A Thank You Note to Mothers, Aunts, Grandmothers
Jasmeen urged me to think about my feminist journey. I thought and remembered that I had called myself a ‘feminist’ quite thoughtlessly, in high school. At age sixteen or seventeen. Most of my role models at the time were men. Men seemed dynamic, confident, in control – able to handle the tumultuous world. I was often in awe of them, I wanted to be like them. I called that feminism. It was essentially my discomfort with the definition of the feminine that my social location had imposed on me. It was not a word of solidarity at all. It gave me an opportunity to say “I wasn’t feminine like them”; “I din’t care to be feminine”. So the Julia Robertses and Jennifer Lawrences channeled themselves into me – I was the tomboy who managed male attention (at a slightly later age) quite easily. So I gave myself some points. The word feminist helped devise a survival strategy in a world where a woman could only claim gender in a voice of victimhood, defeat, effacement. It was a selfish journey. It had nothing to do with solidarity with other women, it, in fact, meant alienating myself from other women. I felt the pressures of patriarchy intimately, violently, through the adoption of the identity of a non-feminine woman. And I am not the only one in history and myth to do so – Razzia, Chitrangada and now Katniss are all created through the logics that I had embraced. Katniss is attractive because she sports a side-braid and tolerates the impact of high violence with equanimity. The Greek warrior almost. Who would put other women at a discomfort. She was ahead of them in attaining equal status with men as well as admiration and attention of men.
It has taken my feminism a long journey into the labyrinthine worlds of modern sexuality to understand that women are made by a violent political apparatus. The invocation of the category ‘woman’ is to make men (or equivalent carriers of masculinity – for example, the nation-state) feel powerful, in control, as well as having a place where they can express vulnerability when and on whatever terms they choose. In college, I became friends with women who were card-carrying ‘feminists’. I admired them; I wanted to join their ranks. I learnt feminist lessons of sexual liberation, rejection of the familial imprisonment of marriage, embracing of economic and political freedoms. Freedom was at the core of this feministm. By the time I was graduating from college, I had experienced many of these freedoms – except they didn’t free me of the burden of feeling my own interiority through a masculine standard that I was holding myself to. Modern sexuality was bogus. It was yet another trap. I concluded.
In the past decade of trying to become an anthropologist and politically engaged (yet often numbed in the face of the bid to take sides) person, I have gone from rejecting feminism as a handmaiden of liberalism to settling with the notion that that some ideas (even if borne out of enemy camps) had inherent value. To appreciate them and to facilitate their travel to persons of multiple genders for a wide and variegated interpretation of what liberty, freedom meant – was perhaps not such a bad idea. It probably meant the word ‘freedom’ could generate a placeholder in which different feminisms could be born. I have my doubts though - about the expectation that a free woman was the best way to be a woman. I don’t understand the academic debates within feminist theory so well. But I will place on record my discomfort with the argument that violence against women in the non-west is somehow an event of their own wanting or alignment. No violence can be. Whether or not the intervention of the white feminist or supranational, neo-imperial authorities may be a desirable thing, the fact remains that women in situations of violence, coercion, humiliation must be offering their own forms of protest or resistance –whatever may be the scripts of the same. An elderly Bengali lady who fed me many meals when I visited her village, always told me – I wish I was educated like you, I would never get married, it is only a version of slavery. She hadn’t been taught liberal feminism, she knew it as well as any fancy professor. My grandmother who now suffers from dementia tells (perhaps, madness is her form of freedom) of her husband – if my family had not been destituted in the move from east Bengal, I would never have married this man. These are women who have lived lives of immense struggle, often not having an escape. Which does not mean they didn’t desire an escape. Perhaps, that is freedom in itself – the promise of escape. Women’s mobility is systematically punctured in most societies. Mobility becomes a script of power. I came to be a feminist in my fundamental embrace of being un-settled. Of being mobile, flexible, unmoored –whatever its anxieties and insecurities might be. Thus, winning a battle for mothers, aunts and grandmothers whose lifelong desire and protest I inherit.