Class Feminism vs. Classy Feminism … Or, Everybody Loves the Governable Woman!

A few weeks ago, I mentioned on Kafila a certain gentleman who delivered a memorable address in Government Women’s College, Thiruvananthapuram, which contained sage advice on how to bring under control the unruly bodies of ungovernable women.  After that I have been receiving unsigned letters from his admirers who feel that their innocent hero has been most unfairly criticized. Like the grumpy ground-lubber types who are either incapable of ascending or simply unable to climb coconut trees and do not appreciate the free services rendered by the chivalrous heroes high above, I have erred in judgment, they claim.

Our hero was not only trying to harvest the coconuts of wisdom from the Koran, the Bhagawad Geetha, the Bible, and of course genetics and sundry sciences for the benefit of all those who stood with their two feet planted firmly on the ground, he was even trying to de-husk them in those dizzying heights. And coconuts are coconuts; they are hard to crack even for wondrously strong simians, and have to be flung hard upon the ground if their sweet cores are to be savoured. In the process, a few heads below are likely to be damaged, a small price to pay, indeed! But more importantly, those who protest against these services — especially ‘postmodern feminists’ (I am of that ilk, it appears) — forget that their cries are either incomprehensible to or ignored by the large majority of ‘ordinary women’ who actually thirst for the kind of protection their hero offers.

Now, this sets me thinking. Not that this is anything new. I am quite used to being called the ‘postmodern feminist’, ‘well-heeled radical feminist’ etc.. These terms always carry a negative charge, but since those who hurl such epithets hardly specify what they mean by these, I can follow the sensible advice about the difference between sticks and stones, and words. And in any case, if you look closely you’d see that it is ‘feminist’ that really carries the substantial part of the negative charge — ‘postmodern’ etc. are frills added to make  the crime of being feminist look utterly unforgivable. And the old antipathy to the feminist in Kerala is so much part of our life here that we have learned to expect it — like the monsoon in June-July and sweaty hot weather in May –and even worry when it doesn’t materialize.

What is intriguing, however, is how the ‘ordinary woman’ always surfaces as the divine vajra that can pulverize the poor feminist and send her crashing into the trash-heap with a huge dollop of class-guilt on her face. About all our saviors in Kerala, I often wonder what they would do without this pallid figure. For the ‘ordinary woman’ — as sketched by the anonymous admirers of He Who Would Govern the Ungovernable Woman — is she who is poor and weak, who desires only the daily bread and well-being of her family, who can never conceive of women’s collective and strategic interests, who is far away from all the depravities that the (postmodern) feminist craves like say, freedom to decide what clothes might be comfortable and wearable, freedom to dance or sing etc. She has to be led always — she is not just a victim but a passive one — someone who is needy of leadership and guidance. But then, the folk who are in desperate need of this sorry figure range from the gallant Knights of the Order of the Non-Twisted Uterus to the Rising Suns of the Order of the CPM who would be rendered jobless if they didn’t shine into the darkness that smothers the ‘ordinary woman’. Consider, for instance, the recent writing of members of the second-mentioned order in EPW [] on the protests of Kudumbashree members — members of the large all-Kerala network of self-help groups of women set up under the State Poverty Alleviation Mission — organized by the CPM in Thiruvananthapuram last October, which they call ‘class feminism’. That is the feminism of the ‘ordinary woman’, led by the Kerala AIDWA, focused on credit and livelihoods. Like many of their patriarchal predecessors, the authors are mildly critical of vaguely-mentioned other feminisms that apparently do not connect to the ‘ordinary woman’ — and they do not care to specify what they may be. The convenient way to deal with them, it appears, it to make vague references (“…debates relating to third generation feminism and its subversive politics are principally confined to women intellectuals and celebrities”) or take potshots (introducing Kudumbashree, they say, it means ” … “opulence/prosperity of family”, and add, in brackets, that “This may displease very radical feminists”).

