BOOKMARK In Seeing Like a Feminist, Nivedita Menon explores how a feminist understanding of social institutions, legal structures and long-held notions challenges the patriarchy that drives them

There are certain ideas and definitions – sometimes well-intentioned, often not, many convenient – that one has about family, gender, surrogacy, empowerment, normal, appropriate. In her powerful new book Seeing Like a Feminist (Zubaan-Penguin Books), Nivedita Menon, who teaches Political Thought at Jawaharlal Nehru University, dissects social institutions, policy, and common ideas to explain the many ways the process of “gendering” occurs – here making a distinction between ‘sex’ as the biological characteristics and ‘gender’ as the set of cultural meanings that are arrived at over time. (The author mentions the title of the book is a take-off from Seeing Like a State by James Scott, where ‘seeing’ refers to the “ways in which a modern State makes heterogeneous practices legible to itself in order to control them.”)

An attempt has been made to present examples from various threads of feminist thought, a few of which might appear radical; Margaret Mead’s theory on how the concepts of “masculinity” and “femininity” vary across cultures; Gloria Steinem’s hilarious article on the virtues that would be associated with menstruation if it happened to men; or Judith Butler’s concepts of the “heterosexual matrix”, where social structures combine to attach sexual identities to human bodies, and gender “performativity”, where bodies are “forcibly materialized over time” to adhere to the heterosexual matrix.

Commenting on Butler’s argument, Menon says, “it is not ‘radical feminism’ in the sense in which it is understood in feminist theory, that patriarchy and male supremacy have a primary and trans-historical power. Butler, who is more properly labelled as a poststructuralist, is saying the opposite, that it is systems of representation that produce gender – that we are given the label of “male” and female” not because of some clearly discernible physical characteristics but because of pre-existing systems of language and meaning – from the language of the biomedical sciences to religion. Feminist scientists too, have been making this point from another direction.”

The structure of a ‘Hindu family’, which has come to be associated with an upper-caste North Indian family and is based on patrilineal virilocality, ignoring all other forms of marriage and family (like the matrilineal system of the Khasis in Meghalaya), has been analysed in all its varying forms.

On whether the matrilineal nature of the Nair family of Kerala she hails from — the family was matrilineal up to her grandmother’s generation — influenced her understanding of feminism, the author says, “I think in some unarticulated way it did shape my feminism, because although by the time of my mother’s generation, matriliny had been legally ended, and its legitimacy eroded, its lingering traces remained in conversations, family stories, my mother’s sense of who she is, and so on.”

Menon, in the book, also writes that “feminism must, in fact, acknowledge that ‘gender’ does not always and in all circumstances, have priority over all other identities.”

“What I mean by saying ‘gender’ does not always have priority over all other identities, is that we need to recognise other identities such as caste, class and religious identity, that intersect with being “women”. In some circumstances, the latter might have greater salience than gender, for example, when Hindu women encouraged and abetted the rape of Muslim women during the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002,” she explains.

In the context of Section 377, the ways in which Victorian notions of “proper” sexual relationships have led to the creation of heteronormativity — heterosexual being the only normal — have been looked at. In the chapter on sexual violence, Menon explains how the understanding of rape in itself — as a “fate worse than death” — differs between the feminist and patriarchal viewpoints, even when both acknowledge the heinousness of the crime.

Taking into account complex geopolitical equations, ‘South Asia’ and ‘South Asian Feminisms’ are touched upon from the point of view of shared colonial pasts, post-Partition struggles, and internal ethnic heterogeneity — factors that might apply to a few nations and not to others, hereby leading to different forms of feminist struggles within the same region.

While Menon denies the existence of a separate ‘Western feminism’ and ‘Indian feminism’, she acknowledges that there are factors that the Western feminists need to acknowledge. “The feminist voice in the West that refuses to recognise the fractures in ‘global sisterhood’ due to U.S. imperialism, race politics and the unequally structured global economy, is entirely incongruent with ours.”

Shalini Shah