Guest post by NIKITA AZAD
It would be an understatement to say that apart from sexualization of young girls, society infantilizes women on a regular basis. Whether in domestic sphere where men decide what is best for the family and women, or office where men consider their women counterparts as less intelligent and inferior, such infantilization manifests itself in various forms and at various places. A similar trend can be observed in movies where men are usually portrayed as saviors whereas women are depicted as young ‘girls’ waiting to be saved. American TV serials from I Love Lucy onwards have routinely infantilized women, and contemporary Hindi soap operas too, represent and treat women as children to be taken care of by their families and husbands/lovers. Such an approach towards women not only reduces their value and identity as thinking, rational human beings, but it also provides men and the patriarchal structure an argument to justify their control over women. It strengthens the general belief that women are inferior, not only biologically but also mentally, and thus, it perpetuates male intellectual hegemony.
In recent times, many white-collar women employees and actresses have spoken against wage gap and workplace discrimination prevalent in their respective fields, which is as much a result of infantilization of women as it is that of gender discrimination. The work done by a woman, however good, is considered inferior as compared to that done by a man, based on the ground that women are more sensitive, emotional, and child-like; and are thus, there are more possibilities of their committing mistakes. Women feminists and non-feminists, who opine on social media on gender discrimination, are often seen as ones who are easily offended and are emotionally immature. Their responses are treated with sexism than with any serious arguments; the reactions are usually perceived as ‘angry’. Their Face Book and twitter accounts are filled with sexually abusive messages and their opinions are seen as having zero or less value when compared to their men counterparts. A good example would be a recent experiment done by a couple on Twitter, whereby a man and a woman, working for the same organization, The Washington Post, published two articles on similar issues but the responses they received were shockingly different. While the man’s inbox was crowded with racist comments, the woman’s inbox was filled with sexist and degrading names that the man could not bring himself to repeat on his post on Twitter.
While the consequences of the sexist practice of infantilization of women have been widely discussed in feminist circles, a study of its presence in otherwise democratic and progressive circles remains absent. Having stated the facts and the sexism women go through in all parts of the world, the question is whether progressive and democratic circles have been able to counter and eradicate such sexism and particularly, infantilization of women within their small spaces.
Left and Patriarchy
I would like to focus on THE left, specifically, Punjab’s left since that is where I have been working for the last three and a half years. The observations and analysis stem from my personal experiences as well as that of other women comrades. I am not going to point out the faults in a particular organization, but only comment on and cite the lack of feminist political consciousness in left circles of the area. Nevertheless, I am not denying the presence of a few groups that are working in this direction.
As an extrovert and urban woman, when I joined a left organization, I was referred to as a tomboy repeatedly and such comments from students such as ‘She is a boy,’ were quite common. At the same time, other organizations often perceived me as a ‘loose’ woman since I would never think twice before touching or shaking hand with a man, for that matter. While the organization I worked in was very new and comparatively democratic, other organizations restricted their women leaders from wearing jeans since that would offend people and damage the image of the organization. On the other hand, men activists and leaders could wear and do whatever they like, and I rarely saw one wearing Kurta-Pajama (a traditional Punjabi outfit) or turban, for that matter. What I am trying to say is that what women wear, how they behave, at what time they enter hostels, how actively or passively they participate, how much distance they maintain from men comrades- such actions decide the image of organization for men or office bearers in the organization. The image and the image making of an organization lies on the shoulders of women, just as it happens in patriarchal families where women are considered ‘honor’ of the families. Women are advised not to roam too much with men, not to reveal their romantic relationships, and not to talk about taboo subjects such as love and sex. Women’s sexual ‘purity’ is often seen as the threshold from where an organization’s image is judged.
Simultaneously, an interesting tokenism is present in such organizations, which portray women as their leaders and office bearers. The reality, however, remains that women are often secluded from important discussions and decisions. In issues related to women such as sexual harassment, women leaders are brought out of the closet whereas during other significant issues, they are kept aside since it is believed that they have less political consciousness when compared to the men in the organization. I remember a particular incident in this context, where a man comrade gave a sexist comment. As a part of a left organization, I sat in an all-organization meeting, where I started giving an argument, when a senior comrade (man) of an organization interrupted me and spoke, “Men are talking. You do not need to talk.” When I compare this experience with what happens in society, I see a clearly visible similarity, where men make their wives contest elections, but restrict the decision making power to themselves.
