Wednesday, 9 January 2013

A Culture of Violence

Let's face it: are we really that surprised with the shameless levels of misogyny on display on our TV screens, and on our Twitter and Facebook feeds? I mean, we know it's that bad, and probably, this just scratches the surface (very large surface, as this post by CNN-IBN illustrates). Of course, what's happening is that the polemic against politicians and the political class in general is strengthening, and so is the sense of repugnance against the same – which has already quite mature in India in the course of the last few years.
After Abhijit Mukherjee's statement on “dented-painted women”, it was the RSS Chief, Mohan Bhagwat's turn, whose statement – that “rapes don’t occur in Bharat, they happen in India” – is at the focus of outrage by the liberal media (A claim which, not very surprisingly, has merit  according to sociologist Ashish Nandy, who sees a connection between modernisation, globalisation and violence against women). Now, I’m not comfortable arguing in the realm of mythology; I've argued elsewhere that doing so deflects, and obfuscates the question and the nature of real violence faced by women. Not only is the recourse to mythology pointless, arguing on the same place with idiots like Bhagwat, or Asaram Bapu (who claimed that the girl “was at fault” as she“did not plead sufficiently” to the rapists or call them “brothers”, for them to stop), or Ramdev (um, do I need to cite anything?), is ultimately futile because a reasoned argument cannot displace their obscurantist logic. I would recommend that you read Sagarika Ghosh's column on the struggle between modernity and such obscurantism in today's edition of Hindustan Times; it articulates this argument far better than the scope of this post.
In my opinion, the RSS (and its lackeys, like the VHP) are among the most regressive, violent, and at the same time, robustly organised ideological instruments in the country today. And so are institutions like Jamaat-e Islami Hind, or Asaram Bapu’s spiritual-commercial enterprise. While, on the one hand, religion per se really has nothing to do with things, insofar as we look at it in the realm of the secular, democratic nation-state; on the other, it is difficult to overlook the fact that religion is among the several governance mechanisms that form the ideological basis of the patriarchal nation-state and moral-economy (I’ve briefly elaborated what I mean by governance in an earlier post).
Women in such conditions are organised in a descending order, based on their supposed “virtues”. At one point, it seems inevitable that these patriarchal ideologues would make such absurd, but politically virulent statements; because such institutionalised and ideological misogyny are required to establish the domain of control in the patriarchal moral-economy. This is not to suggest that men and masculinities are not policed; of course they are. But the paradox is: the misogynist then becomes the embodiment of the hegemon; the basis of defining masculinities (or a masculinity, in particular) is hinged on, and operationalized in, the acts of violence against women. 
While this polemic against the political class is a step in the right direction, and is entirely justified, what it does, I believe, is limits our interrogation of misogyny, patriarchy, sexism and violence – forms of oppression which happen to be far more pervasive, virulent and often, invisible to the public discourse(s) or anti-political polemics. This is the misogyny of the everyday life; a culture of violence, real, symbolic and otherwise, which women from across classes, castes, and spaces face. A kind of violence practically everyone engages in, including, I suspect, some of the polemicists. Now, as tempting as it is, I wouldn’t go as far as calling this hypocrisy. ‘Hypocrisy’ would mean double standards, and at least an element of volition.  Sure, a lot of politicians are hypocrites (a professional requirement these days, in my opinion), but the kind of double-sidedness I’m talking about is incredibly nuanced, invisible and pathological (and, most importantly, not seen in dichotomies); it is embedded in our language, it informs our responses, colours our perspectives. Political misogyny is, to use a cliché, only the tip of the iceberg.

