Educate a woman and you will educate a family?-Critique on the current feminist discourse in India

I decided when I was nine that I was not a feminist. I didn’t associate myself with the set of girls that shared my classroom in my single-sex convent back in India. I decided girl-hood or even woman-hood was never going to be “my thing”. Books came to my rescue and academic success was the only replacement I could find for all the fat that accumulated on my body and all the pimples that spread on my “over-tanned” face (the traditional Indian society views a dark skinned woman as having a lower social value). I didn’t care, or maybe I was almost happy that it irritated my mother. I wasn’t to be like my female cousins or female peers who proved to be more socially successful than I did.

It was in those days of gender-rejection that newspapers and moral-science classes (a replacement of catechism for all the non-Catholics in my convent school in India) began to discuss how important it was that women be educated. I took it as a fact, as something distant from me, hence not having any power to affect me. I saw what was taught to us as “gender issues” as being far away, in the land of the “whites”! The slogan was (and still remains amongst the many “pseudo” intellectual groups) that if you educate a woman, you educate a family. Meaning that she, and not the father, is going to be the one staying home looking after children. So, if the children have issues doing their homework they can have free tutoring from their mother. We forget completely that at the start of the slogan she was a woman, and in the end she is a mother. We take them to be synonymous, this woman, this mother. The woman never had time to be a woman, she became her prescribed role of a mother instead.

I decided to reconsider my decision to not be a feminist. But that did not stop me from criticizing many aspects of the movement that I saw around me. What has been very interesting is that the confusion between roles and identities continues, even in the prominent discourse of the so-called liberal and all-encompassing project of a movement of ecofeminism (a popular form of movement that connects feminism and environment issues as being one). We have made the same mistake, of confusing the roles of both, a female human and nature (as seen as Gaia)in their most popular understanding, as being their identity. Women have been attributed to nature because it is seen as “natural” for them to be contributing so immensely in nurturing children. What we forget to analyze is the important elements contributed by religion and regional social structures. Tøllefsen (2011) says that social positions and hence roles of women in a society are “decided by cultural traditions and societal beliefs of desirable female conduct, and by women’s status and tasks within the family” hence putting pressure on these women in traditional societies to adhere to the norms of social behavior.

This brings me to the question that I have wondered for a while: why does the existence of a womb in a female human body play so important role in the feminine discourse, more prominently the relation that is drawn between the “power to give life” and nature’s own “fertility”. Has human reproduction become synonymous with nature?

The picture that comes to my mind, as a woman who has spent most of her life in India, when someone talks about ecofeminism, is a set of mal-nourished, tanned women from rural India holding their mal-nourished children in the middle of a field that has suffered drought conditions and has been rendered helpless, just like the women. What fascinated me is how this un-productivity of land as nature shifts to that of women, both sharing helplessness in this “patriarchal” world. This also happens to be the image that is used by Vandana Shiva throughout the book Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India. This image, along with the discourse that goes along with it have made me question if we have not only committed the crime of confusing roles with identity, but made this confusion work against specific movements aimed at gender and sexual rights. Shiva’s work to me sounds like green-washing what needs to be pink-washed or has been pink-washed with a lot of effort through decades of small independent feminist movements. The middle class urban woman doesn’t get accounted for, nor does the woman in an elite milieu who suffers from domestic violence. Their voice has been green-washed, so that they can be made to take a distance and give their voice to nature instead, forgetting they had a voice themselves. The “nature” never asked for it, no, but then it became more popular to feel guilty of the fact that I am an average middle class woman with average job and average income, and my only way to salvation in an economy that wants me to be “green” to be “cool” (or accepted) is through selling my vagina to an abstract “nature”.

This green-washing of the feminist movements does not only pertain to the middle-class and upper-class women; I have come to believe that the vaginas of collective of helpless women that show-up on these posters from villages in India, South Africa, Peru or any third-world nation have been expropriated, and done so in the name of the “nature”. Nature has become a religion today, that sells on “happy, let’s save the world” discourse at any international organization with credibility. This “nature” never asked for it, but suddenly the “Eco” of “Ecofeminism” has become bigger than feminism, too big to be contained in the movement. It has taken away the political space designated to “feminism” for itself, confusing people to take it to be feminism. This is what happens when you shift the gender from women to nature. You give “nature” this summation of expropriated vaginas and voila, she becomes a woman.

I wonder if we have become caught in the same trap as before, and that we have allotted the same importance that we had for the kind of science that compared the size of woman’s brain to that of an ape to the set of numbers that have been produced by economics and statisticians. These numbers have been taken as constants, like some universal law (or Natural law, as a few believe), and judgments have been pronounced based on which social class you came from. We have taken our wombs and vaginas to belong to nature, and hence decided that we as women belong to nature. This wasn’t sensational enough, so we decided to give away our vaginas, castrate ourselves, for the cause of nature who became Gaia with the power of our vaginas.

This has made me ask myself why we ever even started out to ask for our rights saying that we had the power of our vagina, the power to “give life” (I would not use the word reproduce since it has been used much in understanding of Marxian economics). We said we are closer to nature, and we began to confuse the role of conceiving (that not all women do undertake, or desire to) to be our identity. Today, this has resulted into a popular understanding of the act of human-reproduction as nature, as governed by the Law of Nature, as being a gift of Gaia that never has and still doesn’t “naturally” belong to women, giving space to expropriation of gender from women.

(This text was originally written as a part of a course titled “Political Philosophy of Nature” given by Prof. Bruno Latour at Sciences Po Paris in spring 2014)

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About Shreya Parikh

I am Shreya. Project Rethought is my attempt to rethink my own observations as a brown woman of Indian origin. I currently live in Paris where I teach at Sciences Po Paris and Parsons Paris-The New School.
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