Coming Out of the Feminist Closet

The toughest battle Feminists face is to reframe the narrative of society’s ‘glorious’ traditions and recast them as weapons of oppression. How do we engender a Feminist history of our future selves? 

This New Year began with me delving into Feminist texts, especially Estelle Freedman’s The Essential Feminist Reader (2007) published by Modern Library Classics. Following years of denying outright that I subscribe to Feminism, it was time to look at why I had distanced myself from the movement, when my thoughts are clearly in line with its agenda.

Like most graduate students of literature and history, Feminist discourse is not dealt with in the mainstream arts degree curricula within India. I first encountered Feminism while browsing online about gender disparity and violence against women, and learnt that ‘the second sex’ has been fighting for equal rights and protesting oppression for several hundred years. This oppression takes the form of Patriarchy, “a (rule by fathers) social system in which the male is the primary authority figure central to social organization and the central roles of political leadership, moral authority, and control of property, and where fathers hold authority over women and children. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and entails female subordination. Many patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage.”

It was a splash of cold water on my face. At an age when you discover your dreams, make career plans and are more concerned about the shade of your sling bag matching your sandals, the concept of Patriarchy sent my head spinning. It encapsulated everything that I felt was wrong in society and slowly put into perspective my personal narrative of struggle and rebellion at home. Power equations in relationships, especially the authority wielded by parents over children, and the shifting degrees of control that is the hallmark in a marriage, the exploitation of workers, class struggle, hierarchy and hegemony in all its forms now made sense to me.

Questioning the Question
It was the turning point for me to reject – in agonizingly slow degrees – the dogmatic traditions and cultural norms that I was expected to uphold as a member of my family and project as identity as part of a community. My late teens and early 20s was the period during which I began to disassociate myself with religion and the sacredness of holy texts; any written body of work cannot hold sway over how individuals need to behave or live their lives. Exposure to post-modern literature, on the likes of Barthes, Borges, Foucault, and Derrida, also cemented the impression that rejecting the establishment or status quo was an expected step in coming out of the closet.

When you begin to question the pillars of institutions, you also deconstruct the notions of the self. It began with my appearance and body image: why has normative become the bedrock of social cohesion? How do we come to label something deviant, unconventional or counter-culture? Why is there duplicity in gender roles and disparity in the gender ratio? How do I take ownership of this self, when it’s nothing but a conjectured set of constructs, stimuli and reinforcing behavior? If I am not supposed to be this naive, bubbly, traditional girl who loves her romantic Bollywood movies and cooking, who am I supposed to become when everything is rejected and every root questioned?

In the heady days of discovering the barrage of texts and in turn, the self, I still couldn’t quite grasp what Feminism is and how “these women” (Feminists) planned to erase the history of subjugation and right the scales of equality. Reading about the suffrage movement in the United States and the rise in power of women politicians across Asia and Europe didn’t convince me that progress was being made. I wasn’t aware of any legal precedent or legislative breakthrough that women presidents and prime ministers championed towards better healthcare, education, domestic rights, workplace parity or public security for women.

Of course, I wasn’t naive enough to think that change can take place overnight and we are just 60 years into Independence as a country. Secondly, women with political clout still had to contend with the dominance of their majority male colleagues. However, the skeptic in me questioned the change promised by a gender-equal government: even when men are in power they haven’t done much to better the quality of life of their own fellow brothers, why would women in power be any different? And isn’t power the very construct we were to question? I do acknowledge that perhaps this was an extreme line of thinking, but nothing has changed my jaundiced view of things, until now.

Coming out of the Closet
Distancing myself from a political standpoint and donning the cloak of apathy hasn’t gotten me anywhere. In fact, it’s a recipe for pathological rage at the unchanging norms in society, with you as one of the millions who don’t lift a finger or shout out against injustice. However, I do not see myself heading out to the streets, placard in hand, participating in Slut Walks, Safe City Pledges and Anti-Rape campaigns. My way is quieter, inward looking and closer to where the most battles are first fought. My war is waged from the frontlines of the home, and my enemy, the people we call family. The first volley was actually thrown by my family, calling me a Feminist, and it angered me, to be labelled something in accusation, instead of in pride. It was then I decided to own up to the movement. Yes, I am a feminist and proud to fight for my piece of identity.

Subscribing to Feminist principles of equality – which are actually universal precepts for human rights – does seem like a black and white issue. If you believe in human rights, don’t you automatically become a Feminist? Why are Feminists blacklisted for fighting for what should have been the natural order, beginning with Adam and Eve? Once again, it’s Patriarchy that has the answers: “Although the term patriarchy is loosely used to stand for ‘male domination’, as has been pointed out above, it more crucially means – as others have stated here: “The rule of The Father” or “The responsibility of The Father.”

