Problems with Solidarity: In India and Beyond
WORDS BY LAMYA RAHMAN
As a South Asian female, I learned early on that my race is central to my experiences of gendered oppression. Being a part of the South Asian diaspora, I’ve also learned that my experiences aren’t equivalent to the experiences of my female friends still living in the homeland. Whereas in Australia my dark brown skin is exotified, in South Asia my friends face colourism at a much higher and more consistent degree. Recognising these kinds of differences whilst still showing support has been central to bridging the experiential gap between me and my friends. Binding us together now is a fundamental feminist interest to support the global plight of South Asian women.
After the gruesome 2012 Delhi gang rape, practicing this kind of transnational female solidarity became more significant than ever. With Western media preoccupied in re-affirming India’s “rape crisis” and Delhi as its “rape capital”, Western feminists needed to show solidarity by re-centering mainstream dialogue onto Indian women and India’s feminist organisations. However, demonstrations of solidarity instead involved shaming India for its pervasive patriarchy. The Times’ Libby Purves described the West as “looking eastwards in disgust”.
I find shaming as a demonstration of solidarity highly disconcerting. Demonising Indian men inadvertently positions rape culture and misogyny as an exotic ‘Third World problem’ when existing high rates of gender based violence in the West tell us otherwise. Whilst some Western feminists argue that vilifying one group doesn’t necessarily excuse another, it doesn’t change that these shame tactics are grounded in the false notion that India’s patriarchal customs pre-date to an ancient, long-standing Indian culture. Many of India’s patriarchal attitudes—such as the stigma around divorce and remarriage for females—are actually recent constructs extracted and enforced by the British Empire during the codification movement. Later British negotiations with native male elites made these constructs even more widespread among differing castes.
Boxing India’s patriarchy into a simple deep-rooted cultural problem erases the West’s long-standing colonial legacies on the gender politics of the country. In removing themselves, Western feminists not only otherise India’s struggles but confirm a sense of Western cultural superiority—a practice seen time and time again in the West’s colonial relationship with India. In 1927, Katherine Mayo declared the inherent backwardness of the Indian people to be the cause of female oppression. In 2013, Libby Purves wrote that "murderous, hyena-like male contempt" towards women is an Indian cultural norm. Both texts are decades apart, but the dubious nature of Western solidarity with Indian women seems to be timeless.
Patriarchy in India is not a regressive and outdated version of patriarchy in the West, but rather a unique and complex phenomenon in its own right. Patriarchy is not a monolith but a male-dominated social order that manifests differently in various countries due to contrasting sociopolitical histories. Chandra Mohanty says it best when she states that Western feminists homogenise the notion of patriarchy, creating a "Third World Difference—that stable, ahistorical something that apparently oppresses most if not all women in these [Third World] countries".
This ‘Third World Difference’ is another defining factor in how Western feminists display transnational solidarity. By reducing the complexities faced by Third World women to male oppression inherent to their own cultures, Western feminists claim solidarity by pressuring Third World countries to emulate Western legal, economic and social reforms. Whilst I acknowledge that Western feminism has instigated reforms beneficial to women, importing reforms from one culture to another under the misconception that both cultures are facing the same issue—in this case, a monolithic patriarchy—will undoubtedly have adverse effects.
Abortion reforms in India are a prime example. Where the original abortion reforms in England involved concerns around quality of life and a strong human rights discourse, the application of the same law in India was motivated by a population and infanticide crisis. Unsurprisingly, the consequences of the law in England and India were vastly different. Whilst English women enjoyed newfound legal control over their bodies, pregnant Indian women received little to no self-determination. Patriarchal family laws, in existence with traditional joint family systems, placed Indian women in even more vulnerable positions, in which their family or husband could easily coerce abortions. A pillar of freedom in one country can thus easily become a mode of repression in an entirely different context.
Given that feminism as a whole benefits greatly from transnational networks, re-evaluating demonstrations of Western solidarity with women in India and beyond is of the utmost importance. The issues raised in this article around Western feminist solidarity are all interconnected to the broader idea of the colonisation of feminism. When demonstrations of solidarity position Western feminism as the dominant political force, the complexities and nuances of feminist issues in Third World countries such as India are colonised and appropriated. Feminism then restricts itself from moving beyond borders and the goal of establishing social equality among women across the world becomes unnecessarily more difficult.
Hence while bell hooks stated that ‘feminism is for everybody’, the reality is that unless Western feminists partake in non-colonising transnational feminist solidarity, the most significant benefits of feminism will be, in a large part, for Western women.
'Growing Strong’, the annual publication of the University of Sydney Wom*n’s Collective, will be launched at 6:30pm on Tuesday 22 March 2016 at 107 Projects, Redfern with readings from contributors, live music, food and drinks. Entry is free and the event is non-autonomous. Come along and celebrate the creative talent of wom*n and non-binary students!