What we celebrate when we mark 8 March

our new address http://feministsindia.com/

 

By: Laxmi Murthy

http://www.himalmag.com/In-defence-of-symbolism_nw4327.html

Bilash Rai

International Day of the Boy Child, Men’s Day, Global Week of the Brahmin, World King’s Day. Ever heard of those? For obvious reasons, it is only victims who get their day. Politely called ‘subalterns’ or the ‘oppressed’, it is those who have never been allowed into the car who get to sit in the driver’s seat on this one, special day. But there are driving licenses to be got, traffic rules to be followed and, most importantly, hard cash to buy the car and petrol to run it. Not surprisingly, then, the outing is limited to a single drive. Mere symbolism, snort the cynics.

It has been a century since 8 March has come to symbolise women’s fight for equal rights. It was around that date in 1910 that women workers in cities across the US and Europe marched together demanding better working conditions and higher wages. Clara Zetkin, a leader of the German Social Democratic Party, had proposed observing a ‘Women’s Day’ to highlight their demands, and the first such gathering took place on 19 March; but for reasons obscured by the mist of time, 8 March began to be the day dedicated to women. And once the UN system adopted a resolution in 1975 to mark International Women’s Day, the acronym (a reliable sign of institutionalisation) IWD became a fixture. Spotlighting violence on women, reproductive rights, and economic and political rights, 8 March has been not only a rallying cry to mobilise women, but also an occasion on which to direct advocacy efforts towards policymakers around the world, and in Southasia as well.

No one can deny that the lobbying has paid off, with women’s studies, women’s cells, women’s colleges, women’s courts and women’s budgets being increasingly institutionalised. Indeed, the evocative term ‘women’s liberation’ has itself been replaced by the more sanitised notion of ‘gender’, a neutral term that does not acknowledge women’s continued secondary status. Yet while the category of ‘gender’ is doubtless a conceptual leap, it also tends to take away from the reality that women and transgender people bear the brunt of the patriarchal system. Funding has poured in, and consultants have made their livelihoods around ‘gender mainstreaming’. From the time when it was revolutionary merely for women to come out onto the streets till today, when token Women’s Day events elicit jaded sighs, rhetoric and ritual have obscured the raison d’etre of the struggle for women’s liberation.

Old fashions
The single most significant achievement of the women’s movement in Southasia has been visibility for the fact that more women than men are paid lower wages, work harder, are less literate, still have to lurk behind the pillars in the corridors of power, die sooner, and are more liable to get raped and beaten – and apologise for being confident or assertive. The recognition of the need to make structural societal changes in each of these areas has been a core contribution of the women’s movement. Women have progressed, and some sections of women – the educated, English-speaking, able-bodied, heterosexual, urban, upper-caste and -class Hindus – have certainly forged ahead. Women can now be pilots and scientists, police officers and media barons. Almost all job opportunities are open to women, with the exception, perhaps, of being sperm donors. But what of the common woman?

Structural inequalities persist in access to natural resources – land, water, forests – for the vast majority of women in the region. For large numbers of women in rural areas (or even the urban poor), as well as Dalit, Other Backward Classes (the term in use in India), Muslim, Christian, Adivasi, disabled, elderly, widowed or sick women, life has not changed significantly, and the women’s-liberation movement thus still has its task cut out for it. But then again, in any sort of assessment of this movement, which stream of the fragmented women’s movement is actually being assessed? After all, the range is huge, from those talking about land rights for women, to others talking about going ‘beyond’ rights, to some talking about going beyond the category of ‘woman’ itself.

It is being increasingly accepted that the categories of sex and gender are not binary, and forcing individuals into pigeonholes of ‘male’ and ‘female’ is not always useful when articulating and demanding rights. Take the recent controversy over the South African athlete Caster Semenya, the fastest woman in the world. Debates raged – not over whether or not she was the fastest, but whether she was a woman at all. The row made it abundantly clear that there needs to be a discussion not only about the rigid definition of ‘sex’, but whether being outside of this categorisation automatically means denial of entry in competitive international sport, among other forms of exclusion.

An increasingly vocal strand of feminist thought is questioning the notion of ‘woman’ and ‘gender’ itself, stressing the cultural and contextual variations in these terms to the extent that a generalisation becomes meaningless. What, they ask, does an upper-class woman working in an international bank in an Indian metropolis have in common with a Dalit construction worker, who might share more in common with a Dalit landless labourer? Is the clubbing-together of the concerns of these vastly different groups useful at all?

