Understanding Feminism

On Being a Male Sister of Feminism

Kancha Ilaiah

On October 5, 2012 in a seminar on my writings, organized by the Osmania University teachers, students and activists in the context of my retirement from that university along with several scholars an internationally renowned literary theorist and feminist Susie Tharu spoke. She said " Ilaiah is male sister of feminist movement in India". This statement from a person of Susie's academic stature put me in place of pride and also in a historical dilemma. The feminist movement taught me many things that the communist movement could not. My association with it goes back to the 1970s and 80s. As a writer those were my formative years. The feminist group—Stree Shakti—of Hyderabad was one of the most dynamic groups of India. It was exploring several new issues of man- woman relationship, particularly of women's freedom.

The socialist experiments in the West failed in liberating women from their household drudgery and unequal existence. The European feminist scholars were looking for new zones of politics. They launched a massive attack on sexual division of labour, women getting treated as second sex (Simone De Beauvoir's writings played a key role in that theory) and so on. They were raising several new questions, and searching for new answers. The Indian communist discourse was in a transition, as Maoism has surged into a stagnant Marxist economic determinist dogma. Antonio Gramsci's writings have been injecting a new cultural idiom to re-revolutionize Marxism. At that time the feminist discourse was introducing a notion of 'personal is political' and that had a huge impact on my life and thinking.

I used to sit and listen the arguments of the feminist scholars. All of them were from upper caste and middle class professional background. Some of them used to smoke, of course with an occasional drink on seminar or discussion days. Most of them had liberal and movement friendly husbands. No one had two or many husbands, as the feudal patriarchs were accusing them. But they were defending Draupadi (of Mahabharath) as against Sita and Savitri's pathivratha morality.

Their experiences at work places, their parental or neighbor's castigation of their free movements, smoking and occasional drinking used to be part of the discourses. This was when I began to reflect back on my village productive caste-cultural environment. My mother was a leaf cigarette smoker along with many other women of her age. Her everyday smoking time was when she was about to go to open air toileting around 4 am. I was told that even my paternal grandmother too smoked. They were playing many male roles while being female. As Rajunaik, a tribal professor from English and Foreign Language University (EFLU), said in that very seminar that his mother used to drive the plough as efficiently as his father used to do.

What was uncommon to urban upper caste male-female roles was common in our village productive castes. Many women while doing field work used to smoke. They used to ask the men working along with them to go away from their resting and smoking place. All the women of all castes were toddy or locally brewed liquor drinkers along with their men. The banthi (feast) drink on every festive day is common even now. However, the female smoking is dying now, though was never a taboo. In many ways that village existence was primitive, unsophisticated but culturally universal in its day-to-day operational process.

Many things that the French women were doing without an attached stigma our village women were also doing without any stigma attached. But the French women were demanding more through organized reading, writing and fighting, which our women were not capable of. It is this very birth of mine in that caste-communities that shaped my male-feminine person or it was that cultural environment that nurtured what Susie calls male-sisterhood in me.

I tried to theorize the egaliterain relationship of productive man-woman relationships showing them to be different from that of the upper caste brahminic relationships. But that understanding of mine was critiqued by many young Dalit-women scholars. In a situation of normative wife beating, girl child discriminatory practices, what kind of patriarchal democracy exists among Dalit-Bahujan castes? They were pointing out at lack of married family life in my theorizing of experience. I was, of course, theorizing based on my premise of work based relations of men and women. I am still trying to sustain that understanding of postulating several positive models of man-woman relationships from our village production relations mapping them on to Indian nationalism as against boastful anti-imperial utterances of globe-trotting intellectuals who borrow progressive models from the West.

My most important models come from the Dhobhi man-woman relationship. The Indian villages still produce and reproduce the philosophy of positive indigenous egalitarian nationalism. There are more male-feminists in our villages even today than in our cosmopolitan cities, more particularly around universities. I only exported that village feminist model to the alienated universities and put in place in written discourses.

Indian feminist groups have not yet examined the grassroot positive models of man-woman relationship that exist among many caste communities and tribals. Not that they are no negative models among lower caste institutions and structures. The highly casteist, backward models presenting their primitive, retrograde institutional oppression could be seen around the Khap Pachanyats and their theories and practices. But these practices that drew inspiration from the Brahminc Sati and child marriage must be seen in the overall influence of  Brahminism. Even though the Brahmins as people have given up them, some of the lower castes want to continue them. There are sites of hope and dilemmas in Dalit democratic patriarchal models. But on the whole there are more positive models among them than negative models. My dilemma is that, for whatever reasons, I remained unmarried. At the same time I believe that marriage as a historically evolved institution has to be preserved by injecting all kinds of democratic principles into it. Many would say that since I did not experience a married life which alone positions and repositions relations between man and woman my formulations about man-woman relations are not testified. Therefore my theorization of man-woman relations do not reflect the core understanding of the feminist theory: personal is political. Yes, it may be true.

But then I represent a different male feminist model than Marx and Gandhi. Marx imposed his self constructed torture (of writing communist theory and exiled life) on his wife and children. Hence he once said, if he was reborn he would re-do all that he did in life, except getting married. Gandhi imposed his own idiosyncratic theory and practice of celibacy on his wife. Sadly he never regretted that imposition.

Vol. 46, No. 18, Nov 10 - 16, 2013

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