Life is full of paradoxes, indeed! This explains why one of India’s most celebrated actors Salman Khan who has an enviable record of women-fans, is today under attack by a section of women that champions what appears to be “feminist causes”. Khan’s case is akin to what is called argumentum ad populum, the appeal to the people holding a particular belief. The idea here is to petition to the general public that a person is going against the prevailing norm or belief, and in the process, get others to join your campaign of vilification.
Salman has been taken to task for having made a sensitive remark on rape that projects women unfairly. At the risk of being unpopular, I will be dishonest if I do not say that Salman is innocent of these accusations. In fact, if one goes by his statement – a description of the rape-like hardships and torture he is undergoing while shooting for a particular film– he was indeed empathising with those women victims of barbaric or dastardly acts; he was certainly not making a caricature of them.
“You look like a fraud if you haven’t trained properly. You need to put in those many hours as any wrestler does and that’s what we have done. Now when you are shooting, you are continuously wrestling for 6 hours. So, if I have to pick up a 120 kg person, and drop him down, I had to do it 10 times. In the wrestling match, it happens once or twice. Ten times from 5 different angles for 6-7 hours; either I am picking up and throwing him or he is picking me up and throwing me. It is like the most difficult thing. When I used to walk out of the ring, it was actually like a raped woman walking out”, the actor had said.
Honestly, I did not find anything insulting to the women on this. But, let alone the media, the National Commission for Women (NCW), a government-run body for women’s rights, has demanded a public apology from Khan within seven days, and the women wing of a political party has lodged a police complaint against the actor.
In my considered view, reactions like this create a mindset that makes women “play the victim”; in the process, they become oversensitive to anything and everything that could possibly be twisted as being offensive and patriarchy. In such an ideological framework, men are considered to be having “natural impulses” of being oppressive towards women, and therefore it becomes “a legitimate demand” to invent standards that men must not only know but develop also some kind of self-hatred.
However, in the long run, this type of feminism does more harm than good. What is required instead is feminism that is also humanism. The experience of the United States is instructive in this regard.
From the late 1960s into the 1980s there was a vibrant women’s movement in the US. Culturally influential and politically powerful organisations campaigned for issues such as reproductive rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and other reforms. They drew their strength from various professions, unions, government bureaucracies and other institutions.
The movement brought about major changes in the lives of many women. It opened to women the professions and blue-collar jobs which had previously been reserved for men. It transformed the portrayal of women by the media. It introduced the demand for women’s equality into politics, organised religion, sports, and innumerable other arenas and institutions, and as a result the gender balance of participation and leadership began to change.
Now, a mass women’s movement in the US is virtually non-existent. Though there are many organisations working for women’s equality in the public arena and in private institutions, these are no longer organisations with large participatory memberships. On the contrary, these are now mostly bureaucratic structures run by paid staff.
Feminist theory, once provocative and freewheeling, has lost concern with the conditions of women’s lives and has become pretentious and tired. From a “movement”, the women’s issues now constitute, as noted social scientist Barbara Epstein beautifully argues, an “idea”. And, this is the situation despite the fact that gender equality has not yet been achieved fully in the US – Women in the US earn, on average, considerably less than men. Violence against them is still quite widespread.
Why is such a decline of the Women’s movement in the US? There are many reasons, if one goes through famous publications like Ruth Rosen’s survey of the women’s movement, “The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America” and Christopher Lasch’s collection of essays, “Women and the Common Life Culture, and the Rise of the Suburbs”. But the dominant reason is the changing profile of the leaders of the Women’s Movement and the environment or backgrounds they come from.
In essence, the point is that contemporary feminism has over the time tended to absorb the perspective of the middle class from which it is largely drawn. There are still some radicals within the feminist movement in the US believing in an egalitarian society (in fact, some of them, in their fight against man-dominated world, go to the perverse extent of living and behaving like men), but they are in a distinct minority.
On the other hand, a majority of the feminists have been affected by a broader trend. In a period of sharpening economic and social divisions, characterised by corporate demand for greater and greater profits and the canonising of greed, a whole generation has been seized by the desire to rise to the top.
Feminists, in other words, are becoming careerists. Their senses of “community engagement” have weakened in the process. In fact, what has happened in the United States is not limited to that country alone. Women in many countries have broken what is called the “Glass Ceiling”.
As Eleanor Roosevelt says, “No one can make you inferior without your permission”. And this explains why there have been many global heads of state and many CEOs Fortune 500 companies.
Coming back to India, who are our feminist or women leaders? Almost all of them come from the middle or upper middle class, high-caste and elite backgrounds. No wonder why most of the organisations that these leaders are associated with are more preoccupied with things related to politics like combating communalism and toppling governments or issues concerning them such as dowry, rape, domestic violence, eve-teasing and divorce.
In fact, the most vocal women organisations are those affiliated to political parties and certain ideologies. Czech feminist Jana Hardilikova’s comment that “feminism smells like an ideology” is really apt for India.
As a result, more than empowering women, our feminists are essentially engaged in empowering their political careers and causes. And, as most of them declare themselves to be either liberals or left-wingers, their feminism, in the process, has devolved into a toxic political correctness and become an ideology rooted in partisanship.
As a result, anybody who disagrees with their agenda or seen to be deviating from it is discredited as anti-woman. Viewed thus, Salman Khan’s case, in a sense, is actually a political case, particularly because he and father Salim Khan are supposedly big supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
(This article first appeared in news18.com )
by Prakash Nanda