today to feel the same way: that all symbolic and real offices of power are usually occupied by women and that therefore it is a perfectly natural and sensible thing to aspire to them. Careers in public service should have the appeal that careers in showbusiness do (after all, they are not that different in some ways!). I want young girls to see Sonia Gandhi and Pratibha Patil, the way they do Shabana Azmi and Jayalalithaa, Sunita Williams and Sania Mirza, and say, “When I grow up, I am going to be President of India.”

I delight in the fact that our wonderful handloom fabrics and textiles can be shown off by our Head of State, who may no longer be a dull male elder in grey or black bandh-gala or cream shervani (or a bright male elder dully dressed). I want the world to see, in the splendor of the Mughal gardens, the richness of Kanchi pattu in jewel colours and Banarasis in twilight pastels and Muga silks that reflect the light. Or the hardy vividness of the Puneri cotton saree, the delicate brightness of the Kota, the sombre white and gold of Kerala cottons and the thoughtful lightness of the Bengal. Ikat blouses, Khadi sarees, Himachal and Bandhni shawls and coats with Kashmiri embroidery.

And now a parochial confession: I was born and raised as a Tamilian in Maharashtra and now I am a displaced Maharashtrian in Tamil Nadu. That the outgoing President and the one likely to succeed him are from these two states does give me a cheap thrill. Yeah, yeah, we are all Indians and of course, I am. But in a polity where the people of the Gangetic plain garner all the main speaking parts from epoch to epoch, I am happy to have my own people there, centre-stage albeit in non-speaking parts.

(Post-script: No, the Indian Republic does not turn sixty this year; that will happen on January 26, 2010. This year, the independent Indian state turns sixty on August 15. Between August 15, 1947 and January 26, 1950, India was not a republic but an independent dominion.)

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Home Thoughts from Abroad, Written at Home

(I have been updating my other blog far more regularly than this one. Now that I am back from my holiday, I am crossposting my last entries there into this blog as well: one and two.)

Home Thoughts from Abroad, Written at Home

I start this post on a sultry morning, wondering where all the words vanished that I composed so brilliantly as we drove around Holland. Let's see if their remains can reconstruct their essence.

Comparison is a way of thinking and seeing the world, we learn in comparative politics classes. Comparisons are odious, the world tells us. And I say, comparisons are instructive and even inspiring. We have had so many occasions to compare the Netherlands and India, particularly Chennai. The comparisons have favoured both sides in turn and I want to share them with you, starting with the ones in which India and Indians do really well.

Where India and Indians score

Of all the things you start to remember fondly about India and Indians, compassion in interpersonal interactions (I am not talking about inter-communal relations) and customer service stand out. The small attentions and acts of caring that Indians, total strangers, especially traveling strangers will perform for each other--offering medicine, water, food, a helping hand--stand out in sharp contrast to the more transactional style of other cultures. Especially when you fly a western airline. (Of course, there are wonderful, warm and compassionate people everywhere and Indians can be cruel, especially to less fortunate Indians, but still what I am saying will ring true to anyone who has traveled widely.)

It is hard to hold on to this rosy view, however, as you observe the crowd rushing towards airport gates as if the flight will leave without them on board. When the act of compassion is followed by questions about your family history, your lifestyle choices and gratuitous advice on all matters.

The glow returns as you walk through European stores where store staff treat you with an indiscriminate coldness that says: I don’t care if you are going to buy up all our stock, wipe your shoes, pick up after yourself and don’t talk to me. Suddenly the over-attentive girls in white coats in Chennai stores seem marginally less irritating. And one misses the shopkeeper in Bombay or Delhi who says: Look, look, what is the harm in looking? Or even the efficient Nalli or Kumaran floor supervisors who say, yes, what are you looking for, what is your budget and shepherd you to the right place.

One also notices the absence of those proto-relationships one has with service providers and vendors in India (and elsewhere in South Asia). That people do not remember each other in spite of repeated interaction over a long period of time just stuns me. To walk into stores where you have purchased things for many years, to recognize the sales staff but have them look at you (a rare South Asian in a European sea) as if they have never met you before… that actually happens most places outside this region. In South Asia, for the most part, like two points make a line, two interactions (or even one) are enough to form the skeleton of a relationship. This skeletal structure gives them permission to remember my purchasing habits or even that I have not come to the store in a saree, and it gives me permission to say, how are you today and over time, enquire about the family or the business. This is not true of course, of the new malls and department stores, but it still holds good for the family businesses and shops that still dominate retail. It is excellent business practice; I equate being remembered with being able to trust and it is repeat business for the store.

My sociologist friend tried to explain, and I will try and paraphrase from memory (please comment to correct or clarify): she said that Dutch society had never been feudal and like adjacent parts of France and England (across the channel), had always had nuclear families. Not being feudal meant that responsibility for a community and community affiliation clustered around church parishes. In spite of their maritime and commercial history, then, the Dutch did not reach out and did not learn to reach out to people beyond their community. She also said that self-sufficiency and the expectation of self-sufficiency followed from the fact that young people would leave home early to go to town to learn a trade and then build their families with themselve as the starting point. So each one helps themselves and expects that others can take care of themselves too.

My friend stressed the (non-feudal) egalitarian nature of Dutch society. When I asked her to compare it to non-hierarchical American society (and whether that stereotype holds true is another debate altogether), and she said something very interesting (also revealing a common perception of American society held outside that continent): The Dutch are blunt to the point of rudeness because they don’t think anyone will shoot them for it.

Let’s go Dutch!