Now, I have been studying the Kudumbashree women for some time now and have been most excited by the fact many of them have been turning away from the wan and withering figure of the ‘ordinary woman’. Indeed, the desires and ambitions of the Kudumbashree women are far more subversive than what might be noticed at first glance. And it can hardly be denied that these women are not always turning into dutiful subjects of economic self-help as the technocrats and bureaucrats wanted them to — rather many of them who reach leadership roles aim to enter politics and even seem to be able to change the rules in ground-level politics. And it is also interesting that the authors did not care to report the most noticed aspect of the protest — the fact that women danced and sang openly, completely unselfconsciously, on the road, during the protest! The Kerala AIDWA too can recognize a tune and dance to it — but its ideas of dancing and tunes, as most of us with eyes to see have known in the recent years, are entirely different. I am entirely convinced that this dancing and the sheer joy evident on the roads was brought to the protest by the Kudumbashree women and it may be that in their eagerness to establish the ‘ordinary woman’ as the sole truth of ‘real’ femininity in Kerala, the authors failed to notice it.  And those who did indeed notice the public and uninhibited expressions of joy during the protest, were not pleased at all — not surprising! One commentator, for example, bemoaned the loss of the leash of livelihood-concerns and went on to snort: “The spicy protest has hit headlines of all newspapers, and the women assembled over there are impressing city dwellers with song and dance shows during the evenings.” [] My love for Kudumbashree is precisely because it has produced a host of consequences unintended by its founders some of who were indeed fanatic admirers of the stiffly-starched ‘ordinary women’ — I revel in the pleasure of seeing their utter discomfort when a  group much larger than the bunch of us who are constantly berated for being feminists (thus by implication, enemies of the ‘ordinary woman’), aim overtly or covertly for much more than just being contented ‘ordinary women’ obsessed solely about livelihoods. Of course, women have always demanded bread and roses — an in Kerala too — but it is so crucial for our patriarchs never to see that.

Thus the brotherhood rises as one to uphold their endangered idol and source of succor — the Bonkers Biologists, the Real-Left Protectors,and the Spice Haters marching to similar tunes! However, I must clarify that I am all for ‘class feminism’. Indeed, there is a good case to be made to view poor women in Kerala as majorly excluded from property and assets and hence as an important constituent of the deprived classes. On the one hand, the recent 2011 Census data shows a very large number of households in Kerala are female-headed and actually that the majority of the women who head these households are not all the wives of Gulf migrants (going, say, by housing amenities they possess). There is also good evidence to show especially from the experience of the Kudumbashree, that poor women can handle assets excellently and be skilled agriculturists as well. On the other hand, there is evidence to show that a very large number of housing units and cultivable land in Kerala are actually unused or left to deteriorate — locked up by NRI owners who do not plan to return to Kerala either in the short-term or even in the long-term. A strong version of ‘class feminism’ ought to consider facts such as these, and think of how the category of class in Kerala’s contexts may be radically reinterpreted and repoliticized in ways that ensure that the axes of gender and caste  receive substantial political acknowledgement! Instead, setting up the pallid figure of the ‘ordinary woman’ and implying that her anemia will be cured through the medicine of “Livelihood, credit, and meeting space”, which of course, is within “… their home courtyard” turns the political category of class into a harmless talisman that supposedly wards away evil; it is not used as a tool, an instrument, that helps us to generate a political understanding the  structures of emergent inequalities in Kerala and take a position on it that richly deserves to be called ‘left’. I’d be all for ‘class feminism’ and do believe that a substantial number of Kudumbashree women are ready for it — but I won’t swallow an interpretation of ‘class feminism’ that (even if inadvertently) makes a mockery of both ‘class’ and ‘feminism’!  Secondly, I do think that the proponents of a ‘class feminism’ that cannot analyze the political effects of what they perceive to be non-class feminisms ought to devote more time to thinking through the power relations that structure our present than practice potshots at nearly-hoarse feminists (that includes me). Maybe the latter feminisms are indeed proposed exclusively by women of the elite groups, if so, perhaps one has to consider the possibility that these feminisms represent a further differentiation of the Malayalee elite, which may indeed weaken it from within as conflicts around gender within the elite intensify? The evocation of a term that brings together two of the most important words in our political vocabulary in such a slipshod way makes me announce defiantly: excuse me, I am not a ‘class feminist’ in the way you see it and do own up to being a ‘classy feminist’ — and  really don’t care two hoots whether you are all falling off your armchairs in sheer outrage.