That is perhaps a moot question, even as the notion of universal sisterhood cutting across class, caste, race and sexual orientation has taken a beating in recent decades. The cleavages that render hollow claims to a unique and all-encompassing feminine bonding are asserting themselves in identity movements – of Dalits, Adivasis, religious identities, lesbians or transgender. Traditional feminists, who refuse to abandon the idea of female bonding and view such separate mobilisations as antithetical to the women’s cause, are accused of clinging to antiquated notions that have no contemporary relevance. True, the insistence on the possibilities of solidarity as women, transcending other divisions, continues to ignite the imagination of a small but significant section of feminists. Are these old-fashioned feminist visions totally irrelevant?

Young women raised by enlightened middle-class parents during the 1980s (before sex-selection became almost a norm, and fewer daughters were born) now largely form the post-feminist generation. We don’t need feminism, they say. We are on equal footing to men. Or, We are quite happy being what we are, we have no insecurity about being female. Say others, We celebrate womanhood and have no ‘problems’. This is a generation that has fired the imagination of corporate Southasia, as liberalisation and the market have commoditised ‘women’s lib’ in convenient, chewable packages. Chocolate companies and cosmetic giants cash in by ‘modernising’ rituals such as karva chauth, where bejewelled women fast all day for their husband’s good health; fitness-equipment manufacturers promote the idea of ‘looking good for yourself (and not just to hook a man)’; and the employed woman is the icon of commercials for talcum powder, washing machines and scooters.

And then came the turnaround. Young women began to opt out of the rat race, abandoning promising careers for part-time jobs out of the home, preferring to spend time raising their children. Many embarked on journeys of ‘self-realisation’, from tai-chi to the “Art of Living”. They deemed themselves liberated enough to carve out a space for themselves without giving up their femininity, or their individuality. It was this generation, again, that questioned feminist militancy against symbols such as the sindoor and mangalsutra that denoted a married woman, or unquestioningly adopting the husband’s name after marriage. Few acknowledge that it was the strident campaigns of the early feminists that allow today’s young women to adopt these formerly compulsory symbols out of choice, and not because they have to.

Daughters of the ‘80s
While not arguing in favour of fundamentalism that condemns all women who do not live up to the inflexible standards of doctrinaire feminism, a defence of symbolism is in order. There are those who argue that there is ‘no big deal’ in a name, that one name is as good as another, that their identity is not jeopardised merely because they took on their husband’s name after marriage, and that they are confident enough in their personhood to let a minor matter like a name get in the way of their self-confidence. These young women would also perhaps view, for instance, the years spent over the movement to rename Marathwada University as Ambedkar University – a struggle that cost many lives – as an exercise in futility. They might view with equal derision the self-identification of Dalits over the passive victim term of Harijan and the struggle to gain recognition for this more militant term. The transformative power of symbolism needs to reclaim its edge in a context in which postmodern deconstruction has succeeded in blunting the edge of passionate politics of language.

And it is not language alone. While the stereotype of the short-haired, trouser-clad feminist, who shuns jewellery and make-up still forms the staple of sexist anti-feminist jokes, it must be recognised that it is this very refusal on the part of a few to conform to feminine standards – set by a largely male-run cosmetic industry – that sets other women free to place themselves on a sliding scale. With uber-femininity on the one end, and uncompromising butch on the other, the options available to young women are staggering, thanks to the symbolic creation of an extreme.

The women’s movement, like other movements of marginalised groups, began by identifying, voicing and attempting to overthrow oppression. While loosening the constraints of binary thinking (men-women, heterosexual-homosexual and so forth) is undoubtedly a necessity today, it is still meaningful to talk in terms of specific identities and the specific issues that they face. Indeed, feminism has a particularly compelling lens through which to understand marginalisation, with women having long occupied the margins. It has only been possible to access rights, benefits and privileges by crossing the invisible but powerful border on the margins of existence and demanding to be centre-stage. Just as American feminist writer and poet bell hooks asserts the transformative power of marginality – rendering as it does, the capability of looking both out and in – symbolism can be as transformative, fuelling the power to dream.

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