It is with growing dread, rather than anticipation, that some feminists greet the arrival of March 8 each year. And only some of the anxiety has to do with the ageing, and not raging, hormones of those who once demonstrated, celebrated or simply renewed their pledge every year to reduce, if not actually remove, the many and often crippling discriminations that operate against women. The reasons for this discomfort have less to do with the recent and sometimes painful retreats of the women’s movement, and more to do with the unwelcome ways in which International Women’s Day has been turned into another Hallmark Moment. In what is turning out to be a grotesque parody of its goals and far from insubstantial gains, the legacies of the women’s movement are annexed, sometimes subjugated and deliberately squandered by a formidable range of forces: March 8 has become a moment for the state, movements of the Hindu Right or even the market to put women in their place.
It is not the place that most feminists are striving to attain. None of us can forget those chilling moments, beginning in the late Eighties, when the slogan of Indian feminists “hum phul nahi hai, chingari” was on the lips of thousands of women who demanded the right to celebrate the chunri mahotsav of Roop Kanwar in 1987, or participated in the shilanyas programme in 1989. The unseemly eagerness of the Right to thrust the (Hindu) uniform civil code on minorities has forced the revision of the women’s movement’s own demands.
Such unique appropriations of the slogan of women’s “empowerment” were pioneered by the Indian state itself, which dutifully earmarked plans, programmes and, it must be said, far from insubstantial funds for the purpose. Unlike the Hindu Right, the state did grant rights and reforms that the women’s movement demanded, or even when they were not demanded (like reservations to Parliament), that have become useful entries into public political life. Today it is the gradual convergence of state programmes with the programme of the Hindu Right that is deeply disturbing. Of course, it is the very success of the Indian women’s movement that makes it such an attractive place to colonize. Nothing else can explain the recent move to rename Women’s Studies Centres as Women and Family Studies Centres.
Some of these centres have been extraordinarily productive in their 25 year existence, though not in ways that always won the approval of the state. Whether such renaming, stoutly resisted by the centres themselves, will be effectively subverted and seized as a new opportunity remains to be seen. After all, it is the systematic political efforts and scholarly analyses of feminism that has uncovered the Indian family as a dangerous place for many, especially young women. Family histories and family studies are crucial to the continued task of unmasking the ideological claims of the caring, sharing Indian family.
These moves of the Right and the State, and more recently the Right in the State, have been matched with extraordinary vigour by the mediatized image of “liberation.” The Indian market has never allowed ideology to come between it and a good business opportunity. In the Thirties, the Madras based journal of the pre-independence women’s movement, Stri Dharma, routinely carried the endorsements of Ammu Swaminathan for silk shops in Madras. Neither side seemed uneasy with such accommodations. But the post-1975 Indian women’s movement, among other things, launched legal protests and guerrilla actions against ideals of beauty that were promoted by companies who dismembered women’s bodies, against the multiple forms of violence that these ideals engendered, and media campaigns and fashion shows that denigrated women. These were critiques that the commercial world had to combat, not accommodate. This they did in tasteless and offensive ways: an example was the Bangalore photoshop which suggested that if you like your partner, you should “hang her”. Far from remaining innocent, the pun only mocked the growing legions of young women who were dying in their marital homes.
Today, the fierce and unrestrained sexualization of the visual space has (once more) allowed women to be judged by their looks, but this time as people who make their own choices, as people with power, jobs and a credit card. Thus it is not only the slavish overexposure of beauty queens and stars to which the new campaigns are devoted, but to the declaration of every woman achiever as a glamorous consumer. Thus washing machine companies can pick lists of honour and Ponds can herald a newspaper World of Woman, provided it is strongly focussed on their capacity for consumption and does not allow even a whiff of resistance to reach the public. The “fashion show” has become as mandatory a team building tactic for women workers as the sports day may once have been: tired “customer executives” at IT software parks in Bangalore strut the ramp at the end of a dizzying week.
New modes of consumption do increase female autonomy among certain classes and in limited ways, but the “creative” backlash is never far behind. In a myriad violent ways, women are reminded of their vulnerability in public life. For instance, in the Eighties, the two wheeler became the symbol of mobility for women in Bangalore, Chennai and Pune. But those who took to Kineticization as a route to mobility in the city were soon threatened with attacks from other two-wheeler-borne male assailants, who pushed them off their bikes. Similarly, thousands of women who found jobs in the expanding garment and electronic industry since the Eighties became eager consumers of low-end beauty products and fairness creams. But the alarming increase in unnatural deaths of newly married women (for instance, three registered deaths per day in a city like Bangalore) reveals the price they pay for such independence. First-generation urban workers are among a high proportion of victims, and are routinely suspected of sexual licence, leading to violence and sometimes death within a few years of marriage. More recently, an increasing number of women in cities like Bangalore have become the victims of public acid attacks, a permanent disfigurement that serves as a warning to those who entertain illusions of independence.
So perhaps we should hold back applause for the cheerful reports of large numbers of working women, (in low-end banks and IT jobs) and the well-heeled corporate achievers who accept the votes of the washing machine companies. Perhaps a dignified silence this time around will be an appropriate response to the trivializing tactics of the Indian market.