(This article began as a rejoinder to Hindi columnist Raj Kishor [Vaam se dakshin tak ek hi tark, (‘The same argument from Left to Right’), Rashtriya Sahara, January 13 2013], but it has also provided an occasion to address some common misconceptions about women’s freedom and capitalism.)
When women demand ‘freedom,’ why does it immediately raise the spectre of ‘licentiousness’?
Why, in other words, is women’s freedom automatically taken by many as equivalent with ‘licence,’ whereas the similar freedom on the part of men is never branded as ‘licence’?
This question arose in my mind after reading a piece by Hindi columnist Raj Kishor. Raj Kishor’s argument is that those – from Left leaders like I, to those whom he sees as representatives of the market - who are calling for women’s freedom are ‘consigning women into the fire of capitalism.’ When he hears me use the word ‘azaadi’ (freedom) he calls such freedom ‘utshrnkhalta’ (literally ‘unbridled-ness’, or licentiousness). He says and I, and the capitalist market alike, are calling for women to be free to ‘break all bounds of licentiousness’ if they so choose. Of course, Raj Kishor anticipates my criticism of his use of the word ‘utshrnkhalta’, since he says that is a word that ‘has feminists up in arms, demanding with red (infuriated) eyes the definition of ‘utshrnkhalta’.
For the Mohan Bhagwats and Asarams and Vijayvargeeyas to speak of women’s freedom as the crossing of moral ‘lakshman rekhas’ is no surprise. But when a progressive columnist like Raj Kishor to speak of ‘crossing the limits of licentiousness’ when he hears talk of women’s freedom, it makes one pause: the more so, because he couches his opinion in terms of his opposition to capitalism, rather than a defence of hidebound Indian tradition or feudal values, to which he expresses his opposition. In other words, since the argument is couched in the ‘left’ vocabulary of anti-capitalism, it calls for a more detailed reply.
Raj Kishore asks if any thinking person can support the notion of women’s freedom that has become the ‘ideological fashion’, declaring that ‘this latest edition of women’s freedom is waving its flag in the air, and has set out to conquer India.’ He quotes from a speech of mine (having called me a representative of ‘revolution’), the lines demanding that we safeguard the freedom of a woman to access public spaces, at any time of day or night, alone or not, irrespective of what she wears. He then quotes actress Priyanka Chopra (whom he calls the representative of ‘counter-revolution’ or the capitalist market) saying that the political class cannot set limits on whether a woman will ‘dent and paint’ or have a boyfriend or dance on TV. Raj Kishor thinks ‘licentiousness’ when he hears such calls for freedom. But he misses the main point being made. Priyanka, I, and countless other girls on the streets with placards saying ‘Don’t teach us how to rape/teach your sons not to rape’ were saying, simply, that women’s clothes or behavior cannot be blamed for rape; and that women should be able to exercise choices and access public spaces on par with men – without having to fear sexual violence. Raj Kishor forgets that men can strip off their shirts, display six-pack abs, unzip their pants to relieve themselves on the street – without being told that such actions may ‘invite’ or ‘provoke’ sexual violence. Why, then, is it acceptable to tell women otherwise?
It is strange that Raj Kishor sees Priyanka Chopra – a woman who like most people in the world, earns her living in the capitalist market - as a representative of capitalism, instead of the rather more obvious representatives – the capitalists themselves! Do India’s capitalists generally advocate freedom for women? Industrialist Naveen Jindal, also a ruling party MP from Haryana defended the ‘new direction’ given to society by khap panchayats (that pass diktats on same gotra and inter-caste marriages). Another leading industrialist Ashok Todi went to great lengths to break up his daughter’s marriage with a Muslim man, resulting eventually in Rizwan-ur Rehman’s suspicious death. The Indian variant of capitalism is known for its cozy coexistence with the abhorrent institution of caste (which itself is a pillar of Indian patriarchy). The garment industry in Tamilnadu promotes a ‘Sumangali’ (a word that indicates auspicious married woman) scheme, under which young girls labour in conditions of bondage, to earn a one-time payment which, as the word ‘Sumangali’ indicates, is to be their dowry!
