Feminism is the radical notion that women are people , said someone famous. That sums up feminism better than any long winded defin...

Monday, 9 January 2017

Are Families Above Women?

Recently the Hindustan Times published a piece by Shashi Shekhar called Modern Families: Let's Keep Our Loved Ones Close.
Some aspects of the piece were quite bothersome and while attempting to decode it, I present my point of view here.

let's scratch the surface and take a look: what does the glorification of the family mean and who does it benefit?

The traditional definition of the family is: two or more people living together, related by birth, marriage or adoption. As members of a unit, they are supposed to support each other, in their general pursuit of a life of dignity. What if the unit turned against one of its own? 

Let us remember that historically, women were bound into the heterosexual, monogamous family to further the rights of men over their property, so they could be certain that the property they passed on, went only to their own offspring. Men leaned on the assurance of monogamy to ascertain that the child he called his own, was indeed his. The family has evolved to harness women's productive and reproductive labour for the benefit of the family and the man at its helm.

In the Indian context, the family has served as the basic unit of caste. Endogamy is the device used to ensure the perpetuation of caste. Endogamy or marriage within the same caste (while prohibited within certain kinship i.e. gotra) keeps the caste system thriving. A prerequisite for this is ensuring the virginity of the girl being given in marriage and even now in the year 2016. You need only glance at the matrimonial adverts in national newspaper to ascertain this. You'd be forgiven were you to think that you'd been transported bak in time. Certainly nothing gives away the fact that you're in 2016.

The normative heterosexual family is the unit of the state and it has been well established that the modern state functions in the image of the family. The power structure of the family is replicated at the state level and the sate defends the existence of the family and safeguards its interests.

Parsing through data collected by government agencies like National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), we find that among all registered cases of violence against women, the largest share was cruelty by husband and relatives. Women are most at risk with their own families. The safe haven that is the family, is certainly a mirage as far as countless married women are concerned.

Large numbers of women are are kidnapped every year and forcing a woman into marriage continues to be the chief reason to kidnap her. As per NCRB data, just last year, in 2015, close to 54% of all abductions of women were carried out to force them into marriage. 

The report also says that police sources said much high numbers of kidnapping are probably due to the fact that parents of girls who eloped for marriage often registered cases of kidnapping against the man the girl eloped with. That's the loving family for you, which refuses to accept a woman's right to choose her own life partner. The unmarried woman is unsafe with her own family.

When harassed for dowry, a woman is left to her own devices, often facing torture and cruelty not just at the hands of husband but also her in-laws. Parents usually tend to have used up every resource on organizing the wedding, hence a return to the natal home is out of the question for most women. Often, women don't survive the torture and are either killed or commit suicide. 

Over the last three years, 24,771 dowry deaths reported which translates to roughly one dead woman every hour and that is just according to the government statistics. We know that the number of case reported are only a fraction of the real numbers. 

While the writer pines for the elusive happy family, all this freely available data makes not a dent in the carefully constructed halo around the sacred entity.

Let us look at a few of the statements made in the piece.

1. "The police suspect that even after coming out of prison, they wouldn't desist from such activities."
This reference is to youth who commit crime and have been to prison. If our concern is to have them desist from crime, they must be provided with appropriate tools,  such as counseling, set up with alternatives for a job, and everything else required for their rehabilitation should be provided. 

2. "Even our law enforcement authorities find themselves helpless when it comes to bringing misguided youth back into the mainstream." 
This is what happens when we confuse the job of one person with another. The police aren't counsellors or psychologists. 

3. "The rapid pace at which India's family traditions are breaking down, also has sociologists worried."

Really? I thought change was the only constant and societies and their structures have always changed and will continue to do so.

4. "Here we shouldn’t forget that Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra have higher literacy levels than other states in the country. But that doesn’t seem to have an effect on the incidence of disputes within families." 
The higher number of disputes in educated families indicate only one thing: women are asserting themselves. With education and a paying job comes economic independence and this helps women to assert themselves. They may have a greater say in how their families are run, specially economic ones. Having become contributors to the home economy in different ways, they may also take part in the decision making. Is that so terrible? 

5. "The Hindi heartland might compete with these states in the spheres of industrialisation, per capita income or literacy but they are not too far behind in cases of marital discord."

No sir, a woman asserting herself, her individuality, to gain economic independence or just to live life in her own terms, is not bringing about "marital discord". The traditional marriage, is set up in such a way as to be heavily loaded against women, and men have disproportionate power in the relationship.

