“taking space, taking hurt, taking fear, wreathing them
into angry demands declared in louder roars-
quarter woman no more, no more
~ Excerpt from “Quarter Woman” by Harnidh Kaur ~
Women’s Day: 500 Shades of Oppression & Resistance
It was International Women’s Day today: a day that is far more contentious than one would like to believe. “Forced celebration”, “gift of patriarchy”, “meaningless drama” – are all terms that have been used to describe this polarising day.
So I asked some of my friends what they think about it.
Mekhala Saran | Student, Theatre Artist
Women’s day is important because we need to celebrate women and their struggles and perils and everything they are associated with. What is sad, however, is that there exists this “need”. In an ideal society being a woman would be as effortless, as being a man is. Being a woman would not be a big deal, because in an ideal society, a man’s conflicts and a woman’s conflicts would be just the same. Sexual identities, in themselves, are very restricting. We need to appreciate fluidity of sexes, for deep down nobody really is a complete woman or a complete man. Women’s day is very important in today’s world, but it will not solve half the problems women face until we start prioritising humanity and empathy over sexual identities.
Niharika Tagotra | Political & Strategic Analyst
The fact that we still need a ‘Women’s day’ to ‘celebrate’ feminity and a woman’s identity is indicative of their inferior status in our society. We are still debating over the concept of ‘consent’, we are still trying to decide if the issue of marital rape can hold water in the Indian matrimonial system. These are some pressing issues that still remain unaddressed. In the face of all this, Women’s Day looks like a hollow phenomenon with no relevance whatsoever to our daily realities.
Tannishtha Bhattacharjee | Academician, Educator
This is a great marketing campaign and an opportunity for people to glorify stereotypical roles of women in the lives of an average man and push them as ideals, appreciation worthy. It’s cute and all but doesn’t quite achieve anything. One must celebrate choice. Working woman by choice is as glamorous as housewife by choice. To be honest, this isn’t an equal thing, given it reinforces binary notions of gender and highlights that feminism may seek to overshadow concerns of other groups. Nor does it help achieve greater liberties or choices in anyway whatsoever.
Misha Maitreyi | Student
I see 8th march as the day reminding us that even though we have come far in our struggles, the fight for equal rights and opportunities is still on! While we should celebrate the day, it should not be confined to just the 8th of march. The way all of us are showing solidarity today, this spark needs to be alive not just today but every single day to keep the struggle alive. The fight for liberation of women is not separate from the struggle against caste, class, religion and other forms of discrimination. So, I celebrate the 8th of march with zest but being fully aware that the fight and the celebration keeps continuing till we have made a society that’s upholds the true principles of equality and justice.
Clearly, the idea of the day has its own staunch critics and an audience that won’t buy it at face value.
But, without surprise, an alternate view does exist.
Harnidh Kaur | Poet, Student
Women’s day is incredibly important to me. It’s a day to audit, very simply. To gauge what we’ve done in one year and where we stand. It’s a day to stop, breathe, analyse, and recognise what we have failed to do. Is there commercial exploitation? Of course. That’s one of the pitfalls we’re struggling against. But that’s one facet of a day and a symbol I consider increasingly relevant in a world trying to drown out the ‘feminist’ discourse in a larger, diffused ‘but we are human’ discourse.
Urvee Gupta | Student
The International Women’s Day is a day dedicated to celebrate those women who have fought so hard to give us voting rights, equal pay, right to abortion and more. Saying ‘whatever’ to this day is actually quite disrespectful towards these women whose fights allow us to celebrate all these freedoms we have today. As a solitary event, it doesn’t accomplish long lasting changes. But, we need the momentum to grab the attention of those people who aren’t listening the rest of the year.
So, do we need Women’s Day? Or does Women’s Day need us?
A day is a day. In itself, it is a null entity. What gives it agency is how it is accepted and delivered.
The above testimonies tell me that the precise implications of the day are contingent on differing perceptions of gender relations. At some level, that makes Women’s Day a frustratingly abstract exercise.
But, why must it not be so?
Here’s a quick story.
Last year August, I was on a field assignment in Jharkhand as a conflict analyst. We were visiting an experimental farm located at a village called Hesatu, a few dozen kilometers outside Ranchi, for a ‘context analysis’ exercise at a German-funded agro innovation college. Our job was to talk to various stakeholders within the project and draw out a sociopolitical assessment.
There, my project partner and I encountered a group of local women who worked as prime hands in the farm. We had a brief but intriguing conversation with them.
Well, not we, but my project partner – to whom the women let their hearts out while I stood a few yards away clicking photographs.
