Uncritical mass

J Devika | Updated on January 13, 2018

Handle with caution The Kiss of Love protests in Kerala didn’t enjoy the support of many independent women who are otherwise unafraid of experimenting with single- and couple-lifestyles.   -  PTI

Discussions around the recent abduction and assault of an actor in Kerala underscores the paradox of empowered yet powerless women

The self-respecting woman’s worst nightmare — the media reporting of the recent abduction and assault of a 30-year-old actor in Kerala qualifies to be that. The woman was abducted in her own car at night while returning from work, by a group of men with the connivance of her driver. They molested, abused, and threatened her for several hours in the moving vehicle. This happened on a busy highway in central Kerala, and the attackers seemed completely confident that she would not complain, but she did.

By now we have, however, heard worse stories, of the sexual assault and murders of young working-class women in Kerala. The added horror this time was the total reduction of the victim to a piece of meat in the early media reporting. Leave alone the fact that the actor’s privacy was totally compromised early on and her own words were often ignored, images, often drawn from her films, of her writhing in pain or as sexually seductive and forthcoming, were liberally used in news stories. And this, even as her senior colleagues in the Malayalam film industry veered between tame protectionist statements and snarling demands to lynch the culprits. By now, interest in the actor’s courageous response is slowly waning, and the debate seems to be shifting to possible conspiracies involving a leading actor, his political clout, the criminalisation of mainstream Malayalam film industry, and so on.

Nevertheless, there were heartening moments in the whole drama, including the strong support offered by other female actors. A leading young male actor, Prithviraj Sukumaran, publicly apologised for glorifying male chauvinist violence and declared that he would eschew such lionisation. This has been widely welcomed — yet it is hard not to feel uncomfortable with the deeply familiar language in which he couches his support. He acknowledges his mother’s struggle to raise him and his brother, and his wife’s endurance at giving birth to their child, and of the courage of women in sustaining the world. While acknowledgement of such courage is indeed long overdue, justice and freedom from patriarchal stereotyping is a right of all women, courageous or not (and indeed, enduring labour pain is nothing to celebrate — given that physical pain associated with reproduction that women endure are trivialised by the medical establishment at all levels). If Sukumaran is serious, he will soon discover that he cannot make a difference by simply transferring the respect he has for family women who stick bravely to grim patriarchal standards of courage to his female colleague.

But I do think there is a lesson about feminism that those interested in a more gender-equal society should learn from this incident. There can be little doubt that gender relations in Malayalam cinema have been under transition in recent decades. We see an ever-more number of young women shed the protection of family members, assert their right to manage their incomes independently, experiment with various single- and couple-lifestyles beyond the familiar strictures on women. I have watched these developments with much approbation; even as it struck me that many of them (with a few honourable exceptions) were reluctant to be identified as feminist. This was particularly apparent during the anti-Hindutva Kiss of Love struggles in Kerala in 2015-16.

One could call this ‘lifestyle feminism’ — women moving to occupy the space opened up through anti-patriarchal struggles, building new lifestyles. In this reckoning, many Malayalam actors today are ‘lifestyle feminists’ who are confident to live, work, and negotiate life on their own, on the strength of their choices. Indeed, this sort of feminism is widely desired by young women in Kerala whose education empowers them to make choices. Yet, as this incident clearly shows, it is no protection at all neither from patriarchal violence nor the sensationalising by the media that follows it. But more importantly to me, lifestyle feminism’s frequent rejection and even ridiculing of feminism as a public politics is undermining the space opened up by the latter for all women.

The problem is that lifestyle feminists often disarm feminism, individualise it, and make it appear harmless to patriarchy. Their outgoing ways and freer minds are indebted to political feminism’s prior work of expanding women’s space, but they do not acknowledge it. This, and their individualised resistance to inconvenient parts of patriarchy, endears them to those who want women to be smart but uncritical. Yet, as is clear in this incident, individualised lifestyle feminism is toothless in the face of patriarchal violence — and while the support of other lifestyle feminist colleagues to the victim is surely laudable, it was a purely voluntary reaction, certainly not based on an ethical commitment.

In sum, the lesson is that we need to resuscitate feminism as a public politics — and actively root lifestyle feminism in it. If not, the oppositional charge of feminism in public life is too easily depleted, and we are left with the paradox of powerless empowered women.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on March 03, 2017

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