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Seeing like a Feminist

Nivedita Menon

Zubaan Books

Pages: 256 Rs. 299

Sifting through the myths and assumptions about feminism

Nivedita Menon’s book delineates several points of intersection between various feminist discourses, and breaks down academic jargon superbly, writes Sharanya

SHARANYA  16th Feb 2013

The Delhi SlutWalk in 2011

hat do we talk about when we talk about love? Desire, perhaps. The body. Family. Sexual violence. Agency. Perhaps not in these exact terms—and the last is certainly not Raymond Carver's favourite—but they weave in and out of our daily, tireless performances of love. They lurk under the surface of the choices that we make every day to negotiate the right kind of love; love that is forcefully gendered, surveyed, negotiated and often silenced to avoid smashing the dominant grids in our life that are often aliases of subjugation. We are all familiar with this beast; his name is patriarchy and he has been nibbling—often chewing—away at our bodies and minds ever since we can remember. The bones he spits out are these factors, lying invisibly around us perhaps, but assembling a skeleton that, when examined closely, is tellingly skewed.

It is this very skeleton that Nivedita Menon holds up against the light in her latest work, Seeing like a Feminist where she asks, among other discerning questions, what love has to do with feminism, and whether we would pass a gender test. The book, divided tersely into interconnected sections like "Body", "Victims or Agents?" and "Desire", for instance, takes a brisk, unforgiving glance at what contemporary feminism is, and the history of its existence in India. At a time when sexual violence is fervently discussed in the country and the word 'misogyny' has finally crept into mainstream discourse, Menon's book serves as a great introduction to taking those uncomfortable questions further and bridging the gap between feminism as a purely-academic, closeted concern and a battle that is waged everyday on the streets, in our houses and in our lives. The most striking aspect of Seeing like a Feminist is its straightforward but patient prose which takes us effortlessly through legislation—the Women's Reservation Bill and Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code for instance—and theoretical work by feminist philosophers like Judith Butler, Carol Gilligan and Vandana Shiva.

Menon doesn't necessarily critique their positions and these introductions may occasionally seem reductive if their work is encountered in greater detail, particularly in the case of Shiva. Demonstrating how theoretical work interacts with everyday life without compromising on the vocabulary is, however, an arduous task, and Menon is admirably efficient with it. Similarly hard to swallow is her cheerful endorsing of middle-class movements such as the besharmi morcha (originating from the model of the SlutWalk in the west) without scrutinizing them, as she does otherwise, under considerations of agency, and her lack of criticism of the label of feminism itself: "Feminism is not about that moment of final triumph," she astutely observes, "But about the gradual transformation of the social field so decisively that old markers shift forever." In spite of this, she is quick to dismiss those who do not adopt the label 'feminist'; a curious oversight, for even though various global and local feminisms exist, only a few are acknowledged and subsequently powerful, and the atrocities—particularly racial—committed in the name of 'feminism' are enough for some to disassociate themselves formally from movements but continue working quietly against oppression in ways they can.

Demonstrating how theoretical work interacts with everyday life without compromising on the vocabulary is, however, an arduous task, and Menon is admirably efficient with it

he themes that headline the chapters in the book are substantiated by examples from literature, law, and current affairs, but what is noteworthy is the intersectional nature of these links. Udaya Kumar's discussion of the Keralite Ezhava leader C. Kesavan's autobiography is cited, for instance, in a section about pornography as an example of different kinds of gazes. One of the issues in the Ezhava struggle for caste equality "was defiance of caste-markers, such as Ezhava women not being allowed to cover their breasts." Elaborating on an incident where an Ezhava woman wore blouses secretly at night for sexual pleasure because she was admonished by her mother for "being 'a slut' as well as for walking around 'in shirts like Muslim women'", Menon writes:

"The delight in the blouse then, of both the wearer and the viewer, was produced in complex ways—'sexiness' here was produced by the covering of breasts secretly at night, in a cultural context in which bare breasts were ordinary and everyday. And then there was the desire generated by the thrill of transgressing caste hierarchy in the dark of the night, in the very rituals of producing 'sex' through robbing and disrobing."

She goes on to talk about the othering of Muslim women in this instance, which leads to a discussion about 'non-normative' bodies, and the changing gaze of the teacher and student during sexual reproduction lessons in school, and consequently moving into abortion in India, and the context of terminology. Instances like these are constantly encountered, pummelling through the awareness that caste, class, gender and religion are inseparable strands, and that they determine the line between a 'victim' and an 'agent' as defined by society in various permutations.

Whether it is a discussion of the rape of the Dalit woman Bhanwari Devi, the difference between legislating and decriminalizing sex-work, sexism in sport, or outlining the relationship between the violent hegemony of Hinduism and the uniform civil code, Menon succeeds in shattering some deeply-engrained myths, and her efficient gathering of the intersectional strands makes it a breezy but sharp read. "Help me/ turn the face of history/ to your face", writes poetess June Jordan in "Getting Down to Get Over", a poem dedicated to her dead mother for all the stories of womanhood that fell through the gaps. Seeing like a Feminist endeavours to turn this face of history with exacting research, and is perhaps an introduction we'd want to hand over to our casually misogynist friends, our bewildered siblings, or perhaps our lovers for whom feminism starts and ends in the newspaper or the academic classroom.

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