In reference to the brutal sexual assault of a young woman in New Delhi, Swati Parashar writes about the politics, problematics, and cultures of silence in feminism.
This article was inspired by the thought that feminism has stopped speaking for all women and that self reflection and empathy are fast disappearing out of feminist debates/discourses. This frustration has been with me for a while now as I have shared it with many friends and colleagues. Feminism started as a politics that was not afraid of outraging society, of saying the most uncomfortable of things, of raising the most troubling questions of its times. The fundamental basis of feminism was the idea of the personal being political, but all that seems to be hidden these days under layers of what is
acceptable to the majority, what is popular. The Delhi gang rape happened on 16 December 2012. The world media covered this horrific news and also expressed surprise at the massive and spontaneous protests in India from women and men, especially the youth. Not surprisingly, Western feminists, transnational feminist networks were either silent or muted in their response. This goes beyond the case in India and seriously begs the question, why feminist politics today
looks more partisan, less engaged, and majorly lacking in self reflection. I hope my piece will generate a debate and will be taken in the spirit it is offered. It was written at a time when I was deeply affected by the Delhi incident and it triggered off some painful memories of a decade of living in a city where I still have friends and family.
Image courtesy of Neha Kaul Mehra
The Silent Feminism
The brutal sexual assault on the 23 year old physiotherapist in one of the posh areas of Delhi has left many of us traumatised and speechless. The assault left her abdomen severely damaged and she has had her entire intestines surgically removed. Social media is rife with comments and updates. For a change, even some Indian men have come forward to reflect on their upbringing and the roots of patriarchy while media has been relentlessly pursuing this case, reporting all the protests and anger in Delhi and the latest developments. From my Australian home, I have seen the major news outlets in Australia cover this horrific news and yet have noted, with disappointment, the silence of my Western feminist colleagues and friends on this issue (please see Note 1). I have not seen any international petitions generated from this site condemning this act of brutality and the Indian government’s failure to protect its women citizens. I have not seen debates in the social/media in which Western feminists have said much. Those who are quick to condemn their governments who kill women and children in drone attacks in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or who are quick to point out that Western policies have endangered lives of civilians in many parts of the world, find no words to speak out against violence that women in the Global South face repeatedly and everyday. Violence against women that is routinely normalised in certain cultures, in certain societies, in certain countries, and violence that cannot be traced to Western militarism or Western foreign policy does not find easy critics. That would not be politically correct nor would it reflect commitment to anti-racism, perhaps.
Not long ago when Adele Wilde-Blavatsky wrote an article on why she abhors the burqa and thinks it is oppressive towards women in general, it irked many Western feminists and Muslim-feminists alike. An intense personal attack and slander followed in the social media and on the website where the article was published, accusing the author of simplifying the issue, of being a white middle class racist who could not look beyond her own privilege. How dare she have an opinion on an issue that she did not understand in her Islamophobic and racist mind? Following the backlash her article was withdrawn from the feminist wire website and a signature campaign was launched by Western feminists (mostly US based academics) to discredit her argument and point out its flaws. Instead of engaging the author in a respectful manner, feminists chose to censor what they perceived as an inappropriate attack on the Muslim community. Some of us who tried to argue for reason to prevail and debate to continue were hailed as ‘white supremacists’ in disguise. The argument was reduced to mere skin colour of its propounder. Silence and censorship became feminist tools.
The brutal rape in Delhi and for that matter series of rapes including of little girls as young as two years old, complete apathy of the government, the skewed sex ratio and unabated female foeticide and infanticide, high levels of domestic violence against women in India, none of this is significant enough for an international signature campaign or for any media release that can condemn this incident. I am convinced that news about this in the media must elicit predictable responses, of the bias and prejudices of the Western media that sensationalises any news about violence in ethnic communities and violence against women in the Global South. The ostrich approach helps, as I have written elsewhere.
Third wave feminism clearly suggested to us that the global sisterhood is a myth and the concerns of women in different parts of the world are different. More importantly, we were powerfully reminded that feminists in the Global North cannot speak for women in the South nor assume any emancipatory role to ‘liberate’ their sisters in the South. However, when (patriarchal) cultures, traditions become categories to defend rather than women, feminist commitment appears on rather shaky grounds, plagued by its own contradictions. One would have thought recognising ‘cultures’ as a category of oppression rather than something that must be preserved in the name of identity politics would come naturally to feminism. Not so these days, for, critics of culture are lampooned and chastised severely for being insensitive, ignorant and racist. When Egyptian feminist, Mona Eltahawy says something about the misogyny in the Middle East it seems to outrage feminists far and wide. Petitions, media articles, interviews, social media updates all work together to discredit her views without engaging her. The same feminists have nothing to say on specific cases of violence against women in the Global South for that would be racist. Interestingly they had no complaints when Robert Fisk argued along similar lines as Eltahawy. Bizarre logic, this.
Many of us (from the Global South) journeyed long and hard and embraced homelessness to make sense of our lives which would otherwise have been policed under strict patriarchal norms. Patriarchy would have denied us the most valuable and empowering tool we have today, education, with which we express ourselves and craft our own destinies. I live in Australia and earn my living here and yet I know that the gang rape survivor in Delhi could have been me or anyone I know. The banality of this crime is the reason why this case has touched a raw nerve for most of us, not the fact that the raped girl is from the middle class, as Arundhati Roy would have us believe. It finds resonance in the stories some of us have wilfully forgotten in our quest for a life of dignity and self-respect. It reminds us of our past world when the daily struggle was not about wages or getting an education but dealing with flashing penises and groping hands, violating our bodies with impunity. Hence, the anger, the rage at this brutal aggression on the woman who today battles for life in Delhi. Hence, the protests for justice not just for this one woman but many others who have to live under misogyny.