Raj Kishor says ‘Women should kindly avoid roaming around draped in the robes of capitalist culture,’ saying that capitalism and the consumerist market ‘denude’ women in order to sell things, using women’s bodies to ‘incite kamukta (lust/sexuality).’ He, like many others, forgets that capitalism does not only denude women to sell things. The same capitalist/consumerist market also uses traditional orthodox stereotypes about women to sell things. Are there not ads that sell life-insurance using the symbol of the sindoor – exploiting the traditional notions of women’s dependence on husbands and the stigma of widowhood? AIPWA, some years ago, protested against an ad of a leading jewellery brand, that advertised bridal jewellery with the ad-line: “Ensure your daughter’s safety in her marital home”: a not-so-veiled reference to the threat of dowry killings! Many TV serials sponsored by big corporate and MNC media houses promote a variety of regressive, feudal-patriarchal values. The sexy item number isn’t the only female commodity that the market sells: a woman in full bridal costume, head bowed demurely; or the traditional self-sacrificing ‘ma’ of Hindi films are also ‘commodities’ in the same market! Sexualisation of women’s bodies does not necessarily involve ‘denuding’ them. Putting women in purdahs and overcoats (as the Puducherry government has recently tried to do with schoolgirls) also means that you are unable to see women as anything but sexualized bodies, requiring either to be revealed or covered up.
Raj Kishor says “Let ‘singers-dancers’ (nachaiyyon-gavaiyyon) ply their trade, but why do other women nurture the culture of ‘kamukta’ (lust)?” To him, it is self-evident that the “beauties play the lucrative game of inciting lust in films, TV or beauty competitions, but the brunt of the perversities that are produced fall on girls from poor households.” So, we have it again – this time from the pen of a prominent progressive columnist: the notion that sexual violence happens due to lust, which ‘beauties’ are responsible for ‘inciting.’ And again, we have the misogynistic disgust and contempt for ‘nachaiyyon-gavaiyyon’ and the ‘sundaris’ (beauties): in the same spirit as the Indian President’s son referred to such women as ‘dented and painted.’ Raj Kishor does not seem to see that the problem lies in his gaze, not in women’s bodies. The patriarchal gaze teaches us all to see and judge women on the basis of their sexualized bodies. We do not look at men in the same way. Male actors also display their bodies and sing and dance: how come they are not accused of ‘inciting lust’ and in turn, sexual violence? If ‘kamukta’ (lust) inevitably results in sexual violence, how come women’s ‘kamukta’ (aroused by, say, Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan displaying their six-packs) does not make them violent towards men?
Raj Kishor quotes Gandhi’s words, to the effect that if a girl can walk from Kashmir to Kanyakumari on foot and remain unmolested, only then will it prove that this country truly respects women. Raj Kishor says that for such a situation to be created, it is necessary that “women should shed the temptation to present themselves as sweets, in order to earn money or just freelance.” When Raj Kishor calls women ‘sweets’, isn’t he seeing women as objects of consumption?! And then, in the next sentence, he has the audacity to accuse women who demand freedom, of encouraging consumerism! Is Raj Kishor’s sentiment any different from Vijayvargeeya’s ‘lakshman rekha’ comment?! How many times must we repeat the obvious: that rape does not happen because women ‘present themselves like sweets’; that rape is not an expression of lust for women but of hatred for them; that rape is an assertion of patriarchal power, not of sexual desire?
The threat of sexual violence is used to impose and reassert the patriarchal ‘lakshman rekhas’ over women. In this instance, Raj Kishor is telling women that they must avoid certain professions (acting, singing, dancing), or be charged with immorality and ‘inciting’ rape. Well, there is no profession in which women can avoid accusations of ‘immorality’. Not long ago, Hindi novelist Maitreyee Pushpa was branded as ‘chhinaal’ (prostitute) by the Vice Chancellor of a central university, on the grounds that she writes about women’s bodies and desire.
