40/1/B Bhonde Colony, Karve Road, Pune 411004
Off - +91 20 25433207   Res - +91 20 25652324 saryajani@gmail.com

Book review: Seeing like a feminist

‘Seeing like a feminist’ is like an introduction to the concept of feminism (and other intersectional movements). The author Nivedita Menon talks about how patriarchy is so much ingrained in our society (and through society, it is imbibed in us) it is almost like nude makeup in which everything seems natural but the reality is, it involves a various underlying process to make it function smoothly. Hereby the work of a feminist is to decode the layers and question the norms to claim equality in a predominantly male society. The common misconception is that only females are feminists but the author has used ‘him/her’ for feminist, keeping the context of Indian readers in mind. One interesting observation is that she doesn’t follow any particular ideology related to feminism; rather she has provided an amalgamation of different schools of thought. For instance, it is the unpaid labour of women on which the country’s economy is based. In this statement, the author is trying to put Marxist feminist views who believe that capitalism and patriarchy join hands to exploit women in every way possible, which results in all the unpaid work (household chores) is done by women. The author further views the condition of domestic workers as a feminist issue because due to poor conditions at work, most of them are forced to work as sex workers where their bodies are commoditized in the hands of a male.

Similarly, she puts the thoughts of radical feminist by saying that family is the prime preparator of patriarchy.  Family is considered a sacred constituent of the society having legitimate authority to use sexual powers only for reproduction purposes. This is due to the reason that society wants to maintain the crucial aspects of identity pure with no amalgamation in any form. The power structure of the family is based on gender and age hierarchy where undoubtedly gender has greater say over hierarchy, hence giving autonomy to the male being the head of the family. The book easily explains the theory of gender performance by Judith Butler by providing instances from daily life such as when she speaks about sexual division of labour. According to her, apart from conceiving the egg in the uterus other things such as child-rearing, household chores etc. can also be performed by the male counterparts (as mentioned in the book, men can lactate too) but these are solely considered the duties of women.

Menon tries to explore the concept of sexuality in Indian as well as other non-western societies where interestingly it is not the society that prohibits homosexuality. Its roots are traced back even in the 15th India. Section 377 was the result of colonial legacy which we were following (criminalizing homosexuality), the so-called civilization mission by the white man had been imposed in the colonies to make them appropriate according to the Victorian code of conduct. To promote the heterosexual conduct of the society, it has made certain stereotypical roles and appearances for men and women that they should abide by. Not because sex and gender roles can’t be segregated into two distinct types but it is two extremes of a spectrum in which there are certainly different aspects which the society considered a deviation from the norm and anybody who dares to defy the norms certainly has to face harsh criticism, sometimes in form of death as well.  Menon criticizes the double standards of the society in which on one hand all the restrictions are put on women whether it is about their code of conduct outside the home or about their clothing habits. They are considered the izzat of their families so they should be careful about not getting harassed. On the other hand, it is quite acceptable in the society if the same women are being harassed in their marriage; the concept of marital rape is not even considered as a crime against women (protection of women against domestic violence act, 2005 however take marital rape in the purview of violence against women but our state doesn’t recognize it). It clearly shows that it’s not about the izzat of the women but it’s about considering women as a liability that needs to be transferred without any ‘damage’ to the future caretaker (her husband) and now he owns her and can do whatever he wants to.

Menon also criticizes the stereotypical attitude of the society which believes that man being powerful can’t be the recipient of violence whether it is sexual or domestic, nothing bad can happen to them as they are the power holders.

Further, what makes the information given in the book more reliable, is how the author has substantiated her arguments in the light of various judgments passed by the court of law (in the context of different situations), movements rising during that time and considering other societies in different parts of the world. This also makes the book easy to understand and dwell deeper into the content.

While I agree with most of the content given in the book, there is one instance which made me think about the case differently as the author has put. In the patriarchal set up of the society, women don’t have the right to exercise their freedom of choice and if there is, it always comes with certain terms and conditions if it is about their bodies. In this section, it seems that the author is trying to legitimize ‘commodification’ of women’s body by saying that it is the wish of the women whether to use their body for such purposes or not.  But if this holds true then there’s no point of criticizing the mainstream media for doing the same thing where actors/actresses (assuming their informed consent) are made to do such acts which commodify their bodies. In no way, I am against women exercising their freedom over their bodies, but when it comes to mainstream media, the concerned people should always think about its reception by the audience. Moreover, it should be according to the will of the women. There should not be any kind of external influence forcing them to sell their bodies.

The book ends on a hopeful note that feminism can be the reason for gradual transformation in a patriarchal society only when we, as the members of society recognize that we are being controlled by norms set up in a society which may or may not be conscious about it. So, we should not abide by the norms; but we should rather question them without readily accepting the templates presented to us and by being tolerant towards various forms of diversity.

Seeing like a feminist : Nivedita Menon

Zubaan & Penguin Books, published in 2012


Komal Meena

(Komal Meena is currently pursuing her postgraduation from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She can be reached at meena987komal@gmail.com)