The first thing that strikes you when you start driving out of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is how orderly everything seems. Even the trees grow, neatly spaced, in a straight line. That impression is reinforced by everything you encounter. Well, fair enough, one thinks, after all, much of Holland is reclaimed land, and planned construction allows one to impose a linear order on nature.

But what accounts for the people here? As far as one sees and hears and reads, it is the same mad human race that inhabits this space, the one that drives badly elsewhere; will not stand in queues; talks loudly and violates rules; spits, urinates and defecates in public spaces; and evades tax. What makes them so well-behaved here? (Rude, but well-behaved!) I don’t know, but it should be a wonder of the world.

We sat at the window everyday and watched Leiden file by, in perfect order. Traffic is orderly, trains are orderly, people are orderly. (You get the picture.)

And we remembered Ranganathan Street and its chaos. The mad traffic of humans, cows and cars at the entrance of Colaba market. The craziness of trying to get on or off a plane or train in India. Spitting at no-spitting signs. Sticking posters over do-not-stick warnings. Men urinating everywhere unless there is the picture of a god, goddess or saint (the origins of image worship?) before them. “Queues” pressed abreast a teller’s counter. And held our heads in our hands at the memory.

Why do we preen at our bad behaviour? Indeed, why do most humans defend really bad behaviour by using words like: spontaneous, free, open, natural… what is natural about lack of consideration or lack of civic sense? Sometimes we also romanticize it: this is how we are, the world marvels at our functioning chaos, our chaos is colourful, being in India is about experiencing heat, dust and dirt.

It makes me cringe. It makes me sad. It makes me want to step out and trying to change things.

One of the things I really want to change is the way we run our museums. The Dutch love their museums and why not, they are everywhere, you can enter free on certain days, they are well laid out and organized and you can actually learn something while having fun.

There are some very obvious problems with museums in India: lack of resources, lack of skilled workers, low priority status in the face of other issues and a public that will neither pay willingly nor take care of existing resources. I have visited the Colombo Museum twice, and it has been a few years now so it could have changed, but to get to the most amazing part of their collection—their bronzes—you had to walk far into the back, past some very dull exhibits of boats and bats. Contrast that to the Rijksmuseum that we visited a few weeks ago: it is undergoing huge repairs and renovation but instead of shunting a few works into a tent or basement, they have taken the trouble to renovate one wing and curate a smaller collection of masterpieces that they show with the same care and attention to detail as if it were their entire permanent collection. The result: a wonderful, learning experience for the hundreds who walk through everyday.

I have visited some amazing museums in South Asia and they deserve a mention here if only to show that we could do as well as anyone if we cared enough. In no particular order:
  • Lok Virsa, Islamabad, showcases the folk cultures of Pakistan. It is user-friendly, entertaining and teaches without inducing sleep. The staff are very welcoming, especially if you are an Indian.
  • Dakshina Chitra, Chennai, recreates the art, architecture and material culture of South India on a sprawling (and sadly still shade-less) campus. Each reconstructed house is furnished in traditional style, down to the line of family photographs. You become interested in spite of yourself and the heat.
  • The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi is the first museum I visited that I really enjoyed walking through. This was seventeen years ago and there wasn’t enough text to explain the art, but it was still a good experience because the exhibited works were well-arranged and there was enough light to look at them everywhere.
  • Chennai’s newly re-done bronze gallery is fabulous. Where the other sections are still like dressed up warehouses galleys, the bronze gallery shows what the Museum staff are capable of if someone cared enough to support them.
  • Victoria Memorial, Calcutta, where I first noticed paintings with interest because they were so beautifully laid out that they looked even more beautiful.
  • Dinkar Kelkar Museum, Pune, whose collection of everyday objects is exquisite. I learnt to notice beauty in small things by seeing how Dinkar Kelkar saw.
  • New Delhi’s Railway Museum and Dolls’ Museum are also remarkable little treasures.

I want to stress that the problem is not with the exhibits. There are gorgeous and fascinating objects in the collections of the Delhi and in the Museum in Bombay (which has been recently redone, I hear). But when will we learn to enjoy them? And cherish them?

Who in their right mind would deny that India’s, South Asia’s civilization and arts are rare in their antiquity and their excellence? Not Indians, who are justifiably proud of this inheritance. When however, I see how the Dutch (and the Belgians) cherish and showcase every small aspect of their culture (art, musical instruments, chocolates, posters, stamps, trains, etc.), I am saddened and moved to act on our behalf.

We have so much to show and showcase, even conceding to cultural studies scholars that all showcasing is problematic. I want to be part of an effort to showcase well. And I want to be part of an effort to make us take a real interest in our own heritage. I worry that what we are getting left with is the stuff that was meant for the garbage dump—puberty and widowhood rituals played out over three to five days in all Sun TV serials, for instance. We are losing our appreciation of our own textiles, our understanding of our iconography and architecture, our taste for our own food and our embrace of our own inner diversity.

That is another striking comparison, by the way. Indians are constantly negotiating the politics of our diversity. It is interesting to watch how the Dutch, like other Europeans, are learning to see themselves as not culturally homogeneous. This is the beginning of an interesting journey for them, and one that is slightly further along in the US. From India’s point of view, their current politics is our ancient and continuing history. Stratification, hierarchy and ethnic diversity have been a part of every period in every South Asian region’s history.

The mirror shows you your face and when you point at someone, your fingers point back at you! That travel teaches you a lot, goes without saying. When you travel widely and spend time outside your home, you know that travel—like any other form of education—ultimately teaches you more about yourself than anything outside of you. From the vantage point of Leiden Centraal, the clearest view was the one closest to home for me—and maybe in some way, for you too?