Patriarchy, Women’s Freedom and Capitalism: Kavita Krishnan


(This article began as a rejoinder to Hindi columnist Raj Kishor [Vaam se dakshin tak ek hi tark, (‘The same argument from Left to Right’), Rashtriya Sahara, January 13 2013], but it has also provided an occasion to address some common misconceptions about women’s freedom and capitalism.)

When women demand ‘freedom,’ why does it immediately raise the spectre of ‘licentiousness’?
Why, in other words, is women’s freedom automatically taken by many as equivalent with ‘licence,’ whereas the similar freedom on the part of men is never branded as ‘licence’?

This question arose in my mind after reading a piece by Hindi columnist Raj Kishor. Raj Kishor’s argument is that those – from Left leaders like I, to those whom he sees as representatives of the market – who are calling for women’s freedom are ‘consigning women into the fire of capitalism.’ When he hears me use the word ‘azaadi’ (freedom) he calls such freedom ‘utshrnkhalta’ (literally ‘unbridled-ness’, or licentiousness). He says and I, and the capitalist market alike, are calling for women to be free to ‘break all bounds of licentiousness’ if they so choose. Of course, Raj Kishor anticipates my criticism of his use of the word ‘utshrnkhalta’, since he says that is a word that ‘has feminists up in arms, demanding with red (infuriated) eyes the definition of ‘utshrnkhalta’.

For the Mohan Bhagwats and Asarams and Vijayvargeeyas to speak of women’s freedom as the crossing of moral ‘lakshman rekhas’ is no surprise. But when a progressive columnist like Raj Kishor to speak of ‘crossing the limits of licentiousness’ when he hears talk of women’s freedom, it makes one pause: the more so, because he couches his opinion in terms of his opposition to capitalism, rather than a defence of hidebound Indian tradition or feudal values, to which he expresses his opposition. In other words, since the argument is couched in the ‘left’ vocabulary of anti-capitalism, it calls for a more detailed reply.

Raj Kishore asks if any thinking person can support the notion of women’s freedom that has become the ‘ideological fashion’, declaring that ‘this latest edition of women’s freedom is waving its flag in the air, and has set out to conquer India.’ He quotes from a speech of mine (having called me a representative of ‘revolution’), the lines demanding that we safeguard the freedom of a woman to access public spaces, at any time of day or night, alone or not, irrespective of what she wears. He then quotes actress Priyanka Chopra (whom he calls the representative of ‘counter-revolution’ or the capitalist market) saying that the political class cannot set limits on whether a woman will ‘dent and paint’ or have a boyfriend or dance on TV. Raj Kishor thinks ‘licentiousness’ when he hears such calls for freedom. But he misses the main point being made. Priyanka, I, and countless other girls on the streets with placards saying ‘Don’t teach us how to rape/teach your sons not to rape’ were saying, simply, that women’s clothes or behavior cannot be blamed for rape; and that women should be able to exercise choices and access public spaces on par with men – without having to fear sexual violence. Raj Kishor forgets that men can strip off their shirts, display six-pack abs, unzip their pants to relieve themselves on the street – without being told that such actions may ‘invite’ or ‘provoke’ sexual violence. Why, then, is it acceptable to tell women otherwise?

It is strange that Raj Kishor sees Priyanka Chopra – a woman who like most people in the world, earns her living in the capitalist market – as a representative of capitalism, instead of the rather more obvious representatives – the capitalists themselves! Do India’s capitalists generally advocate freedom for women? Industrialist Naveen Jindal, also a ruling party MP from Haryana defended the ‘new direction’ given to society by khap panchayats (that pass diktats on same gotra and inter-caste marriages). Another leading industrialist Ashok Todi went to great lengths to break up his daughter’s marriage with a Muslim man, resulting eventually in Rizwan-ur Rehman’s suspicious death. The Indian variant of capitalism is known for its cozy coexistence with the abhorrent institution of caste (which itself is a pillar of Indian patriarchy). The garment industry in Tamilnadu promotes a ‘Sumangali’ (a word that indicates auspicious married woman) scheme, under which young girls labour in conditions of bondage, to earn a one-time payment which, as the word ‘Sumangali’ indicates, is to be their dowry!

