How a whitewashed “choice” feminism undermines women's resistance all over India

“I know rape happens everywhere,” senior advocate of India’s Supreme Court, Indira Jaising, recently told Al Jazeera, “but you don’t see the kind of impunity for rape as you see in India.” Women all over India are fighting rape through running self defense groups and girls’ schools – and by working to dismantle institutions designed to keep women subordinate sexual chattel.

Usha Vishwakarma runs the Red Brigade, which protests widespread rape and teaches self defense to girls and women. Ruchira Gupta runs Apne Aap, an anti-trafficking organisation that also runs schools for girls who are targeted by sex traffickers. Vijayalaxmi Sharma fights child marriage, Masooma Ranalvi resists female genital mutilation, and Manju Yadav protests the veils women are pressured to wear in her community. Supriya Sonar and Mumtaz Shaikh petitioned president Ramnath Kovind with Right to Pee, for female-only bathrooms and toilets.

Listening to these women, we can see how deeply betrayed they are by the individualised “feminism” of the West. Most Western feminists will concede that for them, becoming a feminist was never really a “choice”: confronting realities like rape culture and the pay gap as social and personal realities simply necessitates a feminist response. Yet when it comes to marriage, veiling, prostitution, surrogacy, even gender itself – Western feminists prefer to argue for these as “choices” women make of our own accord.

How the women’s movement, built out of necessity, has come to frame everything as actually a “choice” since the 1990s is something that has been unpacked by feminists from Sheila Jeffreys to Robin Morgan, Susanne Kappeler, and Julie Bindel. The implications of “choice” feminism are all too clear when we look at the case of India. A politics of “choice” is not only blind to inescapable violations, from child marriage to forced surrogacy and female genital mutilation, that Indian women are forced to fight – it bolsters these industries, institutions and the sex roles these are based on.

In India, sex roles are pronounced: child marriage, for instance, lures girls out of home and school and sees them sold to men twice their age, and pregnant in adolescence. The dowries that families are required to present with their daughters mean girls are seen as an economic burden, and female infanticide is high – particularly along the infamous ‘suicide belt’, where farming families are burdened with debt in a corporatised agricultural sector.

India - Sharma
Vijayalaxmi Sharma. Source: The Better India

Vijayalaxmi Sharma protests child marriage. Sharma was born in Rajasthan when her mother was only fourteen – when she was thirteen herself, Sharma’s own best friend was married, but she died the following year in childbirth. Sharma began to protest at home, telling her parents she did not want to marry. After years working to gain her family’s support, she began campaigning door-to-door. She then started putting on plays and puppet shows – and has prevented over 50 child marriages. In the context of Western feminism, marriage remains celebrated and romanticised.

Girls in India are often married young because of demand, poverty, lower dowries for young girls – and an insistence that brides must be virgins. Globally, one institution designed to ensure female virginity is female genital mutilation (FGM) – the violent removal of girls’ clitoris and labia.

Masooma Ranalvi was subjected to this practice as a child, before ensuring her own daughter would not be, and then campaigning through Speak Out on FGM. “At least 80 per cent of the Bohra girls are subjected to this act of violence,” she says. “We have been raising our voices since a long time but the practice continues. There has been barely any change at the ground level, as the government has not responded to our pleas in any way.”

India - Ranalvi
Masooma Ranalvi. Source: BBC

Feminists in the West could be supporting the work of groups like Speak Out on FGM, but Ranalvi barely finds amplification here. The popular Western notion that gender is a matter of self-selected identity does not help. Not only does it ignore the inescapable nature of sex-based oppression for women like Ranalvi, it campaigns to normalise state-sanctioned genital surgery in the name of “choice”. This kind of activism is carried out in the West in spite of the fact that the medicalisation of genital mutilation is something activists who oppose both FGM and homosexual conversion therapy must work to oppose.

The status of girls and women as sexual chattel, institutionalised through practices like FGM and child marriage, makes for low female literacy rates. Usha Vishwakarma is passionate about literacy and education for girls, in a country where female literacy is significantly lower than that of men. She was already teaching by age eighteen – when a fellow teacher tried to rape her. Vishwakarma became traumatised after being dismissed and disbelieved – but in 2009, she set up a school for local girls in a small outbuilding next to her family home. Widespread sexual abuse still threatened her students’ chances.