Is this correct to see every instance of sex or (female) nudity as ‘obscenity’ or ‘objectification’? It is useful to recall how nudity in European art was discussed by Marxist art critic John Berger, in his book Ways of Seeing. He contrasts the hundreds of nude paintings where the woman’s nudity is on display for the spectator-owner, with the few rare paintings where the woman’s subjectivity, her will, intentions and feelings, and her relationship with the painter is so strongly felt that she and her exposed body are not objects on display. The question we need to ask about a film or a painting is not ‘How much flesh does it expose?,’ but ‘Does it allow us to see women – irrespective of whether they are clothed or not - as active subjects, rather than objects of consumption?’
It is a common mistake, even among many on the Left, to see and berate women’s modernity and relative sexual freedom as symbols of capitalist and consumerist culture. It also needs to be stressed that capitalist exploitation of women involves much more than just ‘denuding’ women. It exploits women by profiting from their unpaid labour in the home; by paying them less than men for the same work at the job - and it is able to do all of this because of women’s unfreedom as imposed by patriarchy. Resisting capitalism requires that we resist patriarchy to the hilt, not piecemeal or hesitantly, but lock, stock and barrel.
Capitalism, out of its own interests and compulsions, ushers in some relative freedoms for human beings. Workers who were serfs bound to a single lord’s fields in feudal society, become free insofar as they are no longer bound to a single employer. Capitalism, while forced to allow these relative freedoms, ushers in a new mode of exploitation, for which the worker’s freedom is a pre-condition. But the worker’s freedom also creates unprecedented possibilities for the revolutionary transformation of society. In India, many workers are yet to enjoy even this degree of freedom; in rural India, many continue to remain in semi-bondage to landlords. While knowing full well the severe limitations of bourgeois/capitalist freedoms, do we not see the imperative need to end such semi-bondage and fight for and win those freedoms?
Similarly, capitalism does usher in somewhat greater economic and sexual freedom for women, while also ushering in new forms of exploitation. Even as we hold capitalism responsible for its commodification of women, and for the neglect of children and the elderly, we must demand, win, and defend each and every freedom that women can enjoy [in a relative sense] in capitalism. Our critique of these bourgeois freedoms cannot be from a feudal, traditionalistic standpoint: rather it is from the vantage point of socialism. In other words, we critique these freedoms because each of them comes with continuing chains of economic inequality, domestic slavery, and new forms of exploitation; because women are not free enough, not because women are too free. And capitalism does not automatically bestow freedoms – most freedoms under capitalism (including the right of women to vote, or for equal wages) are won through hard struggles. It is significant that even in advanced capitalist societies today, sexual and reproductive freedoms are seldom conceded, and require hard struggle to be won. Even in the US, women’s right to abort a foetus, and equal rights for same-sex partners, are virulently opposed by powerful forces. Even in these societies, the culture of blaming women for rape continues to thrive.
In India, ours is a society where women are denied the most basic freedoms: to be born, to be fed, to study, to work, to have control over property and money, to dress according to one’s choice, to love, to choose a partner irrespective of caste or gender, to give birth to a girl-child, to control one’s own reproduction and sexuality, to free oneself from abusive or unsatisfactory marriages, and to be free of the fear of violence. Women’s fathers, brothers, husbands, families, control or coerce most of these decisions – and her defiance often results in violence and even death. Even the freedom not to be raped by one’s husband is denied by our laws, which assume that when a woman marries, she loses her autonomy over her sexual choices, and her husband’s rightful claim over her body becomes unquestionable. Is this not ‘objectification’? The principle of democracy demands that women’s autonomy be asserted and each of these freedoms won. The shackles cannot be tolerated or rationalised an instant more: and if saying so is seen as advocating ‘utshnrkhalta’ (literally, ‘un-shackled-ness’), then so be it.