Another patriarchal practice and understanding of these organizations (particularly men) is that they consider women as sensitive and overly emotional humans, who can neither fully understand politics nor develop as rational, political human beings. Their contributions and analysis are often seen as coming from either a bourgeois feminist stand or a prejudiced viewpoint; it is believed that since women have faced oppression, they are bound to comprehend things out of emotions instead of a fair, scientific study. For instance, when a woman comrade speaks out angrily against a case of eve teasing, the men of the organization come to her to cool her down. On the other hand, I have witnessed a number of cases where men comrades behave rudely and angrily with the authorities, which becomes a celebration of their bravery and ‘masculinity.’ Here, I am reminded of a personal incident yet again. Last year, during Holi (an Indian festival), an unknown man rubbed color against my face and I reacted furiously. Upon doing so, he laughed at my face and repeated his act, and thus, I held his collar, started arguing, and slapped him. I did not know that a man comrade was going by, who came near me, held me by my shoulders and took me away in an attempt to ‘resolve’ the issue. An exact copy of what a patriarchal friend would do.
The Decision Making Process and Women
I have pointed out earlier in this article that women are usually considered immature to handle and understand the complexities of decision making process and even when involved, their opinions are not given due importance. This not only happens within the organization, but also outside it while dealing with authorities. When I was a member of an organization, I remember how differently men in the university authority treated me. Another woman friend of mine also agreed to having faced such discrimination, where when she gave an argument, the Deans hardly paid any attention whereas when the men comrades spoke, they responded while looking at them. Even when the issue was women-centric such as hostel curfews in women hostels, the authorities called up men comrades for personal meetings and negotiations. While this hurts less since the deans never call themselves progressive, but when men comrades behave in a similar manner, it raises serious questions about their being progressive. I have myself been a victim of such treatment, where when I spoke something in inter-organization discussions, others frequently cut my arguments, but when men spoke, such interruption was far less. Moreover, some comrades (who do not deserve this title) out rightly rejected my presence and despite standing next to me, talked to man comrades and not me. It is crucial to point out that this not only happened with me, but also with other women friends of mine.
The Sexist Content and Form
While the above stated things might differ according to individual experiences, there are some general tendencies in Punjab’s left, which reflect themselves openly on public stages. Almost during all the conventions, conferences, and protests that I have been a part of, there has been at least one such individual who constantly keeps on making sexist comments while discussing about other issues. Recently, a protest was organized in Punjabi University, Patiala, against the demolition of Babri Masjid in which while giving his speech, a man comrade spoke about nationalism, “India is not our mother. If she were a mother, where is the father? Tell us who is the father, and then we will see whether she is our mother or not.” While it represents that individual’s poor understanding on nationalism and jingoism, it also demonstrates his perception about single mothers, upon whom he chose to crack a joke. Similarly, last year, in a protest in solidarity with Occupy UGC, a man comrade said, “Badal (CM of Punjab) is the illegitimate child of Mughal dictators.” I fail to understand how and why a child becomes illegitimate when ze has zer mother. Further, in general conversations, men comrades usually use sexist words and anti-women slangs to vent out their anger on state, and target women politicians through their sexuality. For instance, I have heard elderly comrades talk about Indira Gandhi with respect to her divorce and free sexual agency.
It is also interesting to note that while such comments that reduce women to their sexualities are laughed upon at generally, such man comrades always refer to women comrades and audience as sisters and mothers. While men are referred to as friends, women are consciously and particularly called sisters, ‘girls’, or a typical Punjabi term ‘Kudiyan.’ Such names stem from the same understanding that infantilizes women and sees them as immature, child-like, docile, and innocent beings. This also gives rise to blatant mansplaining, which is a regular part of the life of a woman activist. In a recent struggle against hostel curfews in the university of which I was a part, an unknown man came to us, women activists, and started explaining us what to do and what not to do. The point is not that we were not ready to listen; we wanted advice from people and we welcomed it, but unwarranted advice that came with titles such as ‘girls’, considered us unintelligent and looked at us with pity was definitely problematic to the core. Since I have repeatedly used the term ‘girls’ to denote child-like behavior, I would like to specify here that according to dictionaries, ‘girl’ is a word that means a biologically female looking human under the age of 18, i.e. one who is not an adult yet. Therefore, the terms ‘girls’, ‘Kudiye’ or ‘Guddi’ (doll) are demeaning as hell to me.
Another identity that is given to women is that of a motherly figure. In the recent struggle for the land reserved for Dalits in a village named Jhaloor, Sangrur, an elderly woman named Gurdev Kaur was injured severely when upper caste goons attacked her. A few days later, she died and was announced a martyr by the organization, but the word ‘Mother’ was attached to her name and thus, she was provided with a patriarchal identity. Simultaneously, this trend can be seen when comrades refer to women freedom fighters such as Durgavati Devi as ‘Durga Bhabhi’ (Bhabhi means wife of brother) and Gulab Kaur as ‘Mata Gulab Kaur.’ While younger women are called ‘sisters/Bhabhis’, elderly women are known as ‘mothers’ since these are the only relations acceptable in society, and thus, within organizations. Such forced motherhood and sisterhood denigrates women’s individual identities and instead of doing what comrades call ‘cultural revolution,’ such names only strengthen the already existing structure and form of patriarchy.
