Mama, don’t preach

J Devika | Updated on January 20, 2018

Not kid stuff: When HRD minister Smriti Irani justifies the need to discipline university students, she has the approval of the majority that endorses mainstream gender norms.   -  PTI

It is all-important today to forcefully criticise any power that deploys the discourse of motherly concern to silence and infantilise others

Women’s Day whooshed past us early this month, and I continue to be haunted by two horrific images from the recent past: one, of a young woman, head buried in her mother’s lap, convulsed by sobs and unable to return to a sense of wholeness after being gang-raped by Jat protestors and later gagged by the police; the other, again a young woman of about the same age, a student of a prestigious film institute who had complained about a professor’s sexual abuse, bracing herself as a gang of men, fellow students all, threaten and abuse her outside her hostel room. Both were advised against demanding justice, in the name of the ‘family’ — or educational institution-as-family, as the case may be.

Lest the reader dismisses these as carpings by ‘incurable feminists’, let me point out that the evocation of intimacy can divert attention from serious social injustice. We learned this the hard way. We are constantly told that institutions run best when they are intimate, closer-to-informal spaces. We do know that the evocation of intimacy works to mask the operation of power hierarchies within families and, indeed, turn our attention away from the conflicts within.

It is fatal to reduce issues of social inequality and power differentials to the familial language of ‘love and care’. Even if one conceded that all members of public institutions are the true bearers of familial values, love and care included, it does not serve to resolve the problem. There is no guarantee that such familial feelings will endure forever; so what’s really needed are externallyformulated rules — like democratic-constitutional guarantees for reservations, while internalised norms like fellow-feeling and compassion for the badly-off are quite welcome. Not to forget, families are often hierarchical and love and care is not showered equally on all members.

But then, love and care — coded feminine and familial — as a form of power have long escaped the confines of actual families.

Indeed, 2016 has given us many thought-provoking examples — of Smriti Irani infantilising the late Rohith Vemula as a ‘child’ even as she justified the need to discipline university students; Justice Pratibha Rani producing a judgment that has less to do with upholding the Indian Constitution than with tweaking a wayward child’s ears. In both, we see a form of disciplining power coded feminine and therefore utterly acceptable to the majority that endorses mainstream gender norms. It is important to point to this as a form of power that seems to spring from the mainstream feminine, and may be deployed in disciplining people of all genders. To criticise this form of power, especially when a powerful woman wields it against the powerless of any gender is not at all sexism. While certain epithets or usages may well be sexist and fit for criticism, it is all-important now to forcefully criticise any power that deploys the discourse of motherly concern to silence and infantilise others.

We seem to have come full circle. The patriarchal family pursues us even when we try to flee to universities; it returns not just through the patriarchs, the male authorities, but also the Big-Mothers encouraged by right-wing politics. We, both women and men, now stand before a refurbished patriarchy that seems to have abandoned all pretence of ‘empowerment’ except as a useful keyword in the State’s efforts to correct demographic imbalance and add provisioning responsibilities to poor women’s daily workloads.

Over the past decades, we witnessed how it makes poor women the agents of securing life through self-help, even as it fashions a necropolitics through the death penalty, precisely on the pretext of ensuring women’s safety. But worse things seem to be in store. Maneka Gandhi’s recent pronouncement on marital rape seems to indicate that we are back to Brahminical ways where patriarchal authority, not unconditional love and care, alone matters. Her reasons are not only foolish, they also throw the hitherto-dominant global discourse of women’s agency in development into utter disarray — marital rape cannot be banned, she feels, because of illiteracy, poverty, and other such development ills! If women’s rights and agency at home cannot be fostered under such conditions, where does that put the familiar discourse of women as agents of development? In the dustbin, where else?

This is part of the larger attack on the very idea of an inclusive India — and that is where we must find courage and strength. This is not a war solely of, or for women; it is for us to trace the connections and join the battle.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on March 25, 2016

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