Feminists, Let’s Ditch Holi in 2019!

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On 20th and 21st March, most of India will celebrate the festival of Holi. Parties will be thrown in streets and colleges, housing societies and offices. Entire markets will be set up to sell holi supplies- gulal, pichkaris, colour to mix with water, balloons and so on. Bollywood songs will blare from speakers, thandai and mithai will be spread out on tables. Women will retreat into houses out of fear as men carry out their drunken song and dance in public, taking over entire cities and villages. Women who want to be a part of the festivities will have to ward off constant unwanted touch, unwanted groping, unwanted hugs, and sometimes fail to ward them off. Women will pretend to be okay with gangs of men picking them up and putting them into ponds, throwing liquid-filled balloons at them, forcing their clothes into translucence, rubbing colour on their faces violently enough for it to go inside their eyes and noses. Women will be ridiculed for taking offence or refusing any of this.

In 2018, on the eve of Holi, large numbers of women in Delhi took to the streets, in order to protest what they called a culture of harassment that is prevalent during Holi. Besides the usual harassment, women had begun to be attacked by balloons filled with semen and egg yolks with almost no repercussions. They demanded that police and local authorities take an active effort to discourage the harassment against women that was encouraged and normalised during the festival, with cries of ‘bura na mano holi hain’ every time women protested. Other women have spoken up against the media representation of holi, with Bollywood songs saying constantly that women are sex objects and that harassment of women is a festive activity. In a song Ang se ang lagana, for instance, Sunny Deol’s character promises to touch every part of his lover’s body with his own, and says he’s undeterred by even her complaints to the police. In most practises, every aspect of women’s privacy and bodily autonomy is violated.

However, it is important to remember that the problem with Holi is not merely one of bad practise or faulty representation. It is not something that has been tarnished in modern times, but is a ritual of violence at its very core. The first day of Holi is celebrated with what is known as Holika dahan, or the killing of Holika. The Puranic origin myth says, according to K. Jamnadas, that “the powerful King Hiranyakashyapu sent his sister Holika to kill his ten year old only son Pralhad, as he was worshipping the Brahmanical god Vishnu against his wishes.” She sat with Prahlad on a pyre because she had a cloth which could resist burning. However, after Prahlad prays to Vishnu, the wind blows, wrapping Prahlad with the cloth while Holika burns to death. According to Jamnadas, the Puranas were the only holy texts which Bahujan people were allowed to listen to, and were written in order to create justification in their minds for the violence that was committed against them. In most of these myths, Bahujan people are demonised and referred to as ‘asuras’, and violence against them twisted into a ‘triumph of good over evil’. The myth of Holika then, can be seen as a mere justification of the murder of a Bahujan woman in terms of devotion to a Brahmanical god. This is not the only instance of violence that is associated with the festival. A practise called Garoba, which is carried out during Holi in Maharashtra, involves hanging pumpkins from poles and can be traced to a Hindu practise banned by the British government, which involved hanging lower caste men from poles. The Marathi poet Tukaram who spoke strongly against caste, is said to have “vanished” on the day of Holi as well. Another myth involves the Hindu god Krishna “playing” with the women of Vrindavana, which again, heavily implies harassment.

At the core of Holi, then is violence which is reinforced by the idea that it is a day when there are no moral repercussions for any actions and repressed desires can be fulfilled. In a profoundly casteist and misogynist society, these desires often involve the infliction of violence against the oppressed, and the lack of moral repercussions is most useful for those in power, as can be clearly seen in the events of even just the last few years. For instance, in 2016, on the day of Holi an 80 year old woman was dragged out of her own house by three men she knew, who were in an inebriated state, and took turns to rape her. The woman died soon. In 2017, on the day of Holi, a 6 year old girl was raped by a stranger that couldn’t be found or recognised by the police for weeks. In 2018, in Rajasthan, a 26 year old Dalit man was beaten to death while his house was set on fire. In Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit family’s shop was set ablaze, while they managed to flee from a mob trying to push the family, including two children, into the fire. In the same year, Hariom Yadav, a UP MLA was accused of abducting a Dalit woman in order to ‘celebrate Holi’. When the oppressed celebrate the festival too, they are made the targets of violence. In 2017, for instance, in Madhya Pradesh, an upper caste couple pushed a Dalit man into a Holi bonfire that he had lit himself. In 2018, in Jharkhand, a 52 year old Dalit man was beaten to death by the police for applying colour on an upper caste man. This the oppressive reality of Holi, a festival which is constantly portrayed in mainstream media as a festival of Hindu-Muslim unity, conveniently sugarcoating its brahmanical and patriarchal nature.

