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Book Review: Seeing like a Feminist by Nivedita Menon


Feminism, often referred to as the ‘F word’ is a concept everyone fears, a concept most people don’t like to associate themselves with. Think of it this way, haven’t we all heard people around us (including women) say “I believe in equal rights for women but don’t worry I am not a feminist.”? And with the Indian government preferring the term “women empowerment” or Mahila Sashaktikaran instead of narivad meaning feminism? And the internet which so hates feminists that it has a special term for them- “feminazis”. And every time there’s a false accusation by any woman, the internet has a question for us- “Where are the feminists now, what do they have to say about this?”.

The question remains what is it about feminism that makes everyone so uncomfortable. Nivedita Menon in her book “Seeing like a feminist” touches upon all of these issues. As the name suggests the book is about feminism, particularly about feminist politics, a feminist’s worldview of a patriarchal society and how gender is complicated by caste, politics and class.

According to Menon, there are three social constructs of an Indian family that make sure male dominance prevails. These are:

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patriarchy– distribution of power based on gender and age hierarchies with adult male triumphing the elder female;


virilocality– a wife moving to the husband’s house; and

patriliny– passing of family property and name exclusively through the male members.

If you bring fundamental rights into a family, and if every individual in a family is treated as a free and equal citizen, that family will collapse. Because the family, as it exists, is based on clearly established hierarchies of gender and age.

Menon argues that this form of “patrilineal and virilocal” form of marriage is based on an upper-caste patriarchal North Indian norm and became popular only during the British occupation of India. Prior to that different communities had different family compositions and forms of marriage. Menon herself belonging to the Nair community of Kerela explains her grandmother’s appallment upon learning about the patriarchal family as we see today. To her, this was an alien concept, something we adopted from the west because their community had been matrilineal until the British arrived.

This revelation is truly disturbing, for all our lives we’ve been told that this is our culture, our tradition and this is how things are done. It seems we have been fed lies all our lives. How hypocritical is it then when our parents blame the west for polluting our Indian culture, but in reality, the traditions aren’t even ours to follow in the first place! Are we then not progressing backwards then? Who said that that women have more freedom now than ever?

Menon argues that gender is only a social construct. If people were given the freedom to be themselves, there would be at least 5 different genders! If what society considered “normal behaviour” was truly natural, we would not need the vast measures of control to impose such behaviour.

Imagine a beared man in a skirt in a public place, why would this shake the very foundations of ‘normal’ society? Unless ‘he’ is recognizably a hijra and that would put him on the margins of the society in a different way. Just the wrong kind of clothes on the wrong body and the very foundations of natural, normal, sexual identity start to quake? How normal, natural can they be then?

On the concept of sexuality too, she argues the same. If heterosexuality was natural we wouldn’t need laws to prevent same-sex relationships. The criminalisation of same-sex activity (although now legal in India) was no ancient Indian tradition. This too was introduced as a legal provision by the British in the late nineteenth century.

Why would we need laws to maintain something that is natural? Are there laws forcing people to eat or sleep? But we need a law to force people to have sex in a particular way?

Menon also emphasizes on a very crucial point, that there is no one “feminism”. Diverse identities shape the way people think and therefore, there can and remains to be disagreements even amongst feminists about issues like prostitution or pornography. In conclusion, Menon ends in a note of hope. She writes that feminism is not about that one final moment of triumph but is a gradual process contributed by tiny transformations that slowly and definitively change the society so that the social markers shift forever.

“Narivad, behna, dheere dheere ayyi! Feminism, sister, comes slowly slowly.”

Also Read: Sometimes, I Fail As A Feminist

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