That a mainstream media house would publish such an anti-woman drivel today is not surprising. To discuss the family without discussing the welfare of women who are its integral part, while blaming them for the dysfunction of the institution is myopic at best.

The piece clearly stresses family over women. This plays into the mindset that results in untold atrocities against women, across the country, everyday. It wouldn't be a stretch to assert that the family ordained murders of women called honour killings  and burning of brides for dowry and killing 2000 baby girls everyday  (usually female fetuses in the womb) are all extensions of the same mindset which stresses family over women. 

Traditions which dishonour a member of any group group need to be amended or, better still, discarded. It is time we looked up a new version of the family or like other endangered species it will also become extinct.  Good riddance, says my feminist heart. 

A version of this post appeared first on the website of  Feminism In India, here

Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Women Whom Mainstream Feminism Forgot


Suddenly, the Indian media has discovered "working women".  There's a deluge of articles in the print media, TV shows,  and an explosion of social media handles and entities centering the "working woman". Most of this discourse is focused on the "empowerment" of working women. You'd be forgiven if you thought we'd been intentionally hiding all this time!

However, look a bit more closely, and you would discover that this definition of "working women" is largely confined to a certain category of : those working in offices or corporations, in well paying jobs. 

This should surprise nobody. Women with money of their own, and cash to spare, are now a big part of the consumer segment. It therefore makes sense for any business to focus on them - and the media is most certainly one! And middle and upper class feminists are lapping up this attention.

Don't get me wrong. Gender inequalities dog women every step of the way, and the higher up the ladder a woman travels, the tougher it gets for her. Sample these stats from a Catalyst report
1. Women earn 65% of what their male colleagues earn for the same work. 
2. The more educated a woman is, the wider the gender pay gap.
3. The gender pay gap increases as women advance in their careers.

Most businesses now employ a fair number of women. And the women who succeed in these fields, often work the buddy system system, just as men do. They come from families of privilege and they know how to leverage contacts.

But look closer. The victories that these women forge, are propped up on emotional and care work being performed on their behalf, by other, less paid women. 

Behind every successful man, so goes the adage, there's a woman,  usually his wife-cum-housekeeper-cum-baby-producer. Women continue to do more housework than men by overwhelming numbers. 

But with more women working outside the home in paid jobs, behind every successful woman there's a housekeeper, a maid, a cook. In all probability,  poorly paid and badly treated as Nivedita Menon writes. 

In the most important bastion of female subjugation, the home, the woman continues to slog away, marginalized. We've simply elevated one set of women and replaced it by another, less advantaged one. Yet, we lament endlessly about the lack of labour participation of women. This discourse cuts out working class women who don't belong to the upper or middle class. 

When the motivation is solely profit, humans are the first casualty.  Patriarchy has kept women tied to home and to caregiving work, yet this labour is not factored into wages. When called in to work, women are paid less, their work is deemed less valuable, then they are blamed for lowering wages. Capitalism and patriarchy work in tandem. 

All emotional work and a lot of care work is unpaid. Women continue to perform this labour unappreciated.
Close to two thirds of adult women  in India while away their most productive years engaged only in housework- uncounted, unpaid. 

Let's look at some other numbers. As more than 67% of all rural Indian households depend on firewood for cooking, every year Indian women spend 374 hours collecting firewood

Even as men flock to cities in search of better livelihoods, women left behind turn to the fields for sustenance. The number of women in agriculture has steadily increased, yet more of them are now labourers, tending to the lands of others with no land to their own names.

What is work? Economists say, only that which can contribute monetarily to the economy, can be counted in the GDP as work. When women stay home to raise babies it's decried as a loss to the GDP but nobody asks, without new members to add to the workforce, without children, where would your GDP be? Yet childcare continues to be devalued. 

The labour of women- productive and reproductive continues to run our families, our society and indeed our whole nation. Women keep the wheels of our national economy running. Feminism aims to improve the lot of all women, more so the marginalized, those away from the mainstream. We are nowhere near achieving that. 

And we are not even talking about these women in our public discourse. We mainstream feminists have left these working class women out in the cold. 
The light bouncing off the glass ceiling has left us so awestruck that it's been distracting us from looking at the women at the bottom of the pile, under the ladder. The real work of working towards a more humane and just society for all women hasn't even begun.