Clearly then, what happens on Holi are not transgressions, but merely expressive of what our society is at large. What does it mean then, for us to continue to celebrate this festival that justifies this kind of violence? It is not merely a matter of myth and tradition but reflects strongly in the very real instances of violence that are carried out in society even today- as recently as four months ago, a 15 year old Dalit girl burned to death as she was set ablaze by two men in Agra. We as feminists, then, must reject such a tradition, and all versions of it, in all capacities possible.

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Image credits: Neetisha Xaixo 

Why International Women’s Day Isn’t For Women At All

With International Women’s Day around the corner, my social media and inbox is flooded with advertisements and flashy pictures about upcoming Women’s Day sales and ideas of what I can do to surprise the other “special women” in my life.

On Women’s Day this year, just like every year, expect to be bombarded with wishes from all over the place – your friends (especially male friends), colleagues, family members, newspapers, companies, huge hoardings on buses and roads, and the list can go on. International Women’s Day, which began as a radical political movement by women protesting for better working conditions, better pay, and the political right to vote in 1807 and again in 1908, is now celebrated on March 8 of every year after it was officially recognized by the United Nations in 1975. In this increasingly neoliberal world however, we see that the radical spirit of the movement is completely lost, and has been reduced to a holiday where, amongst many pointless things, women receive chocolates and cards as gifts, and businesses come out in token support for ‘gender equality’, all under the label of ‘women empowerment’.

In an era of modernisation and supposed ‘progress’, Women’s Day has become an instrument used by capitalists to commodify a woman’s body and further perpetuate consumerist culture. Brands selling women’s clothes are the first to detach Women’s Day from its true spirit and turn it into an event that portrays women empowerment to mean wearing pieces of garment that make you look ‘sexy’, and make you a ‘feminist’ simply because those garments have phrases like “Girl Gang” and “#empowerment” printed on them. A clothing brand for women, called PrettyLittleThing (what a great name for a ‘feminist’ brand!), did just that, and are now being applauded for empowering strong, opinionated women “in style”.

In 2014, after the Fawcett Society, a group advocating for gender equality, got politicians to wear ‘pro-feminism’ t-shirts with the slogan “This is what a feminist looks like” in an attempt to gain public support, it was found that the women involved in making these t-shirts were ironically subject to terrible working conditions and were only paid 62 pence per hour. This shows the high likelihood of the prevalence of such conditions for the workers involved behind making garments for International Women’s Day as well, as high end fashion brands wanting to make a ‘pro-woman’ statement, push for high production to maximize their profit. The hypocrisy of such brands then is shocking, but a culture of consumerism fuelled by capitalist patriarchal forces renders such behaviour to go unnoticed, and allows companies to walk away scot-free.

Makeup brands are the next to jump on the bandwagon. With mainstream feminism portraying makeup as an agent through which women ‘express themselves’ and ‘feel powerful’, Women’s Day sees a surge of advertisements of free makeup tutorials, makeovers, “pamper yourself” pamphlets, and discounts on cosmetic products being shoved into women’s faces. As if telling women that they are imperfect and socially unacceptable unless they look a certain way on the other 364 days of the year wasn’t enough, women are told the same thing on the one day that is supposedly dedicated to them as well, only this time, it is under the garb of empowerment.

Makeup brands don’t stop just there however, but go on to sell their products by pitching the idea that makeup will help women look more like the ‘good looking’ female celebrities, and less like themselves, which once again conditions women to dislike themselves and their bodies, and in turn spend ample time, effort and money, trying to look more ‘feminine’ and appealing to the male gaze. In addition to makeup, women are bombarded with advertisements for commodities of luxury, ranging from jewellery and accessories to spas and perfumes, to feel “beautiful” because “she’s worth it”.

International Women’s Day also plays out to be the perfect opportunity for corporates and businesses around the world to make ‘pro-woman’ statements, which is not only beneficial for them as customers now view them in a good light, but also convenient as they only have to display their ‘support for women’ for 24 hours. Even better, they can make such statements regardless of whether they even remotely contribute to the liberation of women in any way.

