Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Gender emancipation versus feminism

The Patriarchy Question in Manipur and Mimicry of Self-Proclaimed Feminists

It is now time for patriarchy to go, but its values are so entrenched in the society that this mission will not be easy. Patriarchy has been around for most societies around the world for at least the last 5000 years, when settle agrarian and organised pastoral societies emerged out of certain overwhelming pressures of evolution in the quest of humans for security and stability. That is, ever since humans learned how to domesticate animals and certain species of grass, the fruits of which came to be staples for agrarian societies, or in Yuval Noah Harari’s words, until crops domesticated humans. Whichever way we look at it, just as experts have told us, evidences are clear that before food came to be produced in an organised manner, humans were hunter-gathers roaming the world in search of places where food were in plenty, never certain what or when their next meal would be. Human societies were also consanguine then and the institution of family was unknown with the obvious result that children normally knew who their mothers were, but rarely their sires. All in every bands of humans therefore saw each other as siblings, or at least blood relations, and understandably too. The prevalence of the notion of a supreme mother goddess in all primal societies should itself be an explanation for the importance the female principle in them, for the world would then have revolved around the mother in all such societies. Long after sedentary agrarian lifestyle became the norm, and even after the modern scientific society came to be universalised, revered spaces for the mother goddess still remain in many societies. The classic 1884 book by Friedrich Engels, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” based on the researches by anthropologist, Lewis H. Morgan, and his book “Ancient Society”, which even many of us not in the field of anthropology or sociology have also read, telling us how interrelated the institutions of family, private property and state are, and how patriarchy has been a consequence in this line of social evolution.
These thoughts come to mind in the wake of the recent explosion of “feminism” rhetoric on Facebook, the preferred social media platform in Manipur, following what was deemed an indecent proposal from an elderly man to a woman his daughter’s age. The message read “Yu Ngaoriye”, roughly translated as “I am drinking and drunk”. There is no history of similar communication between the two (at least nothing has been revealed so far), and indeed, the message seems to have popped up out of the blue and ended the moment it was challenged. In this sense, it was a first and the last. The man claims he is not aware he sent the message, and that he also generally messages in English when he does. Even if he did send the “indecent proposal”, can this be said to amount to harassment per se? The fact is, all relationships or even illicit liaisons, has to begin with a proposal from one side. Harassment is when the proposer uses his (or her) position of power to try and coerce the receiver to comply to his intent even when rebuffed. If this was not so, or that the man had no power or inclination to push his initial proposal, then the proposer would have only exposed himself as a fool, and at worst a pervert, and nothing else.
The spontaneous response of many women, other than those who revel in calling themselves publicly as “feminists” in the manner and style of “feminists” in the Western sense, is that the message sounds more like a defiant angry response to a spouse perpetually nagging him about his repulsive drinking problem. In this scenario, it is quite possible that after receiving another bout of stormy calls insisting to know what he was doing, this man, whom those who know him know is a one-finger mobile typist with little more knowledge of a mobile device than some of the functions offered by Facebook, bursting back angrily “Yu Ngaoriye” but his shaky Parkinson’s-affected finger punched-sent the message to the wrong ID. Otherwise, as a stand-alone message, it makes little sense, except to these “feminists” obsessed with reading between the lines even at the cost of ignoring what are in print, so as to assigned absent meanings that fit their preferred pictures of oppression. The man claims his phone might have been hacked, but this could be a defensive response to a threat not a demand for clarification. From the screenshots now public, it may also be noted that he sent the message at about 8.30pm, and after receiving the response from the receiver threatening to post a screenshot of his message on Facebook, his surprised response to the threat came about 6 hours later, indicating he was not even expecting a response. If this message had been received by one of my daughters, especially if the sender is somebody known to the family, I know their mother would have advised her to ask the sender to explain himself. If the sender says it was a mistake, the matter would have ended there, if not, he better be prepared to learn what hell feels like.