Raj Kishor says ‘Women should kindly avoid roaming around draped in the robes of capitalist culture,’ saying that capitalism and the consumerist market ‘denude’ women in order to sell things, using women’s bodies to ‘incite kamukta (lust/sexuality).’ He, like many others, forgets that capitalism does not only denude women to sell things. The same capitalist/consumerist market also uses traditional orthodox stereotypes about women to sell things. Are there not ads that sell life-insurance using the symbol of the sindoor – exploiting the traditional notions of women’s dependence on husbands and the stigma of widowhood? AIPWA, some years ago, protested against an ad of a leading jewellery brand, that advertised bridal jewellery with the ad-line: “Ensure your daughter’s safety in her marital home”: a not-so-veiled reference to the threat of dowry killings! Many TV serials sponsored by big corporate and MNC media houses promote a variety of regressive, feudal-patriarchal values. The sexy item number isn’t the only female commodity that the market sells: a woman in full bridal costume, head bowed demurely; or the traditional self-sacrificing ‘ma’ of Hindi films are also ‘commodities’ in the same market! Sexualisation of women’s bodies does not necessarily involve ‘denuding’ them. Putting women in purdahs and overcoats (as the Puducherry government has recently tried to do with schoolgirls) also means that you are unable to see women as anything but sexualized bodies, requiring either to be revealed or covered up.

Raj Kishor says “Let ‘singers-dancers’ (nachaiyyon-gavaiyyon) ply their trade, but why do other women nurture the culture of ‘kamukta’ (lust)?” To him, it is self-evident that the “beauties play the lucrative game of inciting lust in films, TV or beauty competitions, but the brunt of the perversities that are produced fall on girls from poor households.” So, we have it again – this time from the pen of a prominent progressive columnist: the notion that sexual violence happens due to lust, which ‘beauties’ are responsible for ‘inciting.’ And again, we have the misogynistic disgust and contempt for ‘nachaiyyon-gavaiyyon’ and the ‘sundaris’ (beauties): in the same spirit as the Indian President’s son referred to such women as ‘dented and painted.’ Raj Kishor does not seem to see that the problem lies in his gaze, not in women’s bodies. The patriarchal gaze teaches us all to see and judge women on the basis of their sexualized bodies. We do not look at men in the same way. Male actors also display their bodies and sing and dance: how come they are not accused of ‘inciting lust’ and in turn, sexual violence? If ‘kamukta’ (lust) inevitably results in sexual violence, how come women’s ‘kamukta’ (aroused by, say, Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan displaying their six-packs) does not make them violent towards men?

Raj Kishor quotes Gandhi’s words, to the effect that if a girl can walk from Kashmir to Kanyakumari on foot and remain unmolested, only then will it prove that this country truly respects women. Raj Kishor says that for such a situation to be created, it is necessary that “women should shed the temptation to present themselves as sweets, in order to earn money or just freelance.” When Raj Kishor calls women ‘sweets’, isn’t he seeing women as objects of consumption?! And then, in the next sentence, he has the audacity to accuse women who demand freedom, of encouraging consumerism! Is Raj Kishor’s sentiment any different from Vijayvargeeya’s ‘lakshman rekha’ comment?! How many times must we repeat the obvious: that rape does not happen because women ‘present themselves like sweets’; that rape is not an expression of lust for women but of hatred for them; that rape is an assertion of patriarchal power, not of sexual desire?
The threat of sexual violence is used to impose and reassert the patriarchal ‘lakshman rekhas’ over women. In this instance, Raj Kishor is telling women that they must avoid certain professions (acting, singing, dancing), or be charged with immorality and ‘inciting’ rape. Well, there is no profession in which women can avoid accusations of ‘immorality’. Not long ago, Hindi novelist Maitreyee Pushpa was branded as ‘chhinaal’ (prostitute) by the Vice Chancellor of a central university, on the grounds that she writes about women’s bodies and desire.

Is this correct to see every instance of sex or (female) nudity as ‘obscenity’ or ‘objectification’? It is useful to recall how nudity in European art was discussed by Marxist art critic John Berger, in his book Ways of Seeing. He contrasts the hundreds of nude paintings where the woman’s nudity is on display for the spectator-owner, with the few rare paintings where the woman’s subjectivity, her will, intentions and feelings, and her relationship with the painter is so strongly felt that she and her exposed body are not objects on display. The question we need to ask about a film or a painting is not ‘How much flesh does it expose?,’ but ‘Does it allow us to see women – irrespective of whether they are clothed or not – as active subjects, rather than objects of consumption?’

It is a common mistake, even among many on the Left, to see and berate women’s modernity and relative sexual freedom as symbols of capitalist and consumerist culture. It also needs to be stressed that capitalist exploitation of women involves much more than just ‘denuding’ women. It exploits women by profiting from their unpaid labour in the home; by paying them less than men for the same work at the job – and it is able to do all of this because of women’s unfreedom as imposed by patriarchy. Resisting capitalism requires that we resist patriarchy to the hilt, not piecemeal or hesitantly, but lock, stock and barrel.