Last year, McDonald’s turned its logo upside down to look like a “W” for ‘women’, as a symbol of support on Women’s Day. This is the same company, that faced complaints of sexual harassment from ten women employees across Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and six other cities, who said that the members of the board usually do not listen to their complaints or retaliate against them for complaining in the first place. This is one of the first companies to have seen a cross-city mobilization of its employees against them. This is also the same company that faced rallies from their workers amidst Times Square in 2016 against the extremely low wages. McDonald’s FAQ section claims that 52% of its employees are female, proving the well known fact that huge multinational companies, like McDonalds reap large sums of profits off of the exploitation of cheap labour i.e. women. Although McDonald’s faced significant backlash for their “empty gesture” of merely turning their logo upside down, the sheer ease and convenience with which they could do it is representative of how International Women’s Day is used by exploitative capitalists to merely serve their interests of further profit maximization, without having to be accountable to anyone in any way.

Similarly, in 2017, Scotland’s national newspaper Scotsman decided to change its name to Scotswoman, but…wait for it…just for 24 hours! As if the historical, social, economic and cultural oppression of women is just worth 24 hours of everyone’s precious time. An interview quoted with a former assistant director of the newspaper said she was ‘astonished’ that at least half the men on the board agreed with the idea. Well as long as she wasn’t suggesting fighting for more female representation, presence of women in decision making roles, or for higher wages for women, of course they were going to agree! How will 24 hours of changing the title contribute in any way to reducing the rates of domestic violence, sexual objectification, human trafficking, prostitution, sexual abuse, harassment, and the million other problems women face on a daily basis? And yet, the newspaper could use International Women’s Day as a way to gain cultural currency and portray themselves as “progressive”, without having actually done anything to fight patriarchal power structures that oppress women. This argument holds equally true for men as well, for what harm would it do to an inherently patriarchal misogynist man, who otherwise may have made multiple women feel uncomfortable and taken advantage of his privilege, to buy a few gifts or send out a well crafted message on one day of the year, to show that he ‘respects’ women?

The kind of posters a woman is likely to see around ‘wishing’ her a happy Women’s Day also only serve to further perpetuate the idealized notion of a woman, who is ‘curvy’, has a thin waist, clear skin, beautiful eyes, a hairless body, and meets all the other criteria of being an ‘attractive’ woman. Sprinkling in few words like ‘empowerment’, ‘wonder woman’, ‘beautiful’, ‘special’ and ‘precious’, gives such displays a level legitimacy that usually goes unquestioned, and blinds people from seeing how they are still inherently patriarchal.

The rationale for celebrating Women’s Day is always positioned to show that a woman is someone’s “mother, sister, daughter and wife” and she must therefore be shown how “unique” and “special” she is. The ideal woman deserving of attention and celebration on Women’s Day is thus always defined in terms of her relationship with a man, or how effective she is at fulfilling her role of being a “good” family member, therefore robbing her of her individuality and forcing her into the traditional narrative of a socially acceptable woman. This reasoning itself, that is supposed to make men ‘respect’ women is inherently misogynistic because it implies that women must be respected because they are your mother, sister, daughter, and wife, and not because they are individuals and human beings worthy of love and dignity. Portraying her as “special” and “unique” fits in well with the idea of the delicate, pure, innocent woman, untouched by the things that make men crass and general, where every woman conforms to society in her own, special way. Not only does this infantilize her, but also ties her personhood to the well-being and honour of her family, society, and nation.

International Women’s Day has panned out as a holiday that is widely celebrated and actively taken up by all those searching for avenues to display their token support for women’s liberation, in an attempt to be conveniently woke. Capitalists have used this day to feed off of the historical oppression and marginalization of women in an attempt to meet their interests of commodification of the woman’s body and depoliticization of the true spirit of the day, which in turn stands to reproduce the very patriarchal capitalist structure that oppresses women. It is thus important that this year, on Women’s Day, we be alert and careful. We must be wary of what is being labelled as ‘empowerment’ and ‘women’s freedom’.

