The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

In Conversation with Nivedita Menon: Choices, Feminism, and Gender Neutrality

By Arpita Wadhwa (Batch of 2021)

On March 29, 2019, Professor Menon was invited to Ashoka University for the Ashoka Literature Festival to give a talk on “Discussing Queerness in Today’s Political Landscape”. After the talk, the Edict conducted a short interview with her around her critically acclaimed book- Seeing Like a Feminist.

Interviewer: A lot of scholarship that argues against the claim of ‘Anyone can be a feminist’ states that when issues specific to women are being talked about, calling men ‘feminists’, gives them the platform, power and space and a voice that had been carved out specifically for the women. And that to call them feminists in such situations, is to allow them to speak on
behalf of the women being oppressed. The same can also be applied to cases where ‘upper’ caste people speak for Dalits, and so on. So, do you think, claiming to be a ‘feminist’ is situation specific- you can be one in some situations and use your voice, but at times you’ve to let those speak to whom this issue affects the most?

Prof. Menon: In the era of trans-politics, any question like this stands illegitimate. If we say that only women (that is, people assigned female gender at birth), can be feminists, then are we also implying that all people assigned female gender at birth are feminists? That’s not always the case. Are we saying that gay men aren’t anti- patriarchy? They can be. Are we saying that trans people – both women and men aren’t questioning patriarchy by challenging heteronormativity and the binary sex model? They are. So, I think when a man speaks as a feminist, he is recognising his privilege and not necessarily speaking for women or representing them. I don’t think a man who identifies as a feminist will ever speak for
women; he’ll talk against patriarchy, he’ll speak about how patriarchy restricts him. I don’t agree with the idea that politics is permanently derived from birth identity such that all white men are necessarily racist, or all men are necessarily patriarchal. For instance, I, myself, would ally more with the anti-corporate capital voices in the global North that Indian women who support capitalism. So, I don’t think politics is permanently derived from birth identity. When it comes to caste- if Savarna people read Ambedkar and recognise their privilege, disown their privilege to the extent possible, you don’t speak for others. Of course, privilege cannot be entirely disowned, there is the privilege of class, of education, which even many Dalits have. They’re not giving up their privileges of education or property. What is done is that one recognises one’s privilege, and works in solidarity with those without that privilege.

Now, if it is assumed that because you’re born Savarna, or male, your politics is unavoidably and permanently oppressive, I find that problematic. That is not politics. Politics is not about birth-based identity. If you don’t recognise and disown your privilege- that’s the problem. Let’s say if a bunch of Savarnas issue a statement on the issue of flogging of Dalits. Should we have not addressed that? Should only Dalits speak about Dalit issues? Should only Muslims speak about Hindutva? Hindus should also speak about it, and be critical about it. Again, it all comes down that I believe tracing politics to birth is a very retrogressive move, because it also implies, for instance, that all Dalits are progressive, but we know for a fact
that there are many pro Hindu right wing Dalits, too. You can have different kinds of politics; all your politics isn’t based on birth.

Interviewer: A lot of times we see that when women make choices, any kind of choices- be it ‘feminist’ ones, or ‘not the feminist’ ones- say from wanting an abortion because the baby is a girl to not wanting an abortion, from getting a plastic surgery to not getting one- they’re criticised every step of the way and this is more often than not by other women themselves,
because their choices aren’t considered ‘ideal’.This makes it very tough for the gender to fight against patriarchy and unlearn it as a collective when we’re upholding this very patriarchy in some sense. Do you think this cycle of women getting victimised- leading to internalisation and then propelling patriarchy can ever be mended, ever be broken?

Prof. Menon: I don’t think it’s an inescapable circle at all. If it were the case then where would feminism come from? It’s one element of the world we live in. I think this is something to recognise. Let’s say we would not ask the State to control all abortions to prevent sex selective abortion, or police women from going for breast enhancement surgery-we, as feminists can not intervene in that capacity because whatever the constraints that produce that choice, it is a choice the woman makes. But we can argue that there are alternatives and try to build a world in which such choices need not be made. All we can do is to create a world in which, say, having a female child isn’t considered a big burden, and often it is a big burden because a woman has to keep getting pregnant and having six, seven daughters until she gets a male child. So, if she resorts to abortion of the female child in the first place, as feminists we’d understand that, because under patriarchy there’s no other way to deal with it. Thus, this question of choice is very complicated- we can never understand if a choice is out of free will or not, because a lot of times under patriarchy, women do make choices out of free will that further propel patriarchy. So, the idea of free will is not that useful to understand this.

What needs to be done is to see what effect does that choice make on patriarchy. If fewer women are born, that’s going to enhance the power of patriarchy. If more women look the same, with certain kinds of body types, the more difficult it’ll be for other women to defy those beauty standards. So, if the choice is enhancing the power of patriarchy, we can be critical of that choice, but we can’t reject it. Moreover, when it comes to the idea of beauty, things do get more complicated- it can be traced down to even depilation. It is much easier for one to criticise and speak against a woman who goes for breast enhancement, than to be critical of our own selves for doing other things (for instance, depilation- something that most women do). So, it really comes down to realising and recognising that we’re all inside a beauty myth and we just need to be humbler about it.

Interviewer: In the recent times there have been efforts to erase gendered aspects of day to day life- we’re moving towards gendered neutral or unisex clothing, where it’s completely alright for women to wear conventionally masculine clothes, but at the same time this isn’t the case for men who wish to wear dresses or skirts. Even when it comes to hairstyles, it is far more acceptable for women to have short hairthan it is for men to have longhair; for them to braid their hair, and to put them in pony tails. So, this ‘gender neutrality’ isn’t anything but making masculine aspects of life more acceptable. What do you have to say about this?

Prof. Menon: This is a serious issue, and it also has a lot to do with what is considered to be socially more valuable – masculinity is more valuable and hence, you see these trends. It is like what M.N. Srinivas calls ‘Sankritisation’- the ‘lower’ caste aspires to be like the ‘upper’
caste, so similarly in this case, the default is being set to traditionally masculine things because it’s assumed that women want to look like men, and the opposite of it is seen as bizarre. But I think it is being broken by some men. Now a days, there is fairly an increase in the visibility of men who are breaking these trends, and more men should do that. Also, when
it comes to clothing, I don’t agree with the concept of gender ‘neutral’. I like the idea of multiple genders than just limiting it to gender neutral. And I like the idea of clothing, and different ways of looking being available to all genders at all times, rather than making masculinity the norm.

Nivedita Menon is an acclaimed feminist writer, activist and a professor of Political Thought at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has written and edited several books about feminism and politics, including Seeing Like a Feminist, the 2004 volume of Recovering Subversion:Feminist Politics Beyond the Law, and Power and Contestation: India since 1989. In 1994, Menon won the A. K. Ramanujan Award (Instituted by Katha) for translation from Hindi and Malayalam into English 1994.

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