India is a very happening place right now in terms of debates about gender and rights, what with the outcry over the Delhi gang rape of December 2012, the Supreme Court ruling on article 377, and the Tarun Tejpal harassment case. There are so many articles and posts about it, the mind boggles. And it isn’t a case of starting and ending with armchair punditry. People mobilise, gather, protest, and get their government to listen to them. This isn’t to say that all is rosy in the largest democracy in the world. There are deep schisms that complicate already messy situations. Religion, socioeconomic level, caste status…all these set up deep rooted power asymmetries that make it difficult for people who are oppressed to raise their voices. And then when they finally manage to get a squeak out, along comes some self-righteous howl to overpower theirs.
In a blog post entitled “In defence of men“, Seema Goswami argues that “In a free and frank gender debate, men must be allowed to air their views – no matter how offensive we find them”. I won’t summarise her post here, but I’ve linked to it above. I just want to get my response to it off my chest, and hopefully get others – who think what she says makes sense – to think a little more deeply about the issue.
Actually the writer confuses many issues in her post. For one thing, feminism isn’t the same thing as humanism. There are many ways in which the feminist cause is one that is specific to the female gender and the oppression of women (and anyone else who is not a heterosexual male) as a class under the structure of patriarchy. Secondly, feminism is about class, not about individuals. There is a big difference between the two, even if they are interrelated in many ways. The examples she brings up, of some men feeling lost in the discourse, is akin to white people who get lost in the discourse of racism. Thirdly, there is no part of the feminist discourse that says that men do not suffer as well. But if they suffer, it is because patriarchy hurts everyone. And if they suffer more as the patriarchy is dismantled, it is because they do not understand how privilege works. The bewilderment they feel when women raise their voices against the class they belong to despite their feeling that they have done no personal wrong, is the same bewilderment that female children feel when they are told in so many ways that they as a class are less than male children. What personal wrong have they done? It is important for any man who cares about how this turns out to stop acting like a victim, and to first learn how, even without meaning to, privileged people can be oppressors. Only then can they intelligently join the discourse. For men to feel afraid now because suddenly the word of women is being taken seriously is ironic, when it took so many centuries for women to be taken seriously in the public sphere in the first place. But also because even now, it is not ALL women who are being heard. This writer’s point of view is actually not surprising. There is a history even in the West of upper class women arguing against feminism (or arguing that there is no more need for it), when it is really only their lives that have improved. One good example of the controversial nature of this position can be seen in bell hooks’ response to Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In‘.
There is this clip of comedian Aamer Rahman taking a dig at the ridiculous notion of ‘reverse racism’. I think that the things he says can be applied to accusations of ‘reverse sexism’ such as Ms. Goswami is making in her post.
The point is that there is a history behind the discourses that are being constructed now. If the voices are shrill, it is because they have been struggling for so long to be heard. The only way for people to be a part of the change (rather then be seen as fighting to hold onto their privilege) is to educate themselves and learn how to be good partners in a fight that everyone should want to win.