Quite obviously now the man cannot be simply absolved in the face of the serious charge levelled at him, but the circumstances surrounding the message, some of which I have just sketched above, demands a further impartial probe to establish guilt beyond reasonable doubts. If the girl who received the message feels vulnerable and not bold enough to initiate such a probe by going to the State Women’s Commission, State Human Rights Commission, or the police, all the firebrand “feminists” who have been spitting fire and brimstone on the virtual pages of Facebook on the matter should take up her cause and do so. The shadowy fence-sitting men in the side lines who probably presume they would be seen as progressives as per this definition of “feminism” by joining the cabal, and think it is okay to have somebody punished without trial, straightaway presuming guilt if an old man has sent a message at “midnight” to someone his daughter’s age, should also pitch in to make this probe happen. All the high-pitch rhetoric must now be translated into substantive action. Otherwise, the entire episode is being reduced to the cynical picture Shakespeare’s McBeth sketched: “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
I have used feminism within quotes, and the quotes are important for what seems to be the concern is not so much empowerment of women in the economic and cultural environment they live in, but more about mimicry of Western paradigms of feminism, which may be perfect for the Western world but not always so for much of the world beyond. Cultures and social values differ from place to place and these differences cannot simply be ironed out, unless of course there are oppressive elements in them, for the world is beautiful precisely because of this immense variety. Tourism would be more or less dead if all cultures of the world were identical. Hence, in much of the Western world, premarital sex would not be frowned upon so much provided safe practice standards are maintained, but surely we cannot simply adopt the value here. Public nakedness, including of women, is much more tolerated in the West but this should not mean it should be made okay here too. The Monpas consider it an act of passage to heaven if their bodies are cut up and fed to fishes after death, but it would be an outrage if anybody does this in Manipur today. This however does not mean the Monpas are wrong or those who think this culture is bad are right. Sure, cultures and traditions must change, but this change must be informed by the need to filter out oppressive elements in them and also with an eye to adapt them better to the needs of the changing times. This balance between change and continuity is vital, and none has said this better than protagonist Topol in the Broadway musical classic of the 1970s, “Fiddle on the Roof”. He sings a song which went something like “tradition keeps a society moving, and without tradition, we would all be fiddlers on the roof”, unsteady and prone to fall either side anytime.
Even from these few examples, it is clear our notions of rights and wrongs are predetermined by the civilisation we belong to. The fact also is, these civilisational values, if they remain rigid and not amenable to changes with the changing times, can become domineering and oppressive. For those of us who grew up in the turbulent 1970s it will not be difficult to imagine the social neurosis that can result when this is allowed to happen. The protest culture of the Hippie Movement that discarded much of the given value system of an overbearing civilisation, marked by protest songs of Dylan and Baez etc, were living evidence of how even mass neurosis can result from too much unresolved frictions between inhibiting demands of a civilisation, or Superego in Freudian term, and the instinctual drives humans are born with, or Id in Freudian term. The rational self, or Ego in Freudian term, is what must moderate these contrary pulls for a person or society to remain stable and balanced. Indeed, negotiating this balance between the need for periodic change and at the same time the continuity of tradition is the responsibility of the rational self. When instinctual drives go out of control, chaos and mayhem is what awaits, and on the other hand, if it is the restrictions of civilisational values which come to be domineering, social neurosis is the outcome. The 1980s and 1990s also saw this friction getting out of hand with the growth of authoritarian states. As for instance, this found expression in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”, calling for the metaphoric teacher to leave the kids alone, and that they don’t need no education, no dark sarcasms in the classrooms, etc. That age saw literally the fall of The Iron Curtain and indeed The Wall.
Today again, there is a need for a radical reformation of the current domineering civilisational values quite obviously shaped in the mould of the patriarchal world view. This battle must be two-pronged. One is to make strong laws that clearly defines gender offences as well as their penalties, and then stick by it. These penalties however must be by trial under the law to establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt, and not vigilante driven as is tending to be. The second and more difficult task would be to reform social outlook and this must begin with reforming what our children are taught in schools and colleges, as well as at home and society. This however is an area still neglected, evidenced also by the fact of a singular lack of interest amongst all the high-pitched, very social media visible “feminists” to discuss and critique important developments such as the Union Government’s New Education Policy 2020, a draft of which is already available, and sooner than later would be the norm for all.
Again, as of now the nursing profession in the state, which is predominantly peopled by women, is up in arms against their ill treatment by the patriarchal order. Those in government services are better off, but those unfortunate not get a government job and have had to opt for private employment are claiming they are coerced into pitiable salary and service conditions despite a directive from the Central government to the state governments to enforce employment norms calibrated in accordance to size of businesses of private hospitals, clinics and other institutions etc. Nurses in private services are also in perpetual fear of losing even their ill-paid jobs if they show any signs of discontent, so therefore have been voiceless. There has been absolutely no show of solidarity from amongst our “feminists” here too, probably because these are messy issues which command not enough attention value on Facebook. But regardless of what these “feminists” say, all who believe in social justice, men and women alike, and all who believe the patriarchal order must give way to a new order based on science and justice, must not allow such issues to die without being adequately and satisfactorily addressed.