Capitalism, out of its own interests and compulsions, ushers in some relative freedoms for human beings. Workers who were serfs bound to a single lord’s fields in feudal society, become free insofar as they are no longer bound to a single employer. Capitalism, while forced to allow these relative freedoms, ushers in a new mode of exploitation, for which the worker’s freedom is a pre-condition. But the worker’s freedom also creates unprecedented possibilities for the revolutionary transformation of society. In India, many workers are yet to enjoy even this degree of freedom; in rural India, many continue to remain in semi-bondage to landlords. While knowing full well the severe limitations of bourgeois/capitalist freedoms, do we not see the imperative need to end such semi-bondage and fight for and win those freedoms?

Similarly, capitalism does usher in somewhat greater economic and sexual freedom for women, while also ushering in new forms of exploitation. Even as we hold capitalism responsible for its commodification of women, and for the neglect of children and the elderly, we must demand, win, and defend each and every freedom that women can enjoy [in a relative sense] in capitalism. Our critique of these bourgeois freedoms cannot be from a feudal, traditionalistic standpoint: rather it is from the vantage point of socialism. In other words, we critique these freedoms because each of them comes with continuing chains of economic inequality, domestic slavery, and new forms of exploitation; because women are not free enough, not because women are too free. And capitalism does not automatically bestow freedoms – most freedoms under capitalism (including the right of women to vote, or for equal wages) are won through hard struggles. It is significant that even in advanced capitalist societies today, sexual and reproductive freedoms are seldom conceded, and require hard struggle to be won. Even in the US, women’s right to abort a foetus, and equal rights for same-sex partners, are virulently opposed by powerful forces. Even in these societies, the culture of blaming women for rape continues to thrive.

In India, ours is a society where women are denied the most basic freedoms: to be born, to be fed, to study, to work, to have control over property and money, to dress according to one’s choice, to love, to choose a partner irrespective of caste or gender, to give birth to a girl-child, to control one’s own reproduction and sexuality, to free oneself from abusive or unsatisfactory marriages, and to be free of the fear of violence. Women’s fathers, brothers, husbands, families, control or coerce most of these decisions – and her defiance often results in violence and even death. Even the freedom not to be raped by one’s husband is denied by our laws, which assume that when a woman marries, she loses her autonomy over her sexual choices, and her husband’s rightful claim over her body becomes unquestionable. Is this not ‘objectification’? The principle of democracy demands that women’s autonomy be asserted and each of these freedoms won. The shackles cannot be tolerated or rationalised an instant more: and if saying so is seen as advocating ‘utshnrkhalta’ (literally, ‘un-shackled-ness’), then so be it.

13 thoughts on “Patriarchy, Women’s Freedom and Capitalism: Kavita Krishnan”

  1. Yes, Raj Kishore’s emphasis is misplaced for which he should be duly criticized. The case here is that of, as Zizek says, ‘typical’: the emphasis of an anti-abortion campaign framed with the example of a ‘typical’, sexually promiscuous professional women gets inverted when that typical is replaced with the example of a single black mother (which is empirically more widespread). The ‘typical’ in Raj Kishore’s mind is Priyanka Chopra, but it might be different for feminists.

    Yet there is a grain of truth in there. One can always formulate one’s ‘progressive’ demands within the basically progressive terms set by the bourgeois public sphere; what if concrete realization of those demands takes place only outside of it? To put it in even stronger words- what if the ‘relative freedom’ under capitalism is another, more efficient, way of even more thorough subjugation within it? Does not it require a more nuanced strategy to get out of the present subjugation than a mere ‘feminist commonsense’ critique of capitalist patriarchy?


  2. As always, a brilliant post by Kavita Krishnan.

    The problem with the politically inclined Left today (I make a distinction between the ‘political’ Left, and the ‘intellectual/academic’ one) is its excessive and redundant reliance on rhetoric and regurgitation of Marxist concepts and ill-placed critiques of capitalism. In doing so, it completely sidesteps pertinent issues, like that of violence against women, precisely because they look at it from a narrow rubric of rhetoric.

    The kind of capitalism we’re seeing today, in India or otherwise, is markedly different from what Marx or Engels could have imagined. The nature of the political-moral economy today is *both* capitalist and patriarchal. For one, although capitalism allows for greater participation of women in the economy, allows them to exercise choice, etc., these changes are merely cosmetic. Capitalism has spread under the shadow of patriarchy (and other discourses of power: colonialism, racism etc.); thus, it made little sense for capitalism to displace or destabilize structures of hegemony; in fact, it actually co-opted these hegemonic structures into the idea of profit motive – which is why our moral and political economy is shaped the way it is today.