Snehalata Gupta, writing for Kafila, puts forth a pertinent and critical perspective in her discussion on patriarchy in the classroom. Gupta, who is a teacher at a co-ed in Delhi, recounts an incident when one of her 'difficult' male students, all of 16 or 17 years, suggested that she wear a dupatta in class. Her not doing so, explained the boy, “embarrassed” him and his male classmates – something she termed a "blatant show of patriarchal arrogance". The incident, in my opinion, is ubiquitous and far more common than just this one post. There are certain elements that I'd like to borrow from Gupta's reflexive post in an attempt to understand what I mean by the pervasiveness of patriarchy: namely, the male gaze, peer group socialisation and the operationalization of patriarchy. 
The ‘male gaze’ is an overused term in sociological lexicon, but in popular discourse, it is very rarely understood. Not only does the gaze have a policing or a predatory function (the Foucauldian surveillance), it is also an articulation of the misogyny I was harping on about. The term ‘objectifying women’, as overused as it is in our references to Bollywood and “item numbers”, is more than just reducing them to objects of sexualised desires (there is a variety of literature, for instance, that argues for an agentic function in such objectification; most of the discussions on The Dirty Picture, for instance, encapsulate this). The gaze then is, as I mentioned before, an operationalization of misogyny; a brutal way of policing: (a) sexualities, especially of women (and men) exercising sexual freedom; (b) the process of socialization, which essentially indoctrinates children into patriarchy, as Snehalata Gupta’s post so clearly illustrates; and finally, (c) of ensuring that the patriarchal moral-economy functions through such surveillance mechanisms: the gaze itself being one, and the more well-known examples are what Shuddhabrata Sengupta has called “eminent Bharatiya moustachioed misogynists”.
I've seen such misogyny being operational in the last few years of my schooling. There wasn't, to the best of my knowledge, any serious or untoward incident; but what many of us consider trivial, are actually very strong symptoms of the kind of pervasiveness of misogyny that I am trying to explicate in this essay. For instance, I recall vividly how the consumption of porn, and what kind of porn, defined the sort of male you were; girls were encoded on the basis on their bodies; the classes were segregated almost with religious zeal (I was in a Catholic school, yes); any casual interaction with the opposite sex, if not an opportunity to ‘score’ (I use the term despite its value-laden nature) was, well, looked at as a wasted opportunity. Sure, a lot of this can be called a part of growing up, or adolescent fantasies – something many have indulged in, as well. But there is a problem in trivialising misogyny or rape, especially under the adage of “boys will be boys” or such codswallop. Michele Weldon's article on al-Jazeera, for instance, discusses the way in which community efforts, the family and cultural shifts can prevent sexual violence, in the aftermath of the rape of a sixteen year-old girl in Ohio by two local football stars. What was staggering, she writes, was the way the perpetrators bragged on about them violently subjugating the girl. In her analysis, Weldon writes that “no mother wants her son to grow up to be a rapist, just as no mother wants her daughter to be raped”. However, she concedes that her naive notion of the family being able to prevent sexual violence is flawed; a scepticism I share as well, after having met many amiable parents whose kids were, to put it politely, “difficult”. The production of misogyny and violence, therefore, is not localized to one site; peer groups, class stratification, the media, etc. form a network of the patriarchal moral-economy. Any alternatives focusing on rectifying faults in family and/or education are problematic because it assumes that there could be alternative; an alternative that requires the destabilization of the patriarchal moral-economy, of which socialization and education is but a microcosm.

That said, I also have a problem with our excessive emphasis on misogyny, which by definition is a strong dislike for women. The female object, therefore, is the central focus of misogynistic discourses, and of those trying to interrogate it. However, the fact that many, including myself to an extent, have taken for granted is the gender dichotomy implicit our critiques. Many have argued that there is a continuum of gendered violence of which gays, lesbians, transgender people are as much victims as are women (again, a fissured category). This is something the polemicists have ignored completely; except perhaps, the token Gay Pride marches. ‘Misogyny’, then, is a limiting term insofar as we assume there is a stable category of a biological female. Violence against women is very, very real; but so is the violence against people labelled as ‘sexual minorities’. Following Judith Butler’s highly influential idea of gender performativity, it is possible to argue that violence is indeed located in a gendered continuum; a network of power relations among social groups, relations of dominance and subversion. But this happens to be a domain that is entirely absent in our public discourses and polemics; sure, there has been a lot of discussion on homosexuality after the decriminalization of Section 377 in 2009, or in the collective efforts of many civil society organisations fighting for equal rights of gays, lesbians and transgender people. But these discussions are seldom articulated in the space marked off as ‘violence against women’, or ‘justice for rape victims’.
Women aren't the only victims of patriarchal violence; the culture of violence is virulent, and operates on many different terrains; victimizes many different people; and thus, as a public, already galvanised, I feel it is imperative that we adopt a stance that does not exclude other marginal voices. However, our failure and, I’m afraid, our reluctance, to have done so reflects a deeper problem; a problem of the culture of violence; a problem that we must identify and address. Any interrogation of this culture of violence, of this institutionalised misogyny, of the patriarchal moral-economy, requires a sustained engagement with these problems, and our first step in this direction is to acknowledge that the problem runs far, far deeper than just politicians, and right-wing, fundamentalist outfits.

Acknowledgements: First of all, to Natasha Patel, for patiently reading this, as well as many other drafts in the past, for humouring me and never faltering on feedback; to Tasneem Kakal, for her pertinent comments (some of them on my bad grammar); and to Shubhra Rishi, who I cannot seem to thank enough.

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