The Red Brigade was established in 2011, and grew from a core group of fifteen to a 100-member strong movement begun by Vishwakarma. The Red Brigade speaks out on epidemic violence against women, trains women in self defense, makes warning visits to perpetrators, encourages police to tackle incidents of abuse – and they march.

According to Vishwakarma, “It is in the minds of men that girls are objects and it has been like that always… Religion shows women as very powerless and that whoever is strong can do anything.” The Red Brigade fights back against the culture of misogyny and male violence that Vishwakarma traces back to religion and entrenched sex roles, and the normalisation of pornography. “In the electronic era there are pictures everywhere of women and girls being treated like objects,” she says.

India - Gupta
Ruchira Gupta. Photograph by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star.

Pornography, an industry “choice” feminists consistently defend, thrives on sex traffiicking. Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap helps to run schools for girls vulnerable to sex trade predation, in a country in with the highest numbers of girls sold into prostitution. “A Perna woman,” says Gupta, “is born into poverty, into a marginalised caste, and she’s female – so she’s already thrice oppressed.”

As soon as she gains puberty, she is married, and after the first child, the husband pimps his wife. And she can’t resist – she only has this community. She feels she has no path of escape. She is consumed for eight or 10 years, and then she is asked to put her daughter into prostitution.

Gupta also runs a school for girls in the Nat community – and this work is tough. “Many people think: ‘Oh, enroll a child in school,’” she says. “But keeping that child in school is even harder.”

Among the battles that Sharma, Ranalvi, Vishwakarma and Gupta face is the notion of choice. Parveen Khan recalls that at twelve years old, she was “very happy to be a bride. I was dressed in a bright red dress and had red lipstick on.” She was regularly beaten within weeks of the wedding. In New Delhi, Sita, forced to prostitute along the highways at night, says “It’s my own choice”. Women make statements like this about every industry that oppresses us.

It is not our own rationales, though, that are the issue; but the patriarchal, sexist idea that “women want it”. The practice of sati – burning widows after the death of their husbands – was banned in India through 1829 and 1987 legislation. Yet it still takes place, and in 2006 35-year-old Vidyawati jumped into her husband’s funeral pyre in Uttar Pradesh. A chapter in Mary Daly’s book Gyn/Ecology shows how sati has long been culturally promoted as something women want – with one text proclaiming how women supposedly walk “into the fire proudly and by deliberate choice. This was her way of showing the depth of her affection, her devotion, her fidelity.”

Such “choice” narratives are also frequently used to justify to head coverings, which Sheila Jeffreys explains are a primary indicator of low social status for women, in her book Man’s Dominion. Manju Yadav protests the headscarves – ghoonghat – that are the norm in her community in Haryana, India. “To keep us under control, men ask us to cover our faces,” she says. “Ask a man to cover his face for a day, he will not be able to do it.” Yadav sees the ghoonghat as a way to enforce male dominance.

India - Manju Yadav
Manju Yadav. Source: BBC

At the heart of the battles fought by all of these feminist activists is nothing other than gender itself – an oppressive system of discrimination based on sex. Yet according to Western feminists, gender itself is also a “choice”: it is an identity that is subjective to the beholder. On this basis, female-only schools, sports teams and bathrooms are being sacrificed and proclaimed too “exclusive”.

In New Zealand, Marlborough Girls’ College and Kāpiti College have opened up their female-only toilets to those of “all genders”. Epsom Girls’ Grammar has considered changing its name on the basis of gender being self-selected, an idea that Gupta and Vishwakarma – both of whom run girls’ schools in India – would scoff at. Gavin Hubbard recently qualified for the New Zealand women’s weightlifting team, after taking a gold medal from Samoan competitor Iunniara Sipaia; and a Lincoln University professor thinks female-only sports teams are not needed.

Yet in India, the fight for female-only schools and toilets continues. Women campaigners from Right to Pee, including Supriya Sonar, have presented India’s president with a map, in collage form, of all the open defecation spots in the city of Maharashtra. Lack of access to toilets that are hygienic, private and safe from male violence makes the issue of sanitation a feminist one. Like many other feminist issues, this one in particular sees women ridiculed, and Sonar and her colleagues are brave for continuing the campaign. It is crucial, and inextricable from women’s education and public participation.