What women really need is to come together, educate themselves, mobilize, and stand against the social injustices that they have been historically subject to. It is quite blatantly apparent that the strong women who truly led our fight for liberation will never be celebrated by mainstream culture, and it is thus important that our celebration involve going back to the power and strength given to us by those women and the tactics they showed us to continue our movement. Andrea Dworkin said, “Part of what we have to do in this resistance I’m talking about is to refuse to collaborate with male power. Refuse to be used by it. Refuse to be its chick upfront.” So this Women’s Day, let’s refuse to give in to the culture of consumerism that stands to fit us into clothes, makeup, jewellery and heels that appeal to the male gaze, and take a step towards going back to our good old radical roots!

What Patriarchy Wants Women To Be Happy About

There are many stressful, frustrating, and saddening things about being a woman. There is no dearth of things an average woman could be worrying about at any given point of time- whether she looks fine, whether she smells nice, whether her bra strap is showing, whether her skirt is flying up, whether her pants are too tight, whether her heels are about to break, whether her lipstick is on her teeth, whether her concealer is peeling off, whether her body hair is noticeable, whether her voice is too loud, whether the graze of a man’s hand was intentional, whether he’ll be offended if she says something, whether that stranger is staring at her, whether she can take out her phone without him noticing and send her location to someone, whether she should send the number of her cab to her parents, and so on and so forth. So when Filtercopy, a prominent Indian digital media site, posted this video called ‘Little Things that Make Women Happy’, I had many things in mind. My imagination was running free, the possibilities were endless! But as usual, patriarchal media got a simple premise so twisted, that I could not help but laugh.

The very first thing they could think of, which would spark joy in a woman’s mind, was not as one would expect, more freedom, less labour, more comfort, or less regulation. It was… wait for it… no lipstick stains.

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The woman in the video is in the company of a group of people, and instead of talking or engaging with them, she’s deep in thought, carefully noticing how the other woman has left a lipstick mark on her cup, labouring under the worry that if she takes a sip of her drink, the same fate will befall her too.

How much does an average woman spend on lipsticks in her lifetime? Some estimates say as much as $I,780. That’s 1 lakh 26 thousand 1 hundred and 87 rupees. On the rest of her makeup, she spends a total of $15,000. Let us not even begin to calculate the time spent on applying each of these products.

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Imagine the number of books one could read with that amount of money and time, or the amount of education one could access. Imagine what such resources could mean for a woman’s financial independence, what it could mean for a woman trapped in a bad marriage, faced by a harasser at her workplace, or burdened with legal fees in a fight against her abuser. Alternatively, imagine how indispensible a woman’s need to wear lipstick becomes for multi-billion dollar companies to exist, and what effect this economic system has on thousands of people, especially women, across the world. Imagine one such company opening a small media business for itself. What kind of video would it make, say, if it had to target half of its consumer base and at the same time get points for being relatable and representative? But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the video.

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Ah, my biggest worry in the world! Hairfall! I’m not surprised. With the amount of advertisements I’m bombarded with on an average day- for shampoo, conditioner, shampoo+conditioner, dry shampoo, hair oil, perfumed hair oil, non-sticky hair oil, hot hair oil, deep massage hair oil, hair serum, hair mask, hair spray, texture spray, hair colour, hair dye, hair mist, hair gel, hair bleach, heat protecting spray, hair straightener, hair curler, hair dryer, hair ties, hair clips, and hair brushes- it is of course a bit of a bummer when there’s nothing that can stop my hair from falling. I daresay it is a bummer for those selling the products too. But thinking about this makes up exactly two seconds of my day. You know what would make me much happier than a ‘no hair hairbrush’? If women around me were not constantly, instinctively, fixing their hair at all times. If like men, I didn’t need to spend a fortune to get a haircut. If my entire worth was not dependent on how feminine or pretty my hair looked. If I could spend the time I spend on combing my hair on doing something that added actual value to my life. If I didn’t have to buy a single hair product, and could get rid of the whole damn mane without fear of social consequence. But again, I’m digressing.

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I know that feeling. That feeling when I was a young girl and my mother started insisting that I wear an extra layer under my t-shirt so that people wouldn’t look, and eventually took me to a shop where a man stared me down to determine the size of my breasts and suggested a bra size. That feeling when I saw discounts by so-called women’s brands for the most complicated of strappy, lacey, contraptions on valentine’s day, so that women could ‘surprise’ their partners. That feeling when I fell asleep without taking it off one night and woke up with the most painful ache in my chest. That feeling when I spent at least 10 minutes trying to discreetly adjust it in public so that no one would get any sight of it. Why on earth are we still talking in terms of ‘removing’ our bras at the end of the day instead of doing away with them altogether? Why are we so comfortable with our pain? Why are we so anxious to not be one of the uncool, bra-burning feminists? They sure seemed to have a point.