Abuse has been the ‘normal’ part of many of our lives, not an exception but the rule. I know I am not alone as I recall moments of abuse and assault from near ones and strangers. I am not alone as I recall the shame I was made to feel every time a man looked lecherously; I am not alone as I recall how I was made to hide my body and cover it in layers for it would attract undue attention; I am not alone as I recall lewd comments and masturbating men in the dark alleys of Delhi; I am not alone as I recall the nightmare of getting into a DTC or blue line bus in Delhi, being groped by a dozen hands; I am not alone as I recall avoiding the aisle seat in the bus for fear of a male crotch shoved at me or rubbing on my shoulders; and I am not alone as I recall being told several times by the conscience keepers of society that I should not ‘provoke’ bad behaviour in men. Buried deep in the subconscious mind are those moments of rage and agony, of complete helplessness when you complained and yelled while everyone around you thought it was good tamasha (entertainment). A million such indignities suffered daily, at home and in the public space, where there was neither security nor respect. Perhaps that is why homelessness comes easy to women, for ‘home’ we are told is where we should feel secure.
This is not the first case of brutal rape in either India or South Asia. Rape as a political weapon to teach lessons to the ‘enemy’ has been very common. War time rape or rape of women in displacement/refugee camps has been seen in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Indian security forces have raped women in Kashmir and Northeast with impunity while women in poor villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been raped and exchanged to resolve clan/family disputes. Rape is also normalised in homes of the wealthy as a cultural weapon in the hands of patriarchy. Not to mention marital rape which doesn’t find any mention in public discourses. There are reports of one rape in every 20 minutes in India. Rape does not distinguish women of classes, creed, religion, region, race. It is targeted at specific gendered bodies of females. Arundhati Roy has argued that the recent Delhi rape protests are an eruption of the middle class. This is a crass, insensitive comment from a thinker from the left tradition which has always chastised middle class women for upholding a patriarchal morality. Roy is no different from those Western feminist colleagues I am addressing here who are silent or less outraged today because the rapists are not ‘white’ men or soldiers oppressing the poor female of colour.
Image courtesy of Neha Kaul Mehra
Rape is what it is and succeeds in its impact because it is not considered a ‘crime’ but a matter of great shame for women. Rape is supposed to not just physically harm the woman but is also considered an act that destroys her ‘honour’ and that of her family/community. As long as such tags of honour and shame continue to be attached to women’s bodies, rape or any violence against women will not stop. The pain of the woman battling for her life in Delhi’s Safdarjung hospital reminds us of our pain too. It opens old wounds for many of us who experienced the indignity of assault and abuse on our bodies and chose to keep quiet, or fought in the midst of jeering crowds that loves a spirited woman or two for purposes of entertainment. Sometimes we gave up not because we didn’t believe in the fight but because we were too tired and we decided to choose our fights in life. Feminism’s ‘tool box’, as an esteemed colleague and mentor always mentions, is useful and has everything for every occasion. Perhaps, we began to choose our tools very carefully.
As a feminist then, I wonder at this silence that I can hear so loud. The lack of self-reflection among feminists is profound these days. The inability to empathise is astounding and the mimicry of the mainstream is becoming the norm than exception. We are obsessed as feminist academics and activists about where we publish, how we are seen, what we speak and where we stand, who notices us and who we speak for. We are concerned about whether what we say looks good on our CVs or in our public persona, whether we are on the side of the ‘progressives’, whether our politics looks good and popular. Saying unpopular things or taking radical positions is no longer fashionable or desirable. The comfort of the’ ivory tower’ from where we preach is good enough. Our job is done as soon as we have made the judgement of where we want to be seen/to belong. My disappointment grows by the day and I am not alone I know. Away from family and away from the troubling experiences, to tame my restless mind, I pursued education and learnt to ask questions of myself. I sought a home among like-minded colleagues and friends and in the moral/ethical framework of feminism, that would recognise differences and yet put women first; feminism that believed in debate and discourse and not a certain popular opinion as ‘progressive’; feminism that would not just think of diversity as tokenism but would truly strengthen its core foundations, above all feminism that would not just be an academic ‘ism’, but one which would stand for a better informed world and would open up terrains of knowledge, inquiry and experiences than fencing them.
That feminist ‘home’ has begun to look unfamiliar these days. Many of us agonise over the Delhi rape as it opens old wounds and we experience pain we had long supressed. It reminds us of how our own lives are as much a matter of chance given the patriarchal worlds we come from as it is of our hard work and opportunities that we embraced. The indifference of our feminist sisters and colleagues in times like these adds to that pain and grief. The silence of feminists is deafening, perhaps louder than the screams of every woman raped in every part of the world.
[Note 1- I want to acknowledge here that there is a dominant Western feminist discourse that is anti-imperialist and rooted in the left tradition. There have been diversity of views on feminist methods to be deployed but the emergence of the hegemonic Western feminism is a point to be noted. My problem with this hegemonic Western feminism is that it places all other categories: race, class, culture, religion etc. before gender and has also stopped looking for hyphenated categories in the process. More importantly, this Western feminism ‘others’ women of the Global South by selectively addressing issues only linked to Western governments and patriarchal practices. There is a fierce ‘marking of territory’ in which the dominant concern relates to the questions of whose arguments are more authentic because of how they are positioned.]
Note: The article first appeared on the Gender and Global Governance Network and a version of this essay was also published under the same title on ABC’s ‘The Drum‘ (27/12/12). It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
Dr. Swati Parashar is a lecturer in International Studies at the Faculty of Arts, University of Wollongong, Australia. Her research, publications and teaching focus on terrorism and security studies; feminist international relations; and women, gender and political violence in South Asia. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.Images courtesy of Neha Kaul Mehra