And finally, you should also do some good empirical analysis of ongoing feminist expressions to clarify your categories as well?  I would like to direct your attention to the brilliant feminist play put up this Women’s Day in Thiruvananthapuram by the Abhinaya Theatre Group — rather prosaically titled Irakalodu Mathramalla Samsarikendatu — Not Just the Victim. (But I do admit that the Knights of the Order of Loony Biology may not be able to withstand the play — since for them, it is likely to be the equivalent of jumping too hard (or falling off the coconut-tree trunk) and getting several parts of their anatomy twisted, and in ways that may actually cost more than 3 or 4 lakhs). Now, what is it — ‘class feminism’ or ‘classy feminism’? On the one hand it is supported by various government institutions and well, talks of female ‘victims’ — and so one one might be tempted to quickly tuck it into the class-feminism folder. But wait — look at how it presents the ‘victims’ and their space. The space of the ‘victims’ is unevenly lit and they are not connected to each other. They move past each other; they speak when the light falls briefly on them; they do not even see each other. However, each of the victims speaks for herself; there is no reformer who will redeem her. Each of them speaks not of damage done to patriarchal honour but of the pain the body and the soul has to bear — the body is so centrally there in this re-interpretation of ‘speaking bitterness’, and so unique each experience is, that the speaking victim is simply not reducible to the homogenized ‘ordinary woman’! And when the male characters come onstage, one finds no reformer, no redeemer of women among them — instead, one sees a space lit evenly and harshly, feverishly active as any market-place, where men keep touch with each other constantly. Indeed the always and already masculinist figure of the reformer is rendered redundant by the ‘victims’ who speak for themselves and equally by the actors who all congregate onstage to be the Tellers of Truth to Power– setting aside their roles as victims and oppressors in the play. Best of all, the utter hubris of the reformer’s self-proclaimed ‘Enlightened Male’s Burden’ is ripped apart as he appears onscreen (played by who else but our recently-discovered Apostle of Female Biological Modesty!)

So you see, many of us seem to have left that darling of the reformers, the ‘ordinary woman’, far behind — but aren’t lost yet — we have indeed found ways to speak of victimization that don’t render us into passive and weak recipients of Reformers’ care. Oh yeah, we haven’t got to the Kerala AIDWA yet. But it appears that the Kudumbashree women are indeed giving them a few lessons which, I have no doubt, belong to ‘classy feminism’. Unlike your (talismanic)class (vague)feminism, ‘classy feminism’ can emerge from the most unexpected locations. I am here, peering  precisely at that.

6 thoughts on “Class Feminism vs. Classy Feminism … Or, Everybody Loves the Governable Woman!”

  1. It is utterly paradoxical when we scrutinize the approach of our own kind (read ‘ordinary women’). Life presents itself in the form of stages. At the grass root level, the daughters are told to become someone powerful and ‘only then’ indulge in any form of questioning the ‘system’. But when the daughter gets to a substantial position in the ladder and tries to help her kind, she is told otherwise. She tries to change something, raise a voice and her own people shush her. “You have gone far.” “You are not seeing things from our perspective now. ” “This is the way we live.” And the worst, “Don’t meddle with our affairs.”

