Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Gender as delusion/reality; inequity

I thought this month's piece would fairly write itself given that it is meant to discuss that which is closest to what I do, and what I've spent roughly half a lifetime (and counting) obsessing with: the workings of that structuring principle of/in society we call gender. As is often the case with anything we're too close to though, it's almost impossible to decide where to begin, or what is to delimit the discursive field this piece will inhabit: do I speak about the constructedness of sex (yes - think outside the binary of male/female and realise these are constructs too - read Anne Fausto Sterling's Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (2000) for more on this theme) and gender (this is now almost a given - everyone knows, after de Beauvoir, that "one is not born, rather one becomes, a woman,"[1]), or  am I to muse, after Butler, on what it means to "perform" one's gender (Butler holds that gender is “a stylized repetition of acts . . . which are internally discontinuous . . .[so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief,”[2])? Or perhaps explore the import of work like Cordelia Fine's[3], when she takes on the current glut of pseudo-scientific posturing which seeks to reaffirm biological essentialism? Sing odes to Woolf, Gilbert and Gubar, Showalter, Moi, de Beauvoir, Cixous, Kristeva, and the scores of others, from the earliest suffragettes on, who made it so that the world didn't have a choice but to recognise women as equal players in spheres public and private? I'd like to, but it would take more an epic in terms of genre than a blog-post to make that happen.

So I'll do what I learnt to do from an old, sometimes imperious imp you might've encountered in my posts before - you know the one - and start by examining my immediate context. What does it mean to be a woman in India today? How does my generation look at gender and its attendant politics? Does young India persist in reading the body of the woman as the repository of her family's honour (and shame when this body is violated)? How do caste, class, religion, access to education and other factors coalesce in the making of this mythical beast we call woman? There is a gender wage gap here of course, one of the worst in the world - see the chart I've attached below for more - but honestly, that's the least of my concerns. Why? Because more worryingly, for what it tells us about the society it refers to, is the fact that India ranks 120th out of 131 countries in terms of the number of women (around 27%) who participate in its work force at all[4]. This could be for various reasons of course, but the one I find most troubling comes from a youth survey conducted by CSDS-KAS in 2016. This survey found that 40% of its respondents - over 6000 young Indians between the ages of 15 and 34 across 19 cities - agreed with the proposition that women should not work after marriage[5]. On matters pertaining to caste and gender, as becomes obvious  very quickly through even a cursory glance at this survey, young India is probably even more conservative than the generations which came before it.     


Is there a way out of this mess? A move towards gender justice and equity? I think there is, but it feels a painfully long way away from our present. If it is to come, I think our only hope is to realise that no one is free till everyone is; it is to recognise - and inevitably do the hard work that such recognition necessarily demands of us as a corollary - that intersectionality is our only hope for salvation: till the women's movement speaks to the Dalit movement, and both to the various movements which seek to eliminate poverty whilst arguing for a developmental policy which isn't premised on bankrupting the natural world of its very finite resources, I don't know how change can come. We live in a country where kangaroo courts (khap panchayats, anyone?) order 'honour-killings' (Hint: there's nothing honourable about killing. Ever.) if a woman marries outside her caste or religion; a country where to be born a woman is to police one's every move - or have it done for you by family, friends, "well-wishers" who only want to make sure we don't get hurt if we decide to come home late one night - from literally the moment we're old enough to walk; a country, ultimately, which feels less and less like one where there's room for women to be read as human beings, not defined by their relationship to men (as wives, mothers, sisters and c.). For every hard-fought gain made by the women's movement, it seems like we take two steps backwards, and this backlash is violent and vicious.
Young India dreams, but from the look of it, these dreams are gendered. And they are not my dreams.

[1] Simone de Bauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)
[2] See this link for more:
[3] Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of her Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (2010)  immediately.
[4] See this article for more:
[5] See this for an analysis of the survey:

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