I’ll let Medha recount the tête-à-tête in her own words:
Me(dha): So, you took these integrated farming system classes and are now able to have better control over your agricultural produce. In your absence from home, who takes care of the household?
Farmer Lady: I only take care of the household. I wake up early to clean and cook breakfast for my husband and children, then I make lunch and leave for the class, then I go to the farm and sow paddy because this is the season, then I get back home, cook dinner and feed everyone and then, I massage my husband’s feet till he falls asleep.
Me: Okay. So your husband never helps out in the house? Did he never even learn how to cook?
Farmer Lady: Why would he? It’s not his job.
Me: What is his job?
Farmer Lady: To tell me what to do, of course *smirks*
We did not know what was more disconcerting – the harrowing nature of their daily routines or the manner in which they were narrating it to us. Also, apparently, they now have ‘better control over their agricultural produce’ after the training.
Another fascinating reality unraveled before us on that trip. Medha pointed out to me, during one of our many rides to the deep interiors, that most of the menfolk were frittering away their time doing literally nothing – all while the womenfolk went about conducting essential chores like walking the goats, sowing the seeds, ferrying the wood, and hauling the produce. This wasn’t a latent phenomenon. It was distinguishable to the naked eyes, as one traverses the lush countrysides. In an entire village, the working hands visible were all women.
The above situations posit a flurry of questions in my mind.
Do these women, who are so deeply immersed in their labourious humdrum, need some kind of feminist emancipation? In doing everything that a man is traditionally supposed to do, aren’t they already emancipated? If they are content with their daily schedule, why must anyone else have a problem? Are women liberated only when they defy their husbands? Where is the patriarchy here?
But, I quickly realise that these questions lack something utterly and ridiculously essential (WARNING: provocative, seditious word ahead): context.
So in retrospect, the Jharkhand trip constantly reminds me that…
one, patriarchy is complex and has context. It is not set in monochrome, but across a palette of hues. On most occasions, the colours are dappled together to create a riot of shades. So, one day a minister might make a sexist comment on television, and five days later, pass a progressive gender law. 50 shades of patriarchy, yes. And many more.
two, patriarchy is a grand performance, a massive stage-managed performance that is literally all over the place, performed day in and day out, show after show, with copious bodily movements, smattered with flamboyant dialogues, frenzied exchanges of emotions, in a riot of laughter and tears, through a crowdsourced script. And it is a show with a large audience, that claps and cheers fervently, without the slightest hint of what transpires behind the stage.
three, control [of thought and action] is the single pillar on which the entire dungeon of patriarchy is built. The urge to control, the entitlement of controlling. Taking control, confering control. Every single act of patriarchy disaggregates and converges at ‘control’ – cognitive, behavioural, symbolic, political. The man wrests control, the woman relinquishes control. That is how it is and must be.
Women’s Day: Resistance in Performance
If oppression itself is so deeply performative and versatile, then how can the resistance of it be anything else?
Resistance that is merely textual, and typeset in black-white is no resistance. Without performative diversity, it is merely a chapter in a book, a clause in a manual, a script in cinema, a wrench in a toolbox. It must be taken out of the stone and tampered with.
And that is solely why I believe that celebrating Women’s Day counts as positive capital in the larger struggle for equality – like a sudden stanza of poetry in prose or a peak note in a song. It is performative resistance in the truest sense. Whether you buy the theatrics as commercial brouhaha or meaningful advocacy, is for you to decide. It is, nonetheless, a performance that – in all its forms – attempts to spur an audience.
Sometimes, the audience is cavalier in its attention and at other times, it is rapt. Sometimes it follows a stream of consciousness and at other times, it ruminates with care. Sometimes it accepts and at other times, it rejects. But, it is there.
So, Women’s Day, each year, creates two things:
one, a new audience for the resistance. Through obvious and not-so-obvious processes, it festers collective musing over an otherwise divisive subject, creates islands for comfortable dialogue in seas of discomfort, unpacks the packed, and talks the un-talked. Slowly but surely, it compels more people to turn their heads and listen.
two, new alliances for the resistance. In a world that is gradually relapsing back to mainstream politics of isolationism, the resistance cannot be exclusivist. It needs to be thoroughly inclusive, adaptive, and accommodative. Most of all, it needs to be tactical. It, urgently and direly, needs allies – who can empathise without prejudice. A single day of celebration – repeated over time – can create these necessary allies through collective propagation of vibes that accumulate, ideas that resonate, and actions that elate.
But, will they listen? Will the resistance get the allies it needs? Perhaps not. Not after 30 Women’s Days. Not after 100 Women’s Days. But, maybe after 200 Women’s Days, who knows.
