The gender battles fought, won and lost in 2017

#GenderAnd Culture: Feminism was the most searched word of the year, also the most misunderstood

Updated: January 4, 2018 11:59:20 am

The American dictionary Merriam-Webster named Feminism the word of the year. Defined as ‘the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes’, feminism defeated “complicit” in online searches, particularly after the global Women’s March and revelations about Harvey Weinstein. The reported lookup for the F-word was up 70 per cent.

Interest in the dictonary definition of feminism may be spiked by news events, stories, entertainment. But as the US dictionary says, “when a single word is looked up in great volume, and also stands out as one associated with several different important stories, we can learn something about ourselves through the prism of vocabulary.” Now, many feminists and non-feminists have tried to define feminism and its many versions, good, bad, essential, lite, faux and otherwise. And it’s true there is no one-size- fit-all feminism. Roxanne Gay writes in her book of essays, Bad Feminist, about her favourite definition, offered by an Australian woman Su who described them (feminists) simply as “women who don’t want to be treated like shit.” The definition, Gay adds is pointed and succinct and she runs into trouble when trying to expand it.

As 2017, draws to a close there is no denying that there is more to this moment, worldwide. In America, sparked by women’s willingness to expose the sexual misdeeds of powerful men and the candidature of Hillary Clinton and in India by a multitude of ongoing struggles against caste, class, religion even as gender justice came up frequently. Some of these turning points came through gritty online campaigns, others were the result of sweat and toil of women, men, gender minorities and their lived experiences.

Nivedita Menon in her seminal book “Seeing Like A Feminist” offers a far more robust definition. “To be a feminist is to recognise that, apart from gender-based injustice, there are multiple structural inequalities that underlie the social order, and to believe that change is possible, and to work for it at whichever level possible,” she writes.

The word “feminism” or the label “feminist” despite all that dictionary surge is still not completely used with kindness. Often confused with sex or anger or sexual harassment or rape or women’s bodies or bra-burning or pink or skirts, while its core tenets of equality, work, power structures remain less talked about. As events in India forced us to engage with our own Weinsteins and power imbalances it was a mixed bag. Very often events, their immediacy and outrage marked the discourse as we parsed over and lived through larger inequities. There were some successes too.

Two steps forward, one step back.

Last year, this time as we were gearing up to bring in 2017, the first day of the year opened with a rude shock of New Year Eve celebrations in Bangalore turning into a nightmarish reality of mass molestation and harassment.

Even 10 days after the incident, women did not come forward to file complaints with the police. The few FIRs that were filed were based on witness acounts. Finally, the Bangalore police concluded that in absence of complaints, there was no ‘evidence’ of mass molestation having taken place at all. In the months ahead similar incidents, big and small happened across the country as women walked on streets, made their way to work, college, home, underlying how access to safe public spaces was far from reality in 2017.

Feminist Number 1

Too many women, particularly groundbreaking women, leaders have been cagey of being labeled feminists. Not so for Kangana Ranaut, criticised and loved for being brazen and blunt, she emerged as Bollywood’s unabashed, unapologetic feminist number 1. The beginning of the year saw her stand up to producer-director Karan Johar calling him a “flag bearer of nepotism” on a show hosted by him. A flurry of responses followed which included Ranaut being accused of playing the “woman” and “victim card”. Later she collaborated with AIB and opened a much-delayed conversation on sexism, glass ceiling and representation of women in Bollywood.

When an adult is no longer an adult

Hadiya was the name, 24 year old Akhila took after converting to Islam. Her marriage to a Muslim man in 2016 landed her in the middle of a ‘love-jihad’ controversy in Kerala . Even as Hadiya insisted she had converted to Islam on her own free will, the Kerala High Court nullified her marriage and sent her back to her parental home. The Supreme Court while hearing the case noted that “women are not chattels”, but placed Hadiya under the “guardianship” of her college principal. Far from respecting her choices it was a clear case of the return of patriarchy. Hadiya, was in the eyes of the court, just a girl, who couldn’t be trusted to make her own decisions.

Exposing Men

Shortly after Susan Fowler spoke out against sexual harassment within her workplace, India found its own Fowler when a former employee of The Viral Fever broke her silence regarding sexual harassment she faced from its CEO Arunabh Kumar. Kumar finally stepped down as CEO, marking a small but significant win. Kumar is currently out on bail, the case playing out in a similar manner like the cases of other high profile men accused of sexual harrasment such as former TERI chief RK Pachauri and Tehelka’s Tarun Tejpal.

#RayaSarkarList

In the wake of the #MeToo movement which outed powerful men globally, India’s academic community was rudely jolted out of its complacency as a public list of male academics accused of sexual harassment was compiled and released online by law student Raya Sarkar. Lauded and criticised at the same time it opened the debate on crowd sourced justice and impatience with institutional mechanisms and their inherent imbalances in favour of the accused.

What does female desire look like?

Alankrita Shrivastava’s film “Lipstick under my Burkha” was first denied certification for being too “lady oriented”. The notice from CBFC, then helmed by Pahlaj Nilhani was in itself a charter of patriarchy and moral policing. There maybe plenty to critique about the film and it’s commerical success but its characters did suggest what female sexual agency could look like.

Your Honour, My Honour, Our Honour

The film Padmavati’s release is still awaited as fringe groups and others make up their mind whether Rani Padmini was depicted in an honourable way or not. Such was the portrayal, that the karni Sena threated to cut off the nose of Deepika Padukone in order to “save the honour” of Rani Padmini – the queen whose existence is another historical debate. The controversy is a reminder of how female characters, fictitious or real exist to protect or serve “honour”.

Campus and Harassment

The debate over college campuses and the efficacy of their anti-sexual harrasment committees was tested multiple times this year. At the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) students protests against the administration, victim shaming a student who was allegedly harassed  inside the campus was a tipping point of sorts. The Vice Chancellor Girish Tripathi’s  statement, “if we listen to every girl, we can’t run the university” only further highlighted the discriminatory practices in the University. Soon after the first woman proctor for the BHU in 101 years, Royona Singh attempted a course correction.

With a statement regretting the victim-shaming remarks made by the warden at BHU as well as took back many discriminatory practices related to girls and hostels.

The Dalit Feminist Consciousness

This year ongoing independent Dalit women’s movements gained further momentum. Whether it was protesting the death of Rohith Vemula or the incisive critique of the feminist discourse that didn’t see the twin burdens of caste and gender oppression.

Talaq, Talaq, Talaq

While the Supreme Court ruling Triple Talaq as unconstitutional in August of this year was marked as big victory for gender justice, the government’s recent efforts to criminalize Triple Talaq with three years punishment for husbands who engaged in instant divorce and abandoned wives has complicated matters. The debate is still raging on-is outlawing Triple Talaq a step towards gender justice or a legal excess?

Marital Rape is not a crime

Even in 2017 India did not criminalise marital rape. The Supreme Court observed that “marital rape cannot be considered a criminal act”, even as it recognised sex with a minor wife as illegal. Once again, the woman’s body remains the the site where autonomy, agency, and consent disappear.

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