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Have you ever been to a shopping mall and compared the women’s section to the men’s section? Mainstream feminist ideas today tell us to choose whatever we want to wear! In today’s day and age I can choose between shirt A and skirt B and dress C. But who said I have to choose between them? And who said that this choice adds anything at all to the quality of my life or my position in society? An easy look at the two sections of clothing will reveal a number of patterns- the average length of women’s shorts is disproportionately less than that of men’s, the average fit of pants disproportionately tighter. Whether it be short skirts or off shoulder dresses, crop tops or heels, ruffles or chokers- women’s fashion seems to be designed to restrict movement and make us appear smaller. What good does it do to speak up against sexualisation of women based on what we wear when the odds are that what we wear is in itself controlled by an industry run by men, which depends on the sexualisation of our bodies? Why is it absolutely ordinary to joke about not eating or to worry about how much I will have to hold my breath to fit into a pair of pants? Why should a significant moment of happiness in my everyday life involve fitting into jeans whose only purpose is to make my legs look thinner and my butt stick out? I’m sure even those feminists who argue for choice would not disagree with the fact that there is nothing inherent about being a woman that necessitates this difference in design in our clothing.

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In Mumbai, one of the major metropolitan cities in India, there are around 10,778 public toilets for men, and only 3909 for women. Even out of the ones that are present, many shut down at night, while men’s toilets remain open. What is made to look like individual women’s paranoia about cleanliness and men’s tendency to be careless with their bathrooms perhaps points to a much larger structural problem- that a much higher number of women with much more need for clean water and sanitation have to navigate public spaces with less than one-third of the resources available to men. What implication does that have on women’s mobility and access to public space? Perhaps, rather than a coincidental encounter with a clean toilet, infrastructural changes which lead to clean toilets becoming commonplace for women would be a ‘little thing’ that I’d much rather be happy about.

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A Hindu tradition called ‘Chaupadi’ followed in Nepal makes menstruating women and girls live in isolated huts for the duration of their period. In these huts, women die from snake bites and suffocation, and are vulnerable to rape. Numerous girls in Kenya engage in transactional sex in order to access period products because of the prevalent culture of shame and stigma. Films such as Pad Man make heroes out of men for teaching women how to manage their own periods. The most common products women use (sanitary napkins and tampons) create an immense amount of waste, can have fatal health impacts, and are too expensive for most women to be able to afford. However, the pressure to conceal our periods and all signs of it, ensures that we are unquestioning consumers of anything that makes our period as invisible and separate from our bodies as possible. This is why women are constantly targeted with ads for the new perfumed pad, the new triple layer extra thick pad, the extra long pad, and so on and so forth. Forget free-bleeding, even “practical” options such as cloth pads and menstrual cups, which are not only biodegradable but also reduce pain, infection, and discomfort, do not find nearly as many users. This is because wearing them means that we can’t immediately wrap our blood in plastic and discard of it, we can’t avoid touching our blood, we can’t avoid people finding out about our blood. When saviours (especially white, especially male) come bearing gifts of sanitary pads for naive, unknowing, poor, rural women thinking they will bring gender equality to them, what they do not consider is that the availability of pads has not particularly reduced the stigma of menstrual blood for anyone. It has only made it easier to hide. How dare someone suggest, then, that our happiness be born out of this shame?

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The last thing they say women feel happy about, is ‘feeling safe’. Here, they are not wrong. For, what other choice do we have than to be satisfied with little concessions in the constant threat of violence? Especially when media companies like this one do everything in their power to normalise our position as recipients of it? One thing is clear, that Filtercopy is not a villain. Sure, it wants us to stay in our place, but at least it wants us to be happy while we do it.

 

Is Feminism Too Focused on Women?

As a feminist on the internet, there is almost no escape from the wide variety of ‘girl power’ products, articles about women reclaiming makeup, and music videos with women gyrating to feminist anthems that are constantly targeted at me through social media algorithms.

