AGENDA & AGENCY: SOCIETY & THE FIRST PRINCIPLES OF FEMINISM
In a certain place, certain people engaged in certain criminal acts against a certain girl. For reasons – you can list them as well as I – this would appear to have sparked a national focus on the status of women, particularly with respect to violent crime against them. Every media outlet worth its newsprint is suddenly running articles, special reports, compilations, dedicated segments, campaigns etc., all to the effect that women are increasingly victimized in this country. Various causes are identified, various persons or institutions blamed, even demonized. Depending on who you listen to, you may believe that one or the other social trend is leading to this disturbing development.
Unfortunately, a lot of this coverage is nonsense. It is based in nonsense. The statistics it relies on are nonsense. The theories it invokes are not, inherently, nonsense – but their applications here frequently are. I hesitate from entering the debate on media sensationalism & its business aspect, simply because the feminist debate is large enough already. Suffice it to say that a vanishingly small percentage of the coverage is not using recent shocking incidents for its own purposes. This is unfortunate, but not unexpected. “Social conscience” is perhaps the weakest of all motivations today, so it would be phenomenally naïve to expect sincerity or sensitivity in such coverage; everybody & their uncle will undoubtedly try to use this apparent “national outrage” to push their own agenda.
This writer is no saint. When it comes to this topic, though, I enjoy a rather significant advantage: I have no agenda to fulfill, unless you wish to rank a desire for intellectual honesty & clarity under that head. What I do have is a substantial lack of patience for both, fuzzy pseudo-logic & manipulation. I also have a rather clear idea as to what constitutes feminism, what is causing this “rise” in violence against women, and the challenges feminism faces today. My core contention is simply this: the current spectacle does great disservice to the feminist cause.
First, context: men & women are different. This is biological, evolutionary fact – a nature factor. It is true across most arenas of human endeavour. A “scientist” who tries to maintain that gender differences do not exist is ignoring a vast, established & growing body of evidence – a charlatan. An “advocate” who tries to maintain that this knowledge should not have ANY bearing on how society treats men & women is hopelessly idealistic at best, and dangerously fascist at worst.
The social roles of men & women are also different, usually in a manner roughly congruent with their gender differences. This is a historical & economic fact – a nurture factor, reflecting the influence of evocative interaction – an individual is affected by the system, but the system is determined by the trends in trait distributions across individuals & populations. One may thus expect these roles to evolve to reflect the relative impact of these differences, especially given the