So, patriarchy does not refer to a simple binary pattern of male power over women, but power exerted more complexly by age as well as gender, and by older men over women, children, and younger men. Some of these younger men may inherit and therefore have a stake in patriarchy’s continuing conventions…The operations of power in patriarchy are usually enacted unconsciously. All are subject, even fathers are bound by its strictures. It is represented in unspoken traditions and conventions performed in everyday behaviors, customs and habits. The patriarchal triangular relationship of a father, a mother and an inheriting eldest son frequently form the dynamic and emotional narratives of popular culture and are enacted performatively in rituals of courtship and marriage. They provide conceptual models for organizing power relations in spheres that have nothing to do with the family, for example, politics and business.” (Source: Wikipedia).

As I attempt to make my thoughts accessible to readers, it becomes clear that indeed, along with courage to own up to the movement, guilt has played a punitive part in the reason why I sought safety with apathy. I was conditioned to feel squeamish with the idea of being independent, outspoken, opinionated, strong, aggressive, assertive, and the hundreds of other adjectives that go well when you are describing a man, but sounds vulgar when it’s for a woman. In the true spirit of Patriarchy, I am conditioned to value how society thinks about me, whether my family accepts me or not, whether I fit in with conventional peer groups, and if I can mold myself into constructed roles of a mother, sister and daughter. My legibility as a social entity is validated when I internalize these norms – that’s the power of patriarchy. And so, owning up to Feminism would mean disowning all the values that I was taught to hold more dearly than life itself.

Reconciling the Political with the Personal
As a student of history, art and ancient civilization, Feminism has also placed me in another quandary: questioning and rejecting rituals, traditions and values, all of which delight a historian, but are to be questioned, rejected and reworked to displace patriarchy. Everything from birthing ceremonies, fasting, circumcision, the rituals of beautification and bodily adornments, the permutation and combination of the arts – dancing, singing, poetry, painting, and photography – and every other cultural homily is necessarily engendered in favor of men and conflated to oppress women. Visuals objectify women, rituals suppress us, tradition is oppressive, and public spaces are shuttered.

How can I then conscientiously enjoy my Hindi movies, which revolve around ‘ishk wala love’ songs and heroines seducing the heroes in chiffon sarees? How do I condone the exotic body and facial tattoos, piercings and complicated body adornments of the African tribes, all of which mark the changing stages of a women’s body (and that of a man as well)? I have to keep questioning my choice in clothes, my love for Pride and Prejudice, my need to feel pampered and protected (sometimes), celebrating festivals, admiring temple art, the list is endless. Can we engender identity without the inputs of culture? Can we function and forge a new way of being? The historian in me shudders at the million-year-old line of unbroken tradition and evolution that Feminism requires us to question and reject. However, holding on to this narrative means I become witness and accused to a crime that has led us to willingly abuse women. Would you choose such a narrative?

In working for a society that is free of violence and inequality, we need to reject language as well. Language is born with the seed of hegemony and power. It contains, suppresses, cloaks and hides. It silences and abuses. It makes us believe that what is spoken in jest is affection. So much so that today, saali and bitch are used playfully when you address your loved ones and friends. Weird, right? When did we get to a point where insult is passed off as endearment? One of the freedoms of declaring yourself a Feminist and coming out of the closet is that you don’t need to have all the answers, we can begin with questions first.

This is a post for FemFest, a three day blog event created by Preston Yancey, Danielle Vermeer, and J.R. Goudeau on February 26, 27 and 28, 2013. Today is the third day and I am linking up on Danielle’s blog, From Two to One (in answer to the question: Why Feminism Matters) and Goudeau’s Love is What You Do (in answer to What Feminism Means). If you would like to participate, check out Preston’s blog for more information.

This post also appears on UltraViolet, a web space for Indian feminists. Follow them on Twitter.

How do Visitors to the Museum Decide on Artifact Authorship?

Here is a research – education initiative I am trying to pull off independently. If you are a museum staff and can put me in touch with your organization, please do so! Email: nilofar.ansh@gmail.com

1. The title and definition of the project

Authorship through the Eyes of a Child: How do visitors to the museum make sense of the identity of the artifact maker?

Definition and Scope:

The project aims to gauge the attitude of children (who visit a museum) in a specific area: Primarily, the question of “identity” behind the artifacts on display. Do children think about “the who?” of an object, besides the “what, where and how”? Are they able to visualize the communities, artists or artisan responsible for creating the objects they view? This would largely depend on the level of communication and interaction planned by a curator through labels and captions, signage or obvious displays.

Within this issue, the project also aims to understand if the museum is a “gendered” space. Do the kind of objects on display and the manner, in which, they are displayed convey any sense of gender or a lack of it?

Please note: My project doesn’t include a study of whether a museum’s collection reflects a particular gender identity. It only concerns itself with the children’s perception of the identity and gender of the artists or artisans behind the artifacts.