As a result, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this article titled ‘More than a laptop sticker: ‘Trendy’ feminism undermines key issues central to cause’ with this thumbnail, on a seemingly small student-run magazine.

The article started by criticising virtue-signalling on social media and in real life, where people declared themselves feminists just because they had a sticker which said so or because they used the hashtag while sharing a video. I nodded in approval- feminism is a political movement for women’s liberation, not a simple label or identity, and it involves inconvenient changes in the way we live our lives and the way in which society is organised.

It then went on to criticise celebrity feminists such as Amy Schumer and Jennifer Lawrence, their racism, and the fact that their identification with the movement that was such a good boost for publicity, was never followed by any action. So far, so good- celebrities like them who call themselves feminists uphold almost all patriarchal values and constantly reinforce regressive images, while getting excused for it because of calling themselves feminists. I kept reading.

“No matter how much you speak about something, it doesn’t make it true — talk is cheap.”… Agreed!

“Feminism is a complex issue that requires a deeper understanding and effort.”… Yeah!

“Empowered women empower women, but what about the feminists who are genderfluid, trans or male?”… Wait what?

“Feminism doesn’t only serve women, and when you narrow it down to that, you undermine its message.” … I was confused.

That mainstream liberal feminism has a problem, is clear. It promotes a version of empowerment that has absolutely nothing to do with any material changes in the organisation of power. It talks more about pornography than it does about sexual violence, more about identity than about oppression, more about reclamation than about liberation. No matter how much it talks about ‘girl power’, its analysis of patriarchy is limited to that of choice and all its solutions center male pleasure and validation through incremental change in representation. Liberal feminism has many problems, but ‘serving only women’ is surely not one of them. The author of this article, however, takes the rhetoric of this feminism at face value, and criticises the commercial aspect of it without realising that it goes hand in hand with the sort of dilution she suggests.

According to the author, feminism is about recognising how patriarchy affects all groups of people. “Because misogyny is so ingrained in our society, its traces become present on a daily basis in even the most subtlest ways and affects everyone”, she says. For her, the feminism that focuses only on women is fun and trendy as opposed to a feminism that would stand up for everyone. What she doesn’t understand is that the fun and ‘trendy feminism’ that we know today, may talk a lot about ‘dumping boys’ and ‘boss babes’ but it is no way focused on women. It is constantly defined in the mainstream as a movement for ‘equality for all’, it welcomes and applauds male feminists. Under the guise of intersectionality, it forces women to feel guilty for prioritising women’s needs.

By definition, misogyny is the hatred against women and patriarchy is the system where women are oppressed by men. That is why feminism as a social and political movement involves women organising together to fight for their common goals. Are there other forms of oppression? Of course. The author mentions some of them, including poverty, racism, homophobia. Here is where it is crucial to understand what intersectionality really means. It means that feminism must fight for poor women, women of colour, and lesbians. It means that there is a way to take into account other forms of oppression while at the same time pursuing the main political goal of women’s liberation. It means that one single movement cannot fight for everyone, and women deserve to prioritise their needs as the oppressed sex class in their own autonomous movement away from the influence of men. If one is concerned about the men who face the same sort of oppression, they would be happy to know about the existence of worker’s movements, black liberation movements, and gay liberation movements- all of which already deal with forms of oppression such as poverty, racism, and homophobia, and somehow don’t have to attend to demands of solving the problem of patriarchy all on their own.

But this dilution of the political goals of the feminist movement, and its rebranding as a lifestyle, an identity, a personality trait- it arises from the very neoliberal forces that lead to its commercialisation. How would one sell ‘feminism’ if everyone knew how threatening it is to the men in power? How would one sell ‘feminist’ t-shirts, lipsticks, and mascaras, if everyone knew that a movement for women’s liberation first and foremost rejects feminine beauty ideals? Of course, feminism is more than just a laptop sticker. But it is also more than some vague moral notion of ‘standing up for what’s right’. It is time we stop seeing a ‘focus on women’ as too narrow, too little, or too old fashioned, and start recognising in clear terms that this movement is and always has been for women’s liberation from gender, misogyny, and male domination in all forms- and that this, for us, will always be enough.

[Image source: Collegiate Times]

Four More Shots Please: A Feminist Response To The Trailer

“I’m Anjana, a single mother. And my vagina… just refuses to come!”