There has also often been a presumption floated by many that only women will understand the true essence of feminism. They are not saying women will have vital inputs in the discussion and cannot be ignored, but are dismissing the notion that men can also not only understand these issues but also be feminists themselves believing in gender equality, precisely because of their lack of what they call as “lived experience”. Negated in the process is the understanding that there is something as empathy by which a person can actually feel what another experiences.
Empathy as Jeremy Rifkin explains in his book “The Empathic Civilisation” is a neurological phenomenon and not just about sympathy, pity or even compassion where one person feels sorry for another’s plight and want to extend help. It is instead about actually feeling what the other person is experiencing, therefore the urge to cry when the other cries or laugh when the other laughs. Why does seeing a caterpillar climb up somebody’s neck give goose pimples to those watching? Rifkin says a relatively recent and accidental discovery, mirror neurons, are responsible and that humans are soft-wired for empathy. Some animals are also empathy capable, but not as strongly as humans. It is because of empathy that even soldiers who are trained to kill, often end up suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, after having killed other people. It is also because of empathy that one does not have to be raped to know the suffering and humiliation of rape, or be crushed under the wheels of a truck to know the pain of being in such an accident. Rifkin in fact says without empathy, civilisation would not have been possible at all. He also says that if it were to be only the idea of a struggle to keep dark instincts under control that Enlightenment philosopher proposed, be it Sigmund Freud’s libidinal energy, Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian pleasure seeking drive, John Locke’s tabula rasa, or Adam Smith’s predisposition for acquiring wealth, mankind would have been doomed long ago. While the darkness in the heart is a reality, there is also the light of empathy that overrides them to keep human civilisation from disintegrating, Rifkin says further. It is also interesting that America’s fourth president and one of the founding fathers of its constitution, James Madison anticipated this darkness in the human heart when he said “If men were angels, no government would be necessary”. It is against this scientific truth of empathy that the exceptionalism advanced as “lived experience” is up against, making the claim sound more like a turf protection strategy by vested interests to ensure there are no challenges to their own claims of knowledge leadership in the field.
This idea of lived experience also comes up for scrutiny in Cathy Caruth’s critique of Alain Resnais’ 1959 film “Hiroshima Mon Amor”. Renais was asked to do this documentary of Hiroshima and the trauma the people of this city went through after the atomic bomb devastation, but apparently Resnais refused initially on the plea Hiroshima’s trauma would be impossible to capture in a documentary. In afterthought however, he agreed provided he is allowed to introduce two fictional characters in it. This is understandable for any deep exploration of the human predicament can be better done with the freedom of conjuring up varied human situations that fiction allows.
In brief, the story revolves around the conversations between two people who went through different by similar trauma. A French actress who as a teenager went through extreme humiliation and disgrace for having fallen in love with a German soldier during the German occupation of France, but lost everything, including her lover, when France was liberated. When France was celebrating, she was in misery. She identifies her trauma with that of Hiroshima which was in misery as the Allied world celebrated victory, and taking an opportunity, comes to the city. There she meets a Japanese ex-soldier, who belongs to Hiroshima but was fighting away from Japan when the A-bomb was dropped, therefore lost everything including his family, but he himself survived. The two soon bond intimately. One day the French woman decides to go to the Hiroshima war memorial museum. When she returns, the Japanese man asks her what she saw. The French woman says she is miserable and that she saw everything. The Japanese man mocks her saying she did not see anything, meaning she as a foreigner can never fathom the depth of the trauma of people like him who belong to Hiroshima. Cathy Caruth then poses the question, that if the Japanese man’s account of Hiroshima’s trauma is a more accurate, then even his account is still that of a witness rather than that of a lived experience, for if he was there in the city on the day the A-bomb exploded, he would have been dead and not there to tell his story. Whose history then is actual history? Bringing the discussion back to the gender question on this standpoint, is the father’s worry for his daughter’s welfare any less than the mother’s worry for her daughter’s welfare? These thoughts must be treated as important by those who are for erecting exclusivity barriers in the gender rights struggle for they can end up doing more harm to the cause than help. Everybody, men and women, who are genuinely concerned about the problem and want change for the better must be allowed on board in the struggle.

Also Read