2. Why the topic interested you?

As students of art history, we are constantly plagued by the issue of authorship of artworks that we study, especially when it comes to ancient art, with not a single “signed by” found on any of the sculptures, murals, or friezes we admire, preserve and study. Within a museum, the question of authorship gets further lost, distorted or taken out of context, as the artifacts are displayed in isolation of their original environment and context. While academics and students of art history have the leisure to speculate about the plausible identity of the artist, the casual museum visitor has no such training or motivation.

Take the example of a Mughal Miniature in the Prince of Wales Museum in Western India. Plenty of folios are on display within glass cases, with labels such as: “17th century Pahari, King Todar Mal hunting with his ministers, Dimensions of the Folio.” No where is there a mention or signage elucidating the nature of the Mughal karkhana (artisan guild, workshop in the Mughal court), the well-known artists of that period, the communities involved in painting a Miniature, etc. “Artist unknown” seems to suffice for the question for authorship. Such a label doesn’t motivate a visitor to think about the art work beyond its physical presence in a glass case, and they only appropriate its aesthetics (beauty and physicality, rather than its provenance and history).

This issue is important because an inadequate or neutral representation of an artifact leads to a distorted sense of history, or in perpetuating misconceptions about the role of men and women in the history of art.

For example, how do we educate visitors about the gender neutrality or inclusiveness (depending upon the way you see it) of artifacts such as jewelery, pottery, costumes, or household décor such as baskets or mirrors. They are made by either men and women artisans and craftspersons or both, depending upon the community, region and nature of the craft. It would be interesting to find out, however, if the visitor perceives or assigns any gender identity to such artifacts – considered to be typically the domain of women by those unfamiliar with the history and tradition of Indian craft. When more often than not, the gender identity of an artist is not conveyed, does it lead to the perpetuation of certain misconceptions or stereotypes?

I wanted to survey children, specifically, for this project because I would like to understand if the stereotypes associated with gender are extended to works of art, and artifacts, in a museum. I would like to speak to and engage with children between the age group of 6 and 12 (rough age span). I hope that they wouldn’t just depend on “logic” if I ask them a question like, ‘Who do you think has made this huge stone sculpture?’ and answer ‘Obviously, a man’. Because, I daresay, the same logic can’t be applied if I ask, “Who has made this delicate china porcelain?’, because the answer is not obviously “woman”!

So, another important point to keep in mind is the kind of artifacts I might choose to base my questions on. Should I choose artifacts that have an ambiguous gender identity or should I choose displays that are sure to have obvious gender defined authorship? What will be particularly interesting to note here would be the children’s “reasoning” behind how they decide whether an artifact is created by a man or woman, and how, if at all, that reflects contemporary perceptions of a man and woman’s role and identity in society and across professions and role play at home.

The project also aims to engage children visiting museums to take a keener interest in the objects they interact with, either through the guided school tours or during an evening out with parents.

On a personal level, I hope this project turns out to be a catalyst for furthering my understanding of the potentialities inherent in a museum as a space to educate different demographics, in this case, children.

Would it be possible to envisage a time when a fairly sensitive and well-read visitor to the museum would not just ask the following two questions when s/he faces an object: 1) Subject of the work 2) Object of the work, but rather, goes beyond the physicality of the display and interpret the work according to how much it speaks to her/his sensibilities.

For e.g: If a series of figurative paintings have been displayed in a gallery: The questions to consider would be: 1) Male artist or female artist 2) If the subject of depiction are male or female figures/setting. 3) What is the style/composition of a painting if a female artist has painted a woman’s body, similarly, how is this painting different from the artist’s depiction of a male subject/character/setting; 4) How would a male artist paint a woman as his subject, and conversely, how would his depiction of male characters/figures be different from how a female artists depicts male characters.

3. How will you go about doing it?

The project involves conducting a survey of at least 500 children in the age group of 6-13 (roughly, Class 1-6). I will also closely work with the education / community outreach department of the museum to understand and document the methodology through which an intertwined narrative of history, gender and identity is presented before the visitor. I would particularly like to focus on Indian Art, as it would serve the questions the project wants answered better.

I have previous experience in interacting and interviewing museum visitors. In 2005, I had interned at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai (now the Chhatrapati Sivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahlaya) and in the course of a month, I had conducted a survey of 100 visitors (adults) to ascertain their responses on the artifacts on display with specific reference to the label/captions, lighting, display aesthetics, way finding and signage in the museum. The survey allowed me a peek into visitor psychology. Interacting with people from across the country, each coming from a different cultural, linguistic and educational background gave me a hands-on experience and allowed me to draft practical guidelines for the museum towards better design aesthetics. I am comfortable interviewing people, including children.

4. How much time will the entire thing take? – Time line for the project

A year. Detailed break up of module will be submitted later.

5. Which are the areas covered?

Museum studies, museum visitor’s psychology, Gender Representation, Children’s interaction within a museum, Display and design aesthetics in a museum, survey and report making.