Handle with caution?

J Devika | Updated on January 17, 2018
In the open: A common perception is that feminists are on the prowl for male victims to affirm their progressive credentials. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

In the open: A common perception is that feminists are on the prowl for male victims to affirm their progressive credentials. Photo: Ramesh Sharma   -  BusinessLine

J Devika

J Devika

Feminists are constantly accused of being angry, and not just because the world is unfair

It looked like any other middle-class public discussion in this small town in Kerala — a small meeting hall in the centre of town, formally attired middle-aged to senior members of the audience, men and women seated primly on chairs separated by an aisle. We were to discuss women’s well-being — or ‘safety’ — in Kerala. The secretary of the organisation who invited me referred to the topics as if they were interchangeable. Three of the four speakers of the day, all of us ‘outright feminists’, in the sense that they are understood by the Malayali mainstream, women who do not care for traditional forms of social approval, shook our heads in frustration. But this was polite society. We concealed our anger like schoolgirls, huddling together and giggling, whispering nasty things.

When we spoke, each of us took apart the idea that women’s well-being lay primarily in their security, and that the state’s primary responsibility was to ensure it. We presented evidence for our arguments from research, informed public debate, social theory and history; we entertained contrary scenarios and explained why they were not real possibilities. In short, we did everything to convert our anger into the positive light of critical knowledge. Yes indeed, our insights were angry — not destructive — and we hoped that it would reignite in the minds of our listeners.

Feminists are constantly accused of being simply angry, and not because the injustice of the world produces the emotion of anger in us. To patriarchal society, angry women are slaves of an irrational drive, and feminists, though accused of being ‘mannish’, are always hyper-feminised in that they are super-angry. Now, feminist anger is best described by Adrienne Rich in her poem Integrity:

Anger and tenderness: my selves/And now I can believe they breathe in me/as angels, not polarities/ Anger and tenderness: the spider’s genius/to spin and weave in the same action/from her own body, anywhere-/even from a broken web.

Feminist anger is positive, productive of new insight and knowledge, permanently bonded to tenderness and the dream of the liberation of all people. Feminist anger, then, is valuable, though all the anger that feminists express does not qualify to be called so.

Back to the public meeting: the question-and-answer session began. We were congratulated. It was as though the audience was happy that we were competent professionals but would not engage with us. We wondered how to respond. Then, in that tiny slice of time in which one decides whether to succumb to frustration or not, a man — a retired police officer, I learned later — bounded up to the podium. He seemed geared up to give a speech, but announced that he would be quick because ‘the channel people’ were waiting for him somewhere. In a single breath he proceeded to quickly dismiss all four of us. He liked what we said, but Kerala, unfortunately, was not the place to waste our energy on. It was awful, beyond redemption, too selfish. So all the talk that evening, according to him, was just hot air. Having declared thus, he proceeded, with frightening eagerness, to share his thoughts on the recent murder of a young dalit woman, claiming that her mother was the killer. I could almost hear him slurp his saliva as he continued with a leering and painfully detailed account of what happens to the body of a woman in the days after death. I struggled to suppress the urge to clap my hands over my ears, but something snapped inside me. As he proceeded to an even more graphic account of the naked pictures of a certain woman accused of a financial crime, I leapt up and demanded that he leave the podium. Caught unawares, he turned to me sharply but then stepped down.

I write this in the wake of the conviction of Mahmud Farooqui by a Delhi court for rape. Feminists (including me) who have argued that this judgement represents a positive landmark in Indian rape trials have been accused of being seized by man-hating vindictive rage. I am however intrigued: This accusation often goes along with the insinuation that feminists are on the prowl for male victims to affirm their progressive credentials — like Kali, whose dance of rage was on Shiva’s body, but with the clear-eyed rational intent of cornering political capital. It is true that we are indeed angry, but sadly, our own friends cannot read it except in blatantly patriarchal terms. And I can’t help feeling that the loud-mouthed creep at the public meeting was better than the Farooqui sympathisers. He at least sensed that a woman’s angry outburst at the public humiliation of other women would not be without good reason.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on August 26, 2016

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