India - Sonar
Supriya Sonar. Source: Coro India

In the West, first wave feminists fought for our female only toilets on this basis, too – it’s just that we have forgotten. Our “choice” politics facilitates this historic amnesia, since choice is subjective, and any analysis that boils down to it is essentially baseless. It does as little to combat the erasure of women from mainstream history as it does to combat the whitewashing of politics and journalism. It leaves what Susan Hawthorne has called “dominant culture stupidity” completely intact.

This turns us into enemies even to ourselves, since even our most successful campaigns miss the mark. Discussions of the pay gap often have us believe that the women who are done the least justice are the engineers and chartered accountants whose annual salaries are the lowest in relation to the blokes in their firms. According to our calculations, these are the women who are sacrificing the most, over the longest periods of time, for male interests.

Realities like sweatshop labour are barely mentioned in discussions about the “pay gap”, because the framing does not enable us to account fully for the exploitation that sweatshop work – let alone prostitution, or child marriage – represent. As the Guardian reports, many workers in factories in India “earn so little that an entire month’s wages would not buy a single item they produce”. Women constitute by far the majority of the world’s sweatshop workers, and to understand this necessitates a wider analysis of the systemic poverty among women that directly results from our commodification as sexual chattel.

As long as we refuse to look at the pay gap within a global context of institutionalised male violence and sexual slavery, we will turn a blind eye to the work of women like Anannya Bhattacharjee, who organises workers in the garment sector in India – and joins the dots. “I realised that it’s very difficult for women to be beyond violence, unless they’re economically independent, so labour became very important in my work.” For Bhattacharjee, women’s work is inseparable from the issue of male violence.

Another industry that the highly domesticated pay gap conversation cannot confront, alongside child marriage, prostitution and sweatshop work, is surrogacy. Surrogacy is another misogynist industry promoted in the West as a “choice”, in the name of homosexual rights. In India, Gujarat is the “surrogacy capital” – the documentary Google Baby presents a harrowing depiction of life for women in its clinics. Feminists like Kasja Ekis Ekman, Julie Bindel and Renate Klein continue to campaign against this violent industry amidst cries from Western “feminists” that women choose it and gay male couples require it.

Even our conversations on reproductive rights are limited to the promotion of abortion as a “choice”, an idea that missed the mark for me when I underwent vaccum aspiration myself. Abortion is a women’s right, for sure – but a “pro-choice” position hardly examines the context of violence that necessitates so many abortions, whether they are criminalised or not. Instead, it relieves men of their share of responsibility, which is instead placed in the hands of a medical establishment that has never operated in women’s interests. One thing it this establishment has liked to do since the time of J. Marion Sims, for instance, is use women of colour for trials and experimentation, to their detriment — something we should also be sensitive to when swallowing racialised notions of Western “gender identity”.

A “pro-choice” framing also ignores the issue of sex-selective abortion. Between 1991 and 2011, India’s sex ratio fell to 914 girls for every 1,000 boys born. A female foetus is aborted an estimated every twelve seconds in India, and still more girls are lost to female infanticide – girls between zero and four years old are murdered by drowning and starvation. No other example more clearly demonstrates how the issue of abortion cannot be reduced to a matter of “choice”. In India, like in China, low sex ratios in turn provide justification for the trafficking of girls into marriage and prostitution.

A “choice politics” is domesticating. It deprives even women with the loudest voices of the means to build solidarity, especially with those living under the roughest conditions, and therefore of having any real feminist influence. It gives us the illusion of power while betraying women by normalising support for patriarchal institutions like prostitution, marriage, surrogacy, genital mutilation, conversion therapy and the veil. It makes us hypocrites – because why have a rights movement, when there is almost nothing but the pay gap that, in our eyes, actually constitutes a violation?

The work of Usha Vishwakarma, Ruchira Gupta, Vijayalaxmi Sharma, Masooma Ranalvi, Manju Yadav, Supriya Sonar – and the everyday resistance of women all over India – does more than build a way out for women and a cause headache for male dominance. It poses a challenge for all followers of a highly individualised, Western brand of “feminism”: if you know that you are not a feminist by choice, but by circumstance – what do you think that means for those who are fighting much harder than you?

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