Last week, my friend and I drunkenly tried to count the number of billboards, shops, advertisements used the term “modern” and we stopped at 36 as something shinier came by. For a country that wants to proclaim ‘modernity’ on every turn that it possibly can -- read “enter the ranks of the first world” regardless of who pays the price -- ‘modern’ is our buzzword. There are ‘modern’ supermarkets, ‘modern’ shopping malls, ‘modern’ hairdressers, ‘modern’ tailors and this list goes on ad nauseam. It’s really funny that we don’t mind seeming this “modern” nation out on its way to progress -- without pausing to ask whose notion of progress anyway -- but the moment gender becomes a part of the equation, suddenly the rules change. Anyone who’s been a feminist or an advocate of women’s rights in India, has heard at least once, that they are “spoiling the cultural fabric of the nation” because of feminism. Even the Left considers feminism an “imperial curse”¹ and the "western/modern demon"; often feminists have to explain why we're not being seditious by believing and advocating for gender justice.
Selectively labeling something as "western" is to make it taboo in one of the quickest ways possible here -- and anything can be labeled "western" if it leads to policing feminine sexual autonomy and agency. Speaking English is western, wearing jeans is western, dressing in anything but "traditional" clothes denotes one's corruption by western forces and this contempt is reserved mostly for anyone who is read as 'female' -- outright sexism that most of us encounter daily. Marxism isn't "western", using avant garde technology isn't "western", when gender enters any equation it immediately becomes "western". My grandmum complained about similar layperson sexism and I frankly don't see much change in our reception and understanding of feminism -- we usually hear the dismissal of the movement as "western" once we've pointed out some yet another misogynist attitude, a rebuttal that comes when there is nothing else to say. I'm quite used to right-wing-leaning acquaintances denounce how I single-handedly will shame everyone I know (and their ancestors) by talking and writing about gender all the time. Less frequent are the rants from the people who call themselves "comrade" and (unalarmingly) they come to the same conclusion. Imagine my surprise when I read the following quote:
Like any woman of color, I can’t simply give in to feminism completely. It is a Western ideology that does not mesh well with mine [...]
I imagine Mehreen's position comes from facing racism within the feminist movement, being the token nonwhite feminist in and outside academic feminism. I cannot imagine what an added layer of islamophobia feels to such routine tokenism. At many feminist meetings here too, there are the same few Muslim voices, the same women who are pigeonholed into being the Non Threatening Muslim voices who talk (yet again) of the Hudood ordinances, veils and polygamy, who do not question too hard the discrepance between what feminists say and do. I can completely sympathise about wanting to disengage with such a movement and will probably be the last person to ever disagree with any such claim given my relationship with the movement
(and to her credit, she doesn't dismiss feminism but instead calls for white feminists to look at flaws in their methods of working and engaging with women of colour). However, seeing feminism attributed to solely western ideologies raises all kinds of red flags, if we are to take India’s history of women’s movements as an example. Unlike the popular belief that India doesn't have feminism because there were no "waves" here² the Indian women's movement has a long-sustained conversation vis-a-vis feminism being "western”.
Many women’s groups and feminists chose to denounce the label (of either being feminists or saying there is nothing western in their feminism) and chose to re-draw links to the Vedic age, saying their feminism was indigenous in nature -- or rather, homegrown. Quite simply put, re-excavating Hindu roots to a “secular” feminism alienates many non-Hindu feminists (and justifiably so) and is an absolute no for anyone looking to address and interrupt the Hindu hegemony of feminism.
Another problem that arises from conceding feminism is western and therefore automatically not something WOC/third world feminists can endorse is that it fails to do justice to both imperialism within feminism as well as analyse how our lives are shaped (shaping, effected and being effected by) globalisation, by westernisation and what new problems emerge, what are the new ways we resist. As Arundhati Roy says, “Not everything is Macaulay’s fault”, by denouncing feminism to be solely “western” we fail to interrogate how the Hindu-bhramanical-patriarchy (once again) recasts its women, we fail to analyse who gets left out of such gendered re-casting, who is allowed to become the national allegory and whose transgression goes by unnoticed (for a host of communal and caste specific prejudices).
Additionally, claims such as “[x] is a part of our culture and feminism ruins it” is a charge levied on typically mainstream and/or Eur-Am feminism, usually where white feminists accuse “cultural practices” of misogyny and sexism³ -- almost always in a post-racial bubble of self-aggrandisement. Feminists and right-wingers are quick to say “White racist feminists know nothing about us” -- and I really do believe most times they don’t or if they do, it’s pathetically insufficient. However, while speaking out against racism in their approach, sometimes many feminists also take the “holier and thou” approach, claiming that our cultural practices have sentimental and emotional value (dowry is often described as a sentimental cultural practice among middle class households, whereas dowry in working class people is automatically coercive, for instance), once again missing out on a chance to speak of the abuse and coercion that does go on, even in seemingly sentimental practices like dowry in middle class households.
Theory qualms aside, personally I can happily understand and support the need to find some method that addresses both feminism and does so in a manner that is not mediated by hegemony. For instance, most of Vandana Shiva's work is with landless tribal communities, yet remains informed by Hinduism -- not that it reduces the work she has done, it does however urge us to take a closer look at the frames we use to articulate problems with neo-colonialism and globalisation. I understand the need to distance oneself from the overwhelming Eur-Am dominance in feminism; its imperialism is more than just a theoretical presence. However, given the hybrid nature of our lives (peoples who are westernised, and yet not), it would be more fruitful to see how westernisation intersects in our lives and how do we deal and interrogate it, rather than to wishfully separate ourselves from it, ideologically, theoretically or literally.
1. Which it most definitely is, but for entirely different reasons.
2. And I repeat, even something "universal" changes from place to place. Also, the Amedkarite women's movement and the Self-Respect Marriage Movement under Periyar prove the ridiculous "no waves here" theory wrong.
3. Pointing out misogyny and sexism in third world countries isn’t the problem here, choosing to ignore how *their* countries and cultures further these practices here, not commenting on what is their own role in the global power hierarchy and how it affects their relationship with third world peoples is.
Additional reading: Feminism in India by Maitrayee Chaudhri.