Whose feminism is it anyway?

Nothing that you will read here is new. But I am still writing this. Here’s what prompted it. Last evening, a friend of mine got called an extremist, indoctrinated, misogynist troll on Twitter because she chose to defend her choice of wearing a hijab. (Yes, I am using variables of the word choice because it is the theme of this piece, as you will see).

Now you may already have gathered that I did not take well to this name calling. Partly because name calling does nothing for conversations and is just bad form, but mostly because of another reason. There are things you can judge me for – for instance, the work that I put out in public such as this, or calling people names. And then there are things you may not judge me for – like the clothes I choose to wear. (More precisely, you can judge me, but not from a high horse.)

Allow me to explain why and pay close attention. You know nothing about where my choices come from and what they say about me by looking at my clothes. The central logic of the other side of the argument in this context is that the veil has been used as a tool of oppression in large parts of the Islamic society and therefore if you wear it you are endorsing oppression. You know what is missing from this argument? Correct. Nuance.

Sexism and oppression is what is done to women. Feminism is the response to it. And how we choose to respond is up to us. No, really. It is. We could grab tools of oppression and smash them, reject them or coolly dust them and re-appropriate them. My subscription to tradition or custom does not need approval from your interpretation of the scriptures of my religion. Nor does it mean I am blindly subservient to them. In fact, my religious beliefs are as little your business as my choice of clothing. But that is a different topic.

The other problematic thing about this argument is that it is distorted when seen through the singular lens of Islam. Purdah is practised in many traditional Hindu households. Sure, you can be shot at for not wearing the hijab in some parts of the world and that is not the case with saris, dupattas and salwar kameezes here yet, but how many women in large parts of India do you think really have a choice in the matter of what they want to wear? Let me answer that for you. Very few.

Even so many of those who do have a choice continue to wear what they could have been forced to wear in other circumstances because they are culturally conditioned or they have other moulds to break or they think that it makes them look pretty or something, or the other. I haven’t heard too many liberals complain about Fab India selling something the Khap Panchayat in Haryana decreed all girls above the age of ten must wear in order to avoid being drooled over by boys.

So you see this isn’t a uniquely Muslim issue. To be fair, one person on Twitter did compare the hijab to the practice of Sati, but I thought that was a bit of a stretch. If you choose to commit Sati, you end up burnt alive. If you choose to wear a scarf, you end up with your hair not showing. No. Trust me, if my friend decided to burn herself alive for any medieval, colonial or surreal reason, I will stop her. I am not implying all symbols are equal. You shouldn’t either.

This little rant is specifically about the choice of clothing. The reason I don’t care if someone wears a veil is because to me clothes associated with socio-religious diktats are no more or less a symbol of subjugation than short skirts, fishnet stockings or stilettos.

If you are outraged by that comparison, take a deep breath. I assure you, I really am aware that in many parts of the world wearing a veil is not a choice for women and by and large, subscribing to gender constructs and oppressive ideas of beauty are what women choose to do, but that depends entirely on how choice is defined. If my friend’s choice of wearing a veil is dismissible as subconscious indoctrination, then so is my choice of wearing Louboutin’s punishing Pigalle¬†(plain black stilettos named after the red light district in Paris, for those asking). By that logic, I should discard my stilettos too. And I will if you reimburse me for my year’s worth of salary that went into buying them.

Kidding. I will not. Because tools of oppression keep evolving. Anything and everything that can, will be used to victimise those who are vulnerable. We can hardly win a war by attempting to destroy a self-perpetuating arsenal. Fighting oppression against women involves recognising what women around you need and using your resources to empower them and yourself in ways that you need to; in ways that you choose to.

Burning bras might have empowered one set of women at one time and one place but it will do nothing for another set of women in another time and place. Or a similar set of women at another time in the same place. As sexism and forms of oppression are localised, the response to them should be too. Western ideals of feminism often fall short of recognising that.

Reservation in panchayats for women in India was opposed by urban commentators on the ground that women who will stand for elections will be controlled by men. When you look at women in some villages of Rajasthan, it is easy to think so. They cover their faces and wear ostensible accessories prescribed for married Hindu women. However, economists Esther Duflo and Raghabendra Chattopadhyay conducted a stellar study on the outcome of the reservation policy and found that “that the oft-heard anecdotal evidence regarding women being entirely controlled by their husbands when in office should not be given too much weight”. Moreover, their results proved that women elected to panchayats “invest more in goods that are relevant to the needs of local women” and “less in goods that are less relevant to the needs of women.”

This is so because they are feminists. They just don’t call themselves that. This is so because what they wear does not define them. In the same way that it does not define me or my friend. We make choices about what we wear for many complex and deeply personal reasons. The issue isn’t with shorts or hijab. The issue is with the beholder’s prejudice. Or like my grandmother used to say: “Buri nazar waale tera munh kaala“. I know you have already read that on the back of trucks in India but then I did warn you that nothing that you read here is new. It is unfortunate that it still needs to be said.

First published on Daily O