Unravelling the many layers of feminism
Reviewed by Sunita Pathania
Seeing Like a Feminist by Nivedita Menon
Zubaan Penguin. 
Pages 252. Rs 299

Feminism is an understanding of the ways in which men and women are produced and inserted into patriarchies. It recognizes that hierarchical organising of the world around gender is the key to maintaining social order. Feminism also acknowledges that in addition to gender based injustice, multiple structural inequalities define the present social order. Hence destabilisation of established social order is not only desirable but possible as well. Thus, in its questioning of the status quo, the feminist perspective is a “gesture of subversion towards power’.

Nivedita Menon’s Seeing Like a Feminist has as its core focus the analysis of several issues that concern feminist politics and activities in contemporary India at the conceptual level.

While taking note of the vast knowledge of existing feminist theory and practice, Menon provides a perspective which is at variant from normative feminist understanding. Divided into six interrelated chapters, the book engages the reader with feminist understandings on gendered nature of power and its operation through institutions and structures like family, marriage and laws of the state, body, desire, sexual violence and women’s agency.

Feminist perspective upholds that the institution of marriage, based on patriarchal, patrilineal, heterosexual family, as it exists today, having as its prime function the protection and perpetuation of the patrilineal forms of inheritance and descent, is a site for “violent power play and exclusions” and is responsible for the secondary status of women as women and as citizens. Menon also takes note of the indications of implosion in the existing patriarchal, patrilineal, heterosexual marriage and family in the shape of queer politics and new reproductive technologies and its implications for feminist understanding of the family.

The book explores how the perception of threats to the set ways of thinking and established power positions can bring about resurgence and back lash from ideas and forces that defend the status quo. Conservative reaction against the celebration of Valentine’s Day and opposition of khaps to choice marriages is discussed in this context. Menon forces the reader to think why social institutions such as family and marriage, which are neither natural nor eternal part of human condition and are oppressive to the core, should be considered sacrosanct? Building up of non marriage based communities is offered as an alternative for the sake of a more gender just social order.

Nivedita Menon: Giving a feminist take
Nivedita Menon: Giving a feminist take

Distinction between sex and gender has vexed the feminist thinkers and theorist from liberals to radicals and eco feminists. Menon deftly handles the complexities of feminist theories related to body and frontally takes the position that biology and culture is interrelated. Moreover, as gender identity does not always have priority over other identities like race, religion, caste and community, Menon forcefully drives the point that women do not necessarily have common interests as women across all other identities. In other words, women are not a “natural and self-evident identity, the obvious subject of feminist politics”. This point clearly comes through in her analyses of “Women and Feminism” and “Women and Peace”.

There is unanimity among the feminists that gendered power relations are oppressive of women and are an obstruction in the path of their wholesome empowerment. But there are sharp differences regarding the manner in which these power relations operate and how they intersect with other power relations. The book unfolds the solidarities as well as the differences among the feminists.

One such debate is women as victims needing protection or agents chalking out their own destinies. Menon in reference to feminist debates around notions of agency stresses that model of choice vs. force is not adequate to explain feminist understanding on issues such as sexualised labour, sex work, bar dancing, commercial surrogacy, pornography and abortion, for women choices are made not always in the circumstances of their own making. Their freedom of choice is constrained by non- negotiable boundaries of race, caste and gender.

Simple, lucid and jargon free, Seeing Like a Feminist presents a serious engagement with complexities of feminisms. At times the alternatives suggested to existing power equations may seem too idealistic and non achievable, but let us end on a positive note and believe that “Narivaad behna dheere dheere aaye”