Women’s movements and their representation have been growing since the end of the 20th century. With women crossing over from private to the public sphere and questioning the existence of this very divide, it becomes important to understand how exactly the feminist movement operates in India. Nivedita Menon’s Seeing Like a Feminist serves this purpose.
Divided into six sections, this book acts as an introduction to intersectional feminism as it is prevalent in contemporary India. Seen in view of growing feminist scholarship and feminist movements in India, Seeing Like a Feminist captures beautifully the contemporary Indian conception of all its varieties of feminisms. Many strands coming from different social locations, weaved together by discussion and debate, held together with a legacy of powerful people who fought for a more equal world and our struggle and hope for a safer, inclusive and more accepting world for everyone.
‘Narivaad, behena, dheere dheere aaye!’
In her book Seeing Like A Feminist, Professor Nivedita Menon seeks to provide an understanding of various feminisms as they exist in contemporary India and how feminism engages with various ‘gendered modes of power.’ Highlighting the purpose of the book in her title itself, Menon adapts her title from James Scott’s Seeing Like a State (1998). While the latter emphasizes how the state views practices so as to control them and maintain order, Menon’s work emphasises the feminist gaze as a way of disordering existing societal structures in an attempt to challenge the authority of dominant discourses.
As the table of contents itself will suggest, Menon covers a wide range of topics, starting from how the family is structured in modern-day India to how pornography causes debates among the feminist movements. What makes the experience of reading this book richer is the author’s emphasis on laws, one of which was The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, which humorously enough, did not define what was indecent. Although implemented for women’s emancipation, such laws eventually failed because of the loopholes that were introduced because of homogenization- an approach that was obviously doomed because of our religious diversity. [Sharma, Nalini (2016) Book Review: Seeing Like A Feminist https://www.google.co.in/amp/s/feminisminindia.com/2016/08/19/book-review-seeing-like-a-feminist-nivedita-menon/%3famp].
Discussions on family reveal three key characteristics that define what a family is in modern-day India. They are patriliny (descent being traced through the male members), patriarchy (two axes of power being age and gender with adult men being more powerful than elderly women) and virilocality (wife moving to husband’s home after marriage). This form of family was normalized over the late 19th and 20th century. This can be attributed to Victorian perception of a middle class family that was transported by the British to their colonies and the efforts of the North Indian upper caste elite of the freedom movement.
Menon also highlights in this section how deeply entrenched the sexual division of labour is in society. This division of labour attaches the man to the public spheres of work and the woman to the private sphere of home and gives biological sex as the basis for it. Questioning this seemingly natural division provides the very basis of feminist discourse. There are no divisions like private and public as everything that happens in the so-called private sphere is influenced by the larger process taking place in the public sphere. Hence, the slogan ‘personal is political’.
In her section on bodies, Professor Menon asks some very critical questions regarding how bodies are gendered, preference of some bodies more than others, and is the gender distinction that arises on the basis of this division natural. Invoking works like ones of Oyeronke Oyewumi (1997), it is shown to us how the rigid man and woman dichotomy did not even exist in pre-colonial times in Eastern cultures. Using works considered as landmarks in feminist scholarship, Menon exposes us to views regarding intersex people, social constructedness of both gender and sex, and how the notions concerning masculinity and femininity play out in our everyday lives.
The section of Desire highlights queer politics and as it has played out in India and as a part of feminism. The intervention of British rule and its implications for homosexual populace and construction of heteronormativity (an assumption that heterosexuality is the norm) is emphasised. Menon highlights beautifully questions regarding who forms the subject of feminist politics when we take into consideration people from the trans community as well.
The section on Sexual Violence challenges the perception of rape and acts of sexual violence as a ‘fate worse than death’. Locating this view in narratives of society around sexual intercourse and sexuality, Menon brings forth the extent to which these concepts are considered as a part of the ‘private self’. She also highlights Flavia Agnes and Shilpa Phadke’s concept of woman as a risk taking subject rather than a vulnerable subject so as to contest the culture of fear in which a woman is made to live. The section on Feminists and ‘Women’ deals with the question of subject of feminist politics and complicates the movement with regards to intersectionalities in terms of caste and religion.
One of the most important takeaways for me from this section is the author’s discussion surrounding the Women’s Reservation Bill. It is argued that representation is not required for the biological sex of female, which is considered to be conflated with a woman but for the social identity of being a woman. The reservation is for the social experiences related to being a ‘woman’. These experiences differ in relation to a variety of other factors including but not limited to religion, class, caste, geographical location. Experiences with local governments have suggested passing this bill without reservation for women from SC/ST/OBC and other marginalized communities can lead to the replacement of lower caste, lower class men with upper-caste, upper-class women. Reservation, thus, needs to include marginalised communities also to ensure their concerns do not go unheard.
Emphasising constant discussion and debate as the only way to continually subvert the dominant non-egalitarian structures, Menon very strongly argues for a continuous restructuring of feminism itself. She highlights the contestations that exist in these movements in the section on Victims or Agents? taking examples of pornography, sex workers, bar-dancing, commercial surrogacy and abortion.
One of the things I most appreciate about this book is its absolute intersectional nature. At no point throughout this book can the reader create a monolithic category for what is feminism and who is a woman. This book echoes the current trends in feminist scholarship to start focusing on the specificity of experiences rather than the structures themselves. This means that instead of understanding what are the experiences of women who belong to lower castes, efforts would be made to understand the experiences of a Dalit woman in rural Northern India.
Using works of authors like Judith Butler and Gloria Steinman, this book acts as a great tool for novices to help them understand how gendered modes of power work and how they can begin to develop a feminist worldview to help oppression and marginalisation of various social groups that take place at every stage in our world.
Seeing Like A Feminist is critical at a time when women are at the forefront of both public and private spheres, but continue to be controlled by institutionalised patriarchies. Menon’s work is compelling, as it attempts to dismantle structures, ideologies, hierarchies, and rules through mere words. For the proto-feminist in India, it opens up conversations about women existing, interacting and struggling within the patriarchy; for the experienced feminist, this is a refresher, it is a reminder that as a feminist, one must always keep learning. [Bhattacharya, Deya (2018) To Understand Feminism In India, Read Seeing Like A Feminist https://www.thecuriousreader.in/go-to-book/seeing-like-a-feminist/].
(The writer is a 3rd-year student of B.A. Humanities and Social Science Honors, from the Cluster Innovation Centre, DU.)