Some months ago, during the Lal Masjid standoff in Islamabad, the world was treated to sights of burka-clad women with sticks coming out to impose their version of morality on the city streets as well as to defend the Masjid from the police. In neighbouring Iran, women have been in the security forces and participate in public activities, albeit under segregation from men. Over India, a significant number of women have come out to actively work in the public sphere for militant Hindu nationalist organisations like the Durga Vahini and other such organisations. Similar examples can be found in almost every country of the world where women have become active in the public sphere on an agenda that is conservative and celebrates the traditional roles assigned to women in society.
For many who have been active in movements to extend political and legal rights to women and empower them to access these rights, such mass movements of women on ‘patriarchal’ agendas are often inexplicable. Over the past two centuries, the efforts of the women’s movement has been to first establish women as right-bearing individual independent of men and then to expand those rights to equal those enjoyed by men. Simultaneously, the political effort has been to educate and psychologically equip women to act equal to men in the public sphere. Both these struggles have been, and continue to remain, fought in the teeth of intense opposition and inertia from patriarchal ideologies and institutions. Today when these efforts have largely been successful, we are presented with the intriguing spectacle of women exercising these very rights to reaffirm the traditional, patriarchal vision of gender roles.
What is happening here? Why are thousands of women, if not millions, walking out of the camp of women’s emancipation and snuggling back into the warm embrace of patriarchy? What type of patriarchy is it that ‘arms’ women and encourages them to actively participate in the public sphere?
The Industrial Revolution in Europe led to the breakdown of the traditional, rural-based families and communities and forced millions of people to the cities to become workers in the new factories. The emergence of capitalism was also the context in which the new ideologies of human liberty and equality emerged in the 18th century. What is often forgotten is that the first manifesto of women’s rights and equality was written in 1792 by Mary Wolstonecraft. For the next century and half, till the end of the Second World War, the main agenda of the women’s movement was to win for women the basic political rights – like the right to vote and stand for public office – and legal equality with men – like equal wages for equal work. While the former has been largely successful, the latter is still a contested domain.
During this long period women were denied these rights and equality not through the positing of new ideologies and politics but due to the sluggishness of traditional practices and ideas. Patriarchy did not have to enter into an argument with the movement for women’s emancipation and contest its ideas and morality. All patriarchy needed to do was to posit the fact that traditional gender roles had provided a stable family form and social structure, which was well understood by everyone and in which everyone had been born and raised. The mere fact of existence was traditional patriarchy’s best defence. Moreover, patriarchy was so deeply ingrained in the extant political institutions, social structures and psychologies that it often proved near impossible to shake its foundations in material practice and ideas.
It was the other, non-feminist, emancipatory movements that first got women into the public sphere. In Europe, it was the working class movement that organised women as workers and demanded equality for women workers with men. As this column had written one year ago, the international Women’s Day was first organised, both in the US and later in Europe, by the working class movement. In the colonies, where industrialisation and the ideologies of liberation were sporadic, at best, it was the anti-colonial intellectual and political movements that first broke the shackles of women. Both these emancipatory movements brought women out of the homes and workplaces to the street and public square to stand shoulder to shoulder to demand their rights as workers and national citizens.
Despite this big step forward, these working class and anti-colonial movements never foregrounded the specific rights of women and took cover under the general rights of workers and national citizens. The significant steps for women’s rights and empowerment, like education, legal equality, etc., were sought as otherwise women would not be able to participate and give strength to these working class and national movements. As mass movements, these needed the participation of women to bolster their numbers and strengthen themselves against their well-entrenched opponents. While these movements were supportive of women coming out and challenging the structures of class and colonial exploitation they shied away from addressing the structures and ideologies of patriarchy within themselves.
Working class movements remained clearly patriarchal, denying women an equal position within their structures and anti-colonial movements restricted women to the roles of mothers and anchors of national traditions. Their women’s agenda was fundamentally instrumental and strategic and therefore, it never went beyond its first few steps. In that sense, these could be categorised as half-hearted women’s movements or patriarchal feminisms. While this blemish may be a correct assessment in a sense, it should also be remembered that these movements were huge forward steps and progressive in their world historical role.
At this point the women’s movement had to move beyond the limits that were being set by working class and nationalist movements and this created a split in the unity between these liberatory movements and the women’s movement. While it was the women’s movement that formally split from the working class and anti-colonial movements (in the post-Second World War period) and the main responsibility for this split rests with the working class and anti-colonial movements that continued to demand that the demands of the women’s movement should necessarily be subordinated to their political agenda. While it is true that the division caused by the women’s movements’ break from working class and anti-colonial movements led to a weakening of all three, it is the failure of the latter to critique the structures of patriarchy and gender inequity within their own movements that caused this split.
By the time this split took place, women were irretrievably placed in the public sphere and had won for themselves the basic political rights (if we ignore reactionary black holes like Saudi Arabia). It is now impossible to push them back to 18th century gender roles. It is therefore, necessary for patriarchy to now play within the boundaries and rules that grant women some rights and legal status and therefore, after groping in the dark for a few decades, patriarchy is back with a bang. Or should we say ‘back with the burka’? While issues of political rights and legal status remain ever present, the battle of the women’s emancipation is increasingly to reform or break the patriarchal family and its ideology.
But patriarchy is not some ideology that hangs in thin air. South Asian patriarchy is rooted in a context where the emancipation of women from the patriarchal family will lead to the unravelling of this family structure. This family structure is the foundation for our present social system and its destruction cannot be sought or caused without the emancipation of those economic relations which define our present. Patriarchal feminism is one attempt by this status quo to rein in the tiger of emancipatory politics and not an expression of women’s power or political rights.
~ ~ ~
This article was published in The Post on 5 March, 2008.