Women and Love in the time of revolution
I think it is beyond the reach of this article to discuss how comrades understand love and what it means for them, but I would like to share what relationships and entering into relationships with women means for men comrades. First, as I have argued earlier, revealing your relationship is not allowed. Further, men comrades, since usually they are in such positions, consider caste and class before deciding to propose a woman. Some time ago, I went to the funeral of a comrade, who had stopped talking to his granddaughter since she married a man from a so-called lower caste community. Comrades follow the same arrange marriage process and try to avoid any conflict in their families as well as consider their daughters and sisters as their pride. In cases where they do not do so, they prohibit their wives (even if from love marriages) from participating actively.
However, there are more subtle forms of patriarchy in communist relationships, where men comrades are very committed towards the organization and the organizations are relatively better. Since women are usually perceived and understood as hypersensitive and touchy, there is a tendency in such organizations to urge women to enter into relationships with men comrades of the organization. This is because they think such an act would bind a woman to a man, emotionally as well as physically, and thus, reduce her possibility of leaving the organization. Here, again, women are not considered as humans, but as subjects (also objects) that are necessary for the organization and revolution. Their will and choice is kept aside and it is believed that their relationship (read dominated by man comrade) would serve as a helping hand in advancing the cause of the organization. I am not saying that the reason is bad; rather it is significant to involve women in organizations, but the understanding that works behind keeping them involved and the method of doing so in blatantly sexist. Second, when women enter into relationships, men comrades start treating them differently. They are seen as partners of men comrades rather than women comrades, which is again an embodiment of sexism. Further, the calls for protests and meetings often go to the man comrade, who becomes the sole representative of himself as well as his partner. He starts exercising his control over her mobility within the organization and begins treating her as a child who needs instructions. However, this is not to say that women are always victims; rather there are exceptional cases where women have had equal say in every matter. However, in such cases also, organizations tend to reduce women’s consent and sexual agency to a manipulation done either by her partner or by bourgeois society. Under no circumstances, it is believed that a woman might have a choice of her own and she might make her own decision of sleeping or not, marrying or not, working in the organization or not.
On the other hand, since women are made to feel secure and are encouraged to behave friendly in such organizations, it becomes easier for men comrades to express their romantic feelings and when this happens, women usually respond politely. However, the problem arises when men comrades perceive this politeness as a ‘yes’ and keep on chasing women, just as it happens in Bollywood movies. Thus, patriarchy makes it way again, even in the time of revolution.
Can we imagine a feminist-socialist organization?
Recently, Mangalam, a Malyalam newspaper published an article under the heading ‘Do you want a boy child? Some tips,’ that was widely criticized by democratic individuals, especially on social media. However, treating women’s bodies as sites of surveillance within one of the most advanced sections of society exacerbates such ideology that prefers men to women. It strengthens the belief that women have to be taken care of and protected by their families, guardians, or organizations at all times of their lives. In times when RSS and its allied forces are trying their best to promote Brahmanical, homophobic, and anti-women ideals of heterosexual relations, caste-based marriage, and women as upholders of ‘respectability’, it becomes crucial for Punjab’s left to rethink the role it is playing in women’s liberation. It must distinguish its position on women’s question from that upheld by right wing forces i.e. one that believes that women have the right to vote or protest, but do not have the right to wander at night, or have an independent will in terms of mobility.
Having discussed the weaknesses of left organizations of the state with respect to women, I feel it is important to state that patriarchy is a complex structure and it is extremely difficult to challenge it. I recognize that organizations and people involved in them are a part of society, and thus, can commit mistakes. Left has come a long way i.e. from a time when it did not allow Dalits to be a part of the unions to the present time, when it has played more than an active role in the struggle for Rohith Vemula. This is the reason I hope my observations would not offend people; rather they would help them look at themselves critically and the responses would help me look at myself critically.
I know how much communists/socialists hate the f-word Feminism and I cannot explain what feminism is in this article. Despite it, I would like to stress that the reason behind writing this long article was to point out the loopholes in left organizations, which are fighting for equality indubitably and constantly, and help form a unity based on gender equality. Therefore, I hope it will initiate a discussion in communist circles and organizations, from which a good understanding about gender and the role of women in organizations might develop.
Nikita Azad is a writer based out of Patiala, Punjab. She can be reached at email@example.com