“I’m Damini, super ambitious, super successful. I also masturbate pretty often. Much more efficient than sex…”

“I’m Umang, bisexual. Looking for adventure…”

“I’m Siddhi. I’m a virgin. My mom hates me.”

These are our introductions to the very complex female characters in the trailer for Four More Shots Please, a “feminist” show about women’s lives, careers and ambitions, female friendships, and as they very unsubtly make it a point to say, about freedom. Directed by Anu Menon, the show was released on Amazon Prime India this year, in January. I haven’t yet had the courage to go beyond the first episode, but the way the creators of any film or TV series make the trailer, says a lot about that work. What do the creators think are the most essential aspects of their work? How would they give us a feel of their content in 2 or 3 minutes? What shots or dialogues are representative of the characters? What do they think will spark intrigue based on what their audience is interested in?

The very first images we see include four women walking into a bar, dancing on top of the counter, later, a man having sex with Damini, and finally, the four women again, in a dance line at the bar. Now, of course, I see how this may be intended to build upon the theme of “freedom”. In India, women who drink, women who go out at night without the company of men, women who wear “exposing” clothes, and women who have sex, are often seen as ruined women with no moral standing. Different things get added to the list in different contexts but it so happens that the list is so varied that almost all women in some way or the other can fall under it. Doing any of these things as a woman in India means that you are frequently stigmatised, constantly face the threat of violence, and are likely to have that violence blamed on you. Under such conditions, it is not completely outlandish that someone would present these images in an attempt to portray a picture of the modern, liberated woman. Modern, because she was doing that, which was not traditionally allowed, and liberated because she was doing them by her own choice. But is that really enough? A close look at the images suggest otherwise.

In fact, no matter how new and groundbreaking the show may try to present itself as, these images are actually not new at all. In each one of these images, the women represent a variety of male fantasies. They are always heavily done up with makeup, they are always well dressed, they have fun dancing sexily on top of the bar counter as objects of desire for the men watching. Their dance moves are focused on sexualising and objectifying their bodies, and their sexuality (submissive posture, open mouth as if almost in pain, men watching in the background, matching red lingerie and lipstick, hairless body, fetishisation of breasts) fits in dangerously well with the imagery of sex portrayed in pornography. Of course, one may see these as the choices these women make and they are free to make these choices. But it is important to ask why it is only women and never men who make the choice to be sexually objectified, constantly be feminine in ways that are restrictive, uncomfortable, and painful, and at the same time act like it is their idea of fun and enjoyment. Perhaps this is because choices are dictated by social contexts, and no matter how repressive a society is in terms of sexual freedom, it is never actually against the objectification and sexualisation of women as submissive beings. It is just the different forms this ideology takes, depending on whether it comes from conservative or liberal sources. Sure, many “backward” misogynists will call this particular show immoral, but they too will demand sexual availability from their wives and watch pornography. How different is that really from men who will support women’s right to choice as long as they are choosing to be sexual objects for them?

What this trailer essentially says is that no matter how different these women are from each other, objectification, sexualisation, and pornification will not discriminate. No matter what their family lives, their careers, their identities- ultimately, it is their sex that defines them and creates the ‘female perspective’. There are a few token lines, of comparing men to condoms, calling them thick and insensitive, referring to objectification, and as if it is a revolution in itself- the constant repetition of the word vagina. But is that enough? To act like one hates men and to still prioritise their desires over our own? To morph our sexualities to be focused around heteronormative, penetrative sex? To just say the word ‘vagina’ out loud without any real critical perspective on the politics of sex? To act like all inequalities will vanish if we just have more sex instead of recognising how inequalities persist even in sex (especially in sex)?

In Intercourse, talking about sex as the root of misogyny, Andrea Dworkin wrote, “It is a tragedy beyond the power of language to convey when what has been imposed on women by force becomes a standard of freedom for women: and all the women say it is so.”

It is indeed a tragedy that our ideas of rebellion and choice have been limited so much that we are now merely satisfied with picking from a platter of different kinds of oppression. I pass no judgement on women who choose to dress up, wear high heels and make up, dance on top of a bar counter, and have the kind of sex that has been declared to be the right kind by an industry run by men. But perhaps we could stop acting like those choices would ever come close to bringing us freedom.