    We need to be united. All of us. Some women need the feel to be taken care of all the time. But that doesn’t justify their ridicule against the ones who wan’t to be independent (as in apparel, leisure, ambitions and so forth). Feminism, class or classy, has to be about the woman as an independent entity among humans, not as a deprived, dominated and dependent pet.

  2. Dear writer, this is sich a FANTASTIC piece of writing. As a Non-resident Keralite, I’m ridiculously happy to read this. I don’t follow the news from Kerala that closely but I think I ought to now.

    I must say that men trying to have an opinion about women and their welfare and their needs has always seemed a little misplaced and the events and ideas that you have chronicled here seem to emphasise that a lot more.

    Looking forward to reading more on this from you!


  3. “My love for Kudumbashree is precisely because it has produced a host of consequences unintended by its founders some of who were indeed fanatic admirers of the stiffly-starched ‘ordinary women’” I completely agree with this point. I am also following Kudumabashree for last five years and i can say with confidence that “nobody expected a this turn among ‘ordinary women’ through it.

  4. I had already commented on the futility of ‘International Women’s Day’ if middle class women do not open their minds and do not evolve. This post is hence a response to both Nivedita’s and Jdevika’s articles.
    Why is there ‘despair’ in Nivedita’s article and ‘smugness’ in Jdevika’s ?
    (1) This might happen in Kerala or West Bengal, where there is sizeable number of women exposed to ‘left ideology’. However, that ideology has not stopped the sexual assaults, rapes etc. of women in Kerala.
    (2)The ‘radical left ideology of feminism’ might not be popular with the ‘aam aurat’ of other states. This is not because of the ‘right’ leanings of the women populace. in that case, there should not be such strong pro women reactions from the Tamil Nadu where by and large religious and orthodox feelings are ingrained in the majority of the women.
    (3) The truth is, culturally, how have women defined themselves through the ages in their regional areas. in the North, there is an undue emphasis on ‘white beauty’. Nothing is more telling than the stark difference in how the word ‘for wife’s brother’ is used. In North, the equivalent to above ‘sala’ is a gali/abuse.In Tamil, ‘machan,machi’ is an affectionate term often used to acknowledge deep friendship.
    (4) What is needed is an awakening, amongst the middle class women, the well heeled average women. There is so much of cutting, sniping, bitching and cattiness (pardon is sought from both the species of animals). Women in this group, ‘moral’ in public are the first to scuttle their own definitions of ‘morals’ in their work sphere or public spaces.
    (5) A weaning away from rampant consumerism. Which incidentally is what the the ‘radical right’ also appears to be protesting. A woman’s right to wear any, partial or no cloth is equivalent to man’s choice on the similar matter. But, the issue is what drives this desire ? To emaulate a pageant queen of innumerable Beauty Competitions ? In that case, the woman’s mind is nothing more than a puppet to the patriarchal capitalism.
    Bhanwari Devi, to me, an educated middle class woman is an icon.She is an inspiration from whom I would like not an autograph, but few minutes of exchange of views.
    However, I am well aware that among my milieu, in the North, to most ‘educated women’, she is ‘Banwari who?’. The TV serials reign more than the news. The plea being ‘I have no time’. Time is not the matter, inclination is. Until women’s groups do not barge into drawing rooms and ‘erode’ or ‘wear down’ mind you, not ‘tear’ away the conditioning, the revolution is not going to happen and the oppression is not going to end.

  5. Most agonizing for an ‘average, normal woman – neither feminist nor anti-feminist; just an aware woman-Yesterday, I heard from an average ‘kudumbastree’ – her comment on the child victim (Delhi-gang rape) – “It’s all exaggeration; the media is blowing up things and painting a poor image of India; see those girls (protestors) clambering over the barricades, they deserve to be slapped – I, too wished to slap her and jolt her to reality. But, then, she is a mother of a ‘son’. She is a upper middle class woman, working , just like me. Oh why, why are women like this ? This is how it is every where ‘

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