Women’s Day: Resistance through Acknowledgement
We celebrate what we acknowledge. And we acknowledge what we celebrate.
Does then the very act of celebrating Women’s Day denote de facto acknowledgement? Depends on what we are trying to acknowledge here, of course – ‘superiority’ of women over men? The ‘different-ness’ of women? The female gender in itself? The biological differences between women? Women who are ‘heroes’? Women who are ‘role models’? Women?
I think we are acknowledging a fundamental fact – that discrimination and subversion on the basis of gender is no more the norm.
We are acknowledging that gender inequality fuels abuse, exploitation, and violence.
We are acknowledging it, by celebrating it.
But, reality begets our utopia. The society we live in is far from fully acknowledging that all genders are equal when it comes to opportunities and social status. Evidently, Women’s Day celebrates something that hasn’t yet completed the arc of acknowledgment.
That, in itself, legitimises the act of celebration. Because it is one of those many subconscious exercises that will slowly but surely push this wretched, godforsaken arc to completion.
But, what really is this ‘arc of acknowledgement’?
Recently, something bizarre and outrageous happened in Nagaland. According to the Indian Constitution, 33% of all seats in local body elections across the country is reserved for women. This is a longstanding entitlement. But, this year, several Naga tribal groups lashed down upon their State Government, demanding the revocation of this reservation through a constitutional amendment. The protests eventually turned violent and the state’s Chief Minister, T.R. Zeliang, had to resign.
The Naga society is generally regarded as one of the most gender-equal in the subcontinent, one that accords equal status to women in society. How does this gigantic masculine outrage make any sense then?
While the protests had a strong political logic in terms of demanding greater autonomy for Nagaland’s state legislature, the collective attempt to negate this reservation indicates half acceptance of gender parity.
“Social equality for women is okay. But giving them proportionate control in political decision-making? Not so much. There’s a limit to parity dammit!”
This incident tells us that normative change or acknowledgment does not, has not, happened through mere intellectual engagement and a benign intent. It requires strategic intervention at a collective level.
‘Celebration’ is a crucial part of that intervention process. It is a massive exercise that, operates on aggregated vibes, sentiments, and emotions. In doing so, it tingles the passive human sentiment to a specific reaction, if not action. Sometimes, reaction is the first step towards engagement.
When people like Trump come in and validate skewed gender biased norms, it puts us back decades and decades in time, which is why we need Women’s Day more than ever. It works because it sends out the message that we are in solidarity with the women who are suffering under the control of patriarchy.
But, again, celebration in itself has no meaning.
It has to be given a specific agency. So, if by ‘celebrating’, one denotes initiating difficult conversations about patriarchy, abuse, and suppression with deniers and outliers, then I am game. If it means setting up the stage and throwing a random script at the actors, then spare me the horror.
To beat the drum, blow the trumpet, and shake a leg without walking the talk is mere circus.
Women’s Day: A Critique of the Critique
Women’s Day has many deniers. Two types of deniers:
One, who deny the conceptual bases of the day – inequality of sexes and patriarchy – rather than the day itself.
These are the same people, mostly, who also deny context and complexity. One fine example of this coterie is the “Men’s Rights Activists” brigade, who often confuse instrumental legal structures with entrenched social structures.
But of course, it is easy to deny context and complexity simply because of their layered and discreet quality. Denial is a natural response to incomprehension. If we don’t understand something, we tend to dismiss it. To engage this particular kind of deniers, would require a separate compendium of arguments, which I do not wish to produce here.
Two, who deny the day and not the premise behind it.
On Women’s Day, senior journalist Kaveree Bamzai wrote an emphatic editorial in DailyO titled “This is What is Wrong With Women’s Day“. In doing so, she comprehensively captured the most common criticisms of the day.
Some want to pamper us with spa packages on this day (really, and who will hold the universe together while we’re off doing that on a busy Wednesday?) and others just want to fill space — a story on women hosts on Airbnb, the launch of a MURA handloom portal by the minister of textiles, even the somnolent Ashok, symbol of PSU sloth, giving us 30 per cent discount on food and drink (so very kind) and wanting us to write about it.
It might look like Bamzai’s hit the nail on Women’s Day here. But, hey, she is not really critiquing Women’s Day here. Rather, she’s complaining about something else that exploits and piggybacks on Women’s Day, like it does on all other ‘special’ days – capitalism.
There is not an iota of doubt that the capitalist mode of production, through its inherently exploitative structures of profit-making, is doing much of the ‘defining’ today when it comes to Women’s Day. Really, an entire generation is growing up to the idea that Women’s Day means free deals, discounts, and hashtags.