    To push another idea, albeit, a rather philosophical one: capitalism, and the instruments of capitalism like free-market technology (in reality: a brutal patent regime) are the ones that indulge in rape. They rape the mountains, the forests, the rivers, the mines, the oceans, and the people. Perhaps, my extension of patriarchy beyond the conventional gender dichotomy is misplaced, but it is a pertinent intervention – one, I suspect, made by others too (forgive me, but I can seem to cite any here). And this technocratic approach, unfortunately, was missed by even the classical Marxists – who saw increased proliferation of technology as a requirement for the Socialist revolution to succeed (see Ramachandra Guha’s discussion on the same in his ‘Patriots and Partisans’).

    Our criticisms of capitalism should, therefore, be inclusive of its location in the hegemonic, patriarchal structures. Because, capitalism is more than just an economic organisation; and patriarchy, more than just women’s oppression – they’re ideologies of dis-empowerment, that marginalize voices, and render them speechless. It is people like Krishnan, and the intellectual strand that they represent, which is best suited to interrogate the same.


    1. Just one little point: I (Kavita) represent a political Left strand, not an intellectual one :) I am a central committee member of the CPI(ML) Liberation… And very much of what I speak and write has been learnt in the course of the rich intellectual and political experience that is the CPI(ML)…


      1. Dear Kavita,
        I am aware of that fact, although I think in the discussion, it must have slipped my mind. That said, in my view, your arguments are also informed by a very strong feminist tradition – something I’ve not quite seen in the conventional political Left. (Although, the posts on forums like Radical Socialist have been quite brilliant).
        While I do have certain reservations about the political Left, I am in deep admiration of persons much like yourself, who are active and vocal on public forums. And I certainly hope this dialogue would lead us to a more nuanced readings of issues that are taken for granted, or worse still, obfuscated. Good luck.



  3. I believe most people sympathize with crusaders of women’s rights and freedom and understand the one can’t apply different standards/principles for men and women. However, the author needs to consider the family as a still functioning unit of our society and reconcile her arguments with what is good for a family as a unit to thrive. It’s wrong to assume that men have “upper hand” in what the author says a patriarchal set up. Men in most Indian families bear the burden too. Start with a family first.


  4. Feminist movement and the Left / Socialist movement have long tried to come together in their different political streams, but the differences will remain, as it it remains between different movements. My understanding of Feminism is better than the other ‘isms’ and hence will defend feminist positions taken by the writer over here.
    The comments regarding patriarchal nature of marriage and family as an institution are quite true, and it is patriarchal culturalisation that women are cultured into for their whole lives. In the contemporary times, these institutions are changing and stand to ‘break’, for whatever reasons be it westernisation or rise in women’s education. But this change is inevitable, and should not be stopped for the sake of women and girls of the country.
    Patriarchal men and women, yes women too are under patriarchal bondages, need to make space for the ideas of women’s freedom, her freedom to move, to wear, to love, to break out of relationships, and to assert her rights as an individual over property, and many more. If this in some way breaks the traditions and cultures prevalent, let be it, for the sake of justice and choice of women.


  5. Utshrinkhalata may mainly be percieved as disorderly or “hodgepodge” vernacular bengali. It’s mainly used pejoratively, and is a common word in “old wives’ tattle” (heh, this is just to rile you up further, but you wont take the bait :P). To percieve it as “wanton” or “promiscuous” would serve the word a mild injustice, usage wise.


  6. Dear Kavitha, thank you for this post. I was just working this out within myself just today. As Praveer mentions patriarchy in women I feel is more dangerous and so prevalent. I am busy weeding out these scripts from within me. One such voice within me that spoke mirrored what Raj Kishor says.. I was wondering if freedom of women meant we could do whatever we wanted and get away with it.. and as you rightly ended.. perhaps it is and there is nothing wrong with it. It is only the same freedom that men have had all these years nothing more nothing less.


    1. patriarchy in women is also known as the ‘male gaze’ in cinema, of which lots of women are guilty. in many bollywood films, we see women condoning other women’s ill fates [dor to cite juts one ex that jumps to mind] because they see as men do or they are conditionned to do that without questioning. they accept whether willingly or unwillingly sadly.


  7. Bourgeise reproduces , reinforces, maintains or re-moulds all pre- capitalist relations in such a manner as to suit its projects of private approriation of wealth. So,the more imperialiasm & neoliberalism advances, the more does capitalism adopt the patriarchal mode.


  8. the term” Indian family” needs a bit of tweaking. Right now it means FATHER…mother…SONS….daughter????, whereas it should be MOTHER..father…DAUGHTERS…s..o..n???


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