Every aspect of reality is gendered.
~ Kumkum Sangari.
These words are exceptionally powerful and loaded with meaning. It holds extensive experiential truth, especially for women, who are marginal figures in these “realities.” But this oppressive reality of women is partly outside of her. A part of this reality has been introjected through a long historical process of social learning, and this learning has been thorough.
Being a woman involves a basic tension between transcendence and immanence—a struggle of wanting to unlearn the punctilious aspects of a patriarchal society that constantly attempts to frame women as the “other.” While I acknowledge that “Seeing Like a Feminist” is pertinent to confronting male domination, little did I know about the greater complexities and ambiguities that have come to be associated with such a lens. This subjected women to the dual burden of trying to cope with the overt patriarchal norms as well as the inert obscurities that they create. My life, like that of most other women, has been a constant struggle around such ambiguities. My embodied gender became a site of conflict in itself. A tension that is a product of evolving times is exacerbated by the forces of a seemingly liberal and “free” capitalist world that has “created personalities’ based on policing through socio-cultural norms that are often less conspicuous. These are forces I constantly see in myself and other gender minority groups as they create dissonance in our sense of ourselves.
Have you ever wished that you had a body different from the one that you have right now? Have you ever seen one of those luscious glossy-paged magazines with people with ‘perfect body size’ right on the cover and been like ‘geez’, it will take me decades to look like that? My 22-year-old self is throttled with such questions all the time. All the literature in my journey of “becoming” a feminist helped me identify how the idea of a woman’s absolute control over her body is a misnomer. Rather, they are rather old and well-practised sites. It made me realise how much I had internalised this whole notion of looking a certain way, of reaching numbers on weight scales and shedding inches. While this realisation was strong, so was the preaching on social media, to my friends who struggled with body issues, and possibly at every place where I could manifest my claim of identifying as a feminist promoting body positivity. But the adherence to this idea at an individual level seemed more arduous. It wasn’t the idea of challenging such patriarchal notions of framing women as being or looking a certain way that I had internalised so strongly. It was the pleasure I derived from the fetishization of this new “ideal” body type. The obsession of trying to fit into the perfect ideal abstract image was only exacerbated as I moved along this journey. The incoherence of belief systems and individual manifestation muddled me into a cycle of guilt, murkiness, and difficulty identifying with the real self.
Such ambiguities were exhibited more strongly in dealing with one of my romantic relationships. Having clear notions of what gender parity and respect meant in a relationship and what it meant to be mansplained and emotionally abused, I continued to work on a relationship where a man pulled me down in my endeavours just because I was a woman. My institutionalised idea of the greater role of women in navigating through relationships, framing the woman’s character around the number of partners she has had, and un-concealing the once projected notion of ‘happy together’, superseded my self-worth. While I constantly reprimanded myself for dealing with something I despised vehemently, the chains of social and cultural conditioning tethered me stronger. It finally took a lot of courage, battling with normative dilemmas and, most importantly, unlearning enmeshed patriarchal notions to free me from such a relationship.
Like most other women I know who have shared similar experiences of fighting their feminist battles within a capitalist framework, that leaves them estranged and with a persistent sense of guilt. Such experiences only made me wonder how much of the mode of existence of being feminine is actually constructed and construed by a woman herself. The ideas of gender are derived from our social relations of power. The cultural brainwashing, which is so gendered, leaves women with no option but to create alternative spaces for themselves, to constantly seek meaning and search for their true selves. The struggle is to navigate between theory and practice, to attain the transcendental and free oneself from the imminent reality that is conditioned by a capitalist patriarchal framework. But most importantly is the yearning to be able to live freely, free from such guilt—the notion of which is gendered too. [For a more elaborate understanding of ‘guilt’ as a gendered emotion, please refer to https://restlessnetwork.com/why-do-women-feel-so-much-guilt/]
Note from the author – I have written this article from my social position and about my experience as a cis upper-class/caste woman.
Hay, Carol. Think like a feminist: the philosophy behind the revolution. WW Norton & Company, 2020.
Sangari, Kumkum, and Sudesh Vaid, eds. Recasting women: Essays in Indian colonial history. Rutgers University Press, 1990.
Menon, Nivedita. Seeing like a feminist. Penguin UK, 2012.
Nandy, Ashis. “Woman versus womanliness in India: An essay in social and political psychology.” Psychoanalytic Review 63.2 (1976): 301-315.
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