But, let’s not fuse our critique of the capitalist mode of production with that of Women’s Day. Because, in doing so, we only end up perpetuating what we rail against – one defining the other.
Bamzai further opines:
Yes, Chinmayi Sripada, I really like your message that #RapeThreatsAreNotOk and the fact that you’ve started a change.org petition, but why wait till today? Yes, PHD Chamber, excellent that you think a Women Start-Up Summit is essential, but why only today?
What the “why only today, and not everyday” line of argument misses is the organic quality of ‘celebration’ as an instrument of mobilisation. Why do hawkers set up stalls where there is a crowd? Why do autowalas stand close to public venues? Because, well, more buyers and riders!
On Women’s Day, the feminist discourse – in whatever form it exists and operates today – becomes a public venue. And a crowd is on stand-by. What better occasion to display resistance?
The day is somewhat similar to a “shubh muhurat” (an auspicious occasion in the Hindu belief system). Except, in this case, we are talking about direct, solid influence rather than abstract notions of auspiciousness. It is also like that one-time headstart from ‘Subway Surfers’ that throttles the surfer ahead by many leagues.
And of course, for those directly engaged in the resistance, it is a pitstop to ruminate, introspect, and…simply think. The resistance can often get maddening, exhausting, disorienting. This is a day to rejoice over successes and reorient over failures. To step back and steady the restless core.
Mobilisation is a complex exercise that requires a mix of sustained, localised action and exaggerated, universal observance. Hence, here ‘celebration’ is neither a moral standpoint for feminism, nor an end. It is merely a tactic. A strategy. A megaphone.
Ironically, Kaveri Bamzai, in the same article also writes about performative feminism:
Before FMCG manufacturers discovered Women’s Day it had a history of actual change.
In London there was a march from Bow to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage on March 8, 1914. Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charring Cross station on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square.
In 1917 demonstrations marking International Women’s Day in Saint Petersburg on the last Thursday in February (which fell on March 8 on the Gregorian calendar) initiated the February Revolution. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949 the state council proclaimed on December 23 that March 8 would be made an official holiday with women in China given a half-day off.
Dear Ms Bamzai,
What in the world is “actual change”?
Pankhurst being detained? A bunch of powerful Chinese men gifting a half-day off to women?
Or…five hundred thousand people who never gave two shits about gender equality signing a #RapeThreatsAreNotOkay petition, because its Women’s Day?
I don’t know what ‘actual change’ is, or how one measures it. But, truth is that ‘change’ and ‘resistance’ are mammoth processes that require disaggregated, context-based, bespoke action. And performance – like what Pankhurst or the Russian women accomplished – is just one crosslink in this long chain of targeted actions.
What could ‘actual change’ or ‘resistance’ mean for the women in Hesatu?
It could mean anything. It could mean making their own daily routine, without the husbands interfering. It could mean spending more time with each other. It could mean thinking for their own selves. It could mean understanding their position in the household. It could mean denying the men the de facto entitlement to control their lives.
It could also mean acting at the behest of their men and being happy about that.
Could it? I am not sure. I strongly believe that control supersedes all other components of gender emancipation. And being content in a subversive relationship is to concede one’s natural right to control their own actions and thoughts.
To give back control, is to level the skewed power dynamic and demolish hardwired structures that facilitate real abuse. While the feminist approach could be abstract and complex, the end that it seeks really isn’t.
It is something distinct and basic to the human existence: sovereignty of self. Swaraj for the soul.
Also, my friend Vaishnavi, would like to remind Ms Bamzai that India too has her own Sylvia Pankhursts. Lots of them, in fact! And they are not afraid of reclaiming their spaces and demanding their rights. I shall let her close this cathartic rant in her own words:
Vaishnavi | Bangalore
This morning, I went for BBMP Contract Powrakarmikara Union strike. These are women sanitation workers that keep the Bangalore city clean. These women have not been paid their wages for 3 months, given proper equipment, given a single day off on even national holidays. And they are sexually harassed at work.
At the BBMP office where the protest was held, they had put up stalls for Women’s Day. All while they chose to not listen to the huge collective of women gathered there, who were demanding their basic rights. One that they have been demanding for years now.
Pourakarmikas of Bangalore remind us that without recognizing and speaking out against the violence and oppression that women face everyday, we will remain far from reaching anywhere close to ‘celebrating women’. Even if it is so one day, lets stand true to the spirit of this day when thousands of working women came out to demand their rights, to remind us that this resistance is a continuing reality.
All photographs by author unless credited otherwise.