Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay in his essay Manushyaphal (Humans as Fruits) said that a woman was very much like a coconut, naïve and sweet when young (youthful and desirable by men) and a hard nut to crack when ripened into post menopause. However, where women resembled coconuts the most were in their brains, which were only in two halves. What these halves were he did not specify but he said that whatever it was women could only hold half as much as a man at a point of time. He also analysed the novels of Jane Austen and said that they were only in two halves. I fumed with fury when I read this essay; fortunately for me I had, by then read most of his novels otherwise I would have stopped reading him altogether. Later on in my life as a Jane Austen fan I discovered that Bankim was actually right but to my mind, his observation was actually a compliment to the English author. Austen writes as two minds; one from the perspective of women terribly constrained and giving in to the male order, another voice emerges out of the novel, jeering cynically at the stupidity and meaninglessness of it all. It is the second voice, a kind of a smothered one that helps crash Austen’s novels into a nothingness and a lie; this nullity of the novel that comes as the end is the source of her aesthetic appeal across countries, cultures and over generations. Later extensions and extrapolations of Jane Austen’s novels are built around this collapse, for instance PD James’s work, Death Comes To Pemberley sabotages the edifice on which Pride and Prejudice is built. Jane Austen has been my inspiration of being studious and never marrying; I wanted to be like her, able to see and see through. I have imagined her saying to me that one cannot be a part of the system and critique it, one need to stand outside it. Therefore, the first duty of a scholar is to be able to stand as a renouncer of rewards, acceptability, approbation and comfort in order to understand wholly a world that constrains her. I cannot be a critic until and unless I abandon my position of interest, a Marxian maxim raised to superfinery in Althusser. It is from this perspective that I wish to address questions around feminism that confuse and confound us.
The crux of feminism is that women are second grades in the world without access to equal opportunities as men. The reason for the discrimination against them is their sexuality, so far used in the reproduction of the species. In the public sphere, a man does better than a woman because of the absence of reproduction in the former and the presence of the same in the latter; in the private sphere, the older woman who is over her reproductive functions is more powerful than the young woman who still have to get into the sex act. Sexuality tied to reproduction is therefore a basis of the social discrimination against women. The invention of the contraceptive helped women in this sphere; the progress of modernity in any way made reproduction less desirable among classes who gained by the spread of the capitalist order; the poor who were marginalized by capitalism and lived off its crumbs reproduced speedily to have more hands with which to pile up the crumbs. Anyway, among the entrenched middle class, the social vanguard of liberal democratic states, women were, for the first time drawn to the work sphere. The modern state with its interventions in the society helped protect the weak from the arbitrariness of the strong, monopolised force and set up institutions that promised human liberty. The woman, in the eyes of the man emerged as a new source of competition, protected by law as an equal and upheld by the courts as an individual beyond her class, income, gender, religion.
But there were processes at work and none other than Habermas could see this; an expanding social sphere meant the emergence of a social class, which much later sociologists called as the lower middle class, a class somewhere in between the exploited labour and the owner of capital, a manager, a clerk, in custody of the capitalists’ interests against the worker but not owning the moolah or its reproductive powers. The clerk thus is a compromised person, a reproducer of knowledge rather than an innovator and it is the expansion of his class that ultimately takes the reason out of public space and reduces the middle class from an intelligentsia into a consumer. Consumerism means conservatism; in order to consume more, one has to accumulate, if not capital, then wages. While one would assume that such a consumerism would drive women to work in droves, but this was to happen much later after the oil shock and not in the middle of the past century. What happened then was media, women’s magazines, the Woman and Home in England and Cosmopoliton in America which decided how women should cook, how they should furnish homes, how they should look and above all how they should learn the craft of not only not letting husbands stray but also how to hook men. When I went to college in Kolkata, second hand book stalls had stacks of these magazines, albeit worn out through being in use over at least two generations. Feminists never despair at women have to fit into the desirata of the male gaze. What feminist scholars never inquired is that the middle class, now an overwhelmingly lower middle class lay value to marriage as a cementing factor and accumulation of social capital and of savings, if not of productive capital. Though women had property and inheritance rights, yet for a woman to claim equal pay for equal work was as yet a distant dream, a dream that was soured increasingly after the oil shock of 1973. The issues of equality dominated feminism rather than the magical jugglery of family and home.
It was not until the 1980’s that with the regime of outsourcing of manufacturing processes and the decline of manufacturing in the West that the family really tottered and toppled. The inconstancy of incomes, the compulsion of double incomes and the long hours of work in the service industry and the frequent lay offs subjected people to the will of the employer as never before. For women, armed with education and sexual liberation and with the era of Woman and Home images breathing down their necks to be good homemakers and the images of Cosmopoliton harassing them to look their seductive best, the situation became one of endless achievement. One had to be a super mom, a super wife, a super girlfriend, a super worker and in all this, feminism now sought the home and work balance. Women, breathless and exhausted perhaps had too little time to fight those things that held them back; they never noticed that in the race in the workplace, more than performance, amiability, congeniality, obliging nature, obedience and meekness did better to keep them in their jobs. The cost of independence was too much, the worth of compromise were substantial. Women’s politics defined now by compromise suddenly moved around their bodies.
The centrality of the body in the feminist discourse is to solve the major issue of her sexual need. Marriage, she understands with the kind of rights she has and with the kind of time saving gadgets she can afford is no longer important for a nice looking picture perfect home as repeatedly wagged in front covers of the magazines. What is now needed is to be able to keep her income flowing in, the workplace. As politics of women shifts primarily to the workspace, a space where discourses around workers rights are steadily being appropriated by HR practices, she suffers the terrible need to be accepted. Her spirit so released from her womb and her home, and even from the male altogether because of gay rights, has nonetheless compromises to make in the office. The office now pushes women into a certain kind of make up, a certain kind of clothes. This is what Arundhati Ghosh, my FB friend writes on her status as not been able to have a normal cold cream because everything is either fairness or an age defying product. I have a similar experience while buying cardigans; they were all stocked for women below twenty five with the twenty five inch waist line.
One can talk of freedom from marriage, for there is a possibility of standing beyond it. But in the context of the jobless growth driven by the service sector, it is difficult for the woman to stand out of the productive sphere. Hence women readily fall into the trap of having to look a certain way, having to dress and negotiate in a certain way, all either satisfying the male gaze or removing her from a straight competition with the male colleagues. Feminists concern over the body precisely comes from an arena where she was promised a level playing field that looked beyond the body, beyond gender into an anonymous space where performance, qualifications and merit mattered. It is this space that the shrinking employment and male competition that today oppresses the woman the most; reducing her to someone who cannot afford to do without male acceptance and approbation. Family network, social contacts, circulation of information are controlled by men and constitute a vicious circle; because men dominate the work world, they dominate these circulations and because they dominate such circulations, women must play their game to be in the know of things and to remain in the circuit. A woman needs to pub and party, stay late nights, have dinner meetings, travel, socialize and so on; sometimes more than men to prove her point. Seen from the point of view of the male gaze, this is an independent woman with an independent life style, free with men; tweak this image a little bit and remove her as a competitor of the man, one gets a call girl. Twist a little from the point of an independent woman; she becomes the asexual, hermit like amazon.
There are two levels of dichotomy here; one the separation of the woman from her embeddedness in domesticity and biological reproduction and hurtling her into the space of work and the other is her entrapment in the very work space, where she shorn of the dignity of her reproduction and even marriage and shooed away as a competitor of the male is the most ideally constructed as one who is free with her sex, more dignified than the run of the mill prostitute, a kind of a sophisticated call girl, a high level escort and some such terms. Women who do the side business of call girls are rising at every level of the society; sometimes with active support of families who see in such extra curricular activities the source of a girl’s dowry. In this avatar of hers, a woman is the best positioned in terms of social rewards, another term for male favour. North Indian society is particularly moved by this trend; it is easy to see girls beautiful by their genetic endowments, tall and slim wear revealing clothes with the right kind of giggles and mobile phones travel on the metro. I am educated by participants in the trade that the bag and the phone, the colour of the nail polish and the brand of the bag are cues for the right kind of pick up. This is the ideal image of a girl; it is in this image that she earns the most brownie points. It is not a surprise that it is in North India that the most foetal deaths happen, most girls go missing from here; sociologists have never asked what the main reason is; it is the impossibility of a moral life for a girl if she survives into adolescence.
When the Kolkata rape victim is rushed to be lauded by the CPIM, apart from being a party in opposition has always been pathetically patriarchal and along with that a host of my friends on FB men and women, I see this male shrewdness in upholding the image of a woman that all women of neoliberalism have stupidly jumped into. Positing the escort against the woman CM who shuns beauty and approval, who has risen solely on the dint of her own merit without a male in the horizon, and one with who no deal can be struck along the lines of her gender, is the society’s declared war on the independent woman, who by the dint of her capabilities has made it to the top.