Incisive, eclectic and politically engaged, Seeing Like A Feminist is a bold and wide-ranging book on contemporary society.
Feminism is about having choices, having a right to have a choice and not being judged for one’s choices. It’s not about a set of rules but about the freedom to choose how to live. Why can’t women be offered the courtesy of their own choices and freedom? Why does society insist on defining women’s role in society, when it should, instead, call on women to define their own reality? No country in the world can yet say they have achieved gender equality. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive in a state of gender equality. Both men and women should feel strong and empowered. Women are more than caretakers! Women are more than the definitions the West has given them or what many schools of thought have reduced them to.
Feminism is not about a moment of final triumph over patriarchy but about the gradual transformation of the social field, so decisively that old markers shift forever. From sexual harassment charges against international figures to the challenge that caste politics poses to feminism, from the ban on the veil in France to the attempt to impose skirts on international women badminton players, Menon deftly illustrates how feminism affects society and how society affects feminism.
Nivedita Menon is a professor of political thought at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. She is an influential feminist academic, whose previous books include Recovering Subversion: Feminist Politics Beyond the Law (2004); an edited volume, Sexualities (2007), and Power and Contestation: India after 1989. Menon takes up the positionality of women in India with a seemingly academic flavour, and yet maintains a cogency and simplicity throughout the text. She divides the book into six main chapters that cover most of the feminist issues in India: Family, Body, Desire, Sexual Violence, Feminists and Women, Victims or Agents. Each chapter is a discussion on patriarchy, subjugation of women, power dynamics in the family and in the society, and different disadvantages of women’s lives in India. A noteworthy feature of this book is that Menon cites numerous cases, their explanations and narratives while explaining each concept, to provide for a contextual and in-depth background of the issues. Each chapter contains examples of social realities from around the country to give us a comprehensive picture of what it truly means to be feminist and of the broader understanding of feminism.
This book is complex and deeply layered. It is a great way to be educated and a manual on how to educate women. On the kind of rights that women have in a country like India, it does quote a lot of laws that are in favour of women and how they can be used to empower the women of the country. The book also focuses on the idea of supporting each other as women and how this kind of support has actually helped a lot of women with their problems. This book is something everyone should read.
The book is definitely aided by Menon’s position as a woman who has lived with India’s legal and cultural systems. As she points out, the Indian penal code criminalises sexual activity that is “against the order of nature”, whatever that means. Menon’s perspective is powerful, precisely because it is based on feminist scholarship and debates in what she calls “my part of the world.” She highlights many non-western assumptions and goes beyond. The book looks “directly on the gendered nature of power.”
Women work in both organised and unorganised sectors of the economy. In the organised sector there have been some kind of legal protection s to safeguard their rights and interests, but those working in unorganised sectors continue to experience a number of problems related to their working conditions, harassment, violence and so on. This book points out the various spheres where women continue to be controlled by institutionalised patriarchies. This is a good book for a reader who wants to gain knowledge of the history of feminism in India, the history which is conveniently erased from our books and the cultural narrative. Menon’s work attempts to disassemble structures, patriarchal and rigid ideologies, hierarchies, rules and social orders. She looks at all such things through the prism of feminism. Developing her argument through shaking the foundations of normative values, she questions the assigning of “gender dignity” and “social respect” to some forms of work and not to others. She concludes that the feminist task is to upturn these values, to transform the ways in which we look at the world, and not to reaffirm the world as it is. She starts her book by comparing the concept of displays of nudity with the maintenance of social order and argues that in a world where everyone is marketing their talents, like intellect or physical labour, in order to make a living, this kind of critique has lost its edge.
The book concludes with the hope that patriarchy is not as invincible as we think. Menon describes patriarchy as an assembling of structures in which we all participate either consciously or unconsciously. However, it is when we refuse to participate in it that the structures do not get to close their gates. Seeing Like A Feminist is what disorganises the settled field, and opens up multiple possibilities rather than close them off. It marks the shifts and new trends in the feminist way of looking. It also goes against some of the early ways of feminist looking. Menon’s contention to Mulvey’s arguments on male gaze is one such example. One vantage point to analyse this case would be internal diversity within the feminist experience, informed by diverse time, space and socio-cultural backgrounds. In that sense it would be more judicious to consider the different opinions under the umbrella term of feminism as diversity of opinion instead of conflicting opinion.
The French Nobel Prize winner, Romain Rolland, said that “Where order is injustice, disorder is the beginning of justice”. Menon wants each of us to shift our lens. To see like a feminist is “not to stabilize; it is to destabilize.” The more we understand, the more our horizons shift.