By Amrita Nandy | Jan 7, 2013, 1

Nivedita Menon: We're witnessing new interventions by feminists of all genders
Feminists have long tried to build an understanding that desexualises rape — in law and everyday life, says Nivedita Menon.
  • With violence against Indian women on the rise, the debate over feminist politics and its relevance has acquired new importance. AcademicNivedita Menon has researched this in Seeing Like A Feminist. Speaking with Amrita Nandy, Menon discussed the role and energy of feminism today, how rape and dress are analysed by convention versus feminism — and how feminism eventually liberates women, even from being feminists:

You write about rape usually being analysed within a patriarchal discourse of honour — how is rape understood outside that frame?

Feminists have long tried to build an understanding that desexualises rape — in law and everyday life. If you take rape out of patriarchal discourses of honour, it is an act of violence that violates bodily integrity. It is not a fate worse than death but it is traumatic, like any act of physical violence, and it should be punished as such.

In the way young women and men in the recent protests are writing and singing about this, you can see this understanding has wide currency now.

One issue about rape centres on women’s dress. In contrast to patriarchal norms, the liberal discourse emphasises free choices for women. But why are miniskirts projected as choice as opposed to say, veils?

For feminism, this is a key issue — are women victims needing protection or active agents engaging with power? The notion of choice is not enough to answer this because such freedom of choice is always exercised within strict boundaries that are non-negotiable — class, race, caste and gender-based. Women do make choices but not in circumstances of their own making. And often, women choose options that go against normative feminist values.

Here, we see the contradiction between two core beliefs of feminism — the belief in the autonomy of women versus the hegemony of dominant values that constrain the freedom to choose. Values liberals consider desirable are not dominant in society, so the freedom to choose often simply reasserts existing problematic values — thus, for example, a woman may choose to abort a fetus because it is female. We must deal with this troubling recognition in our politics. Feminists must treat these choices with respect, work towards changing the circumstances that shape them, engage in dialogue and be open to the destabilisation of our own norms.

As for the veil versus the miniskirt — the feminist critique is of cultural pressure to dress in particular ways, whether this involves showing more skin or covering up. In either case, the element of force is what we isolate as the problem, not the dress itself.

Finally, is there a somewhat wary distance between women and feminists today?

Well, feminism is not about a moment of final triumph but the gradual transformation of the social field, so that old markers shift forever — this shift actually enables many young women today to say, ‘I believe in equal rights for women but i’m not a feminist.’

What feminist struggles fought for yesterday have become beyond challenge today. In the protests that galvanised the country, many slogans, and not just in English, expressed feminist understandings about the autonomy and mobility of women. The young women on the streets were unafraid. The young woman whose rape and murder moved all of us also showed exemplary courage and no false notions of shame in her statements to the police.

I think we are witnessing the gradual transformation of ground-level common sense by feminist interventions, from rural areas to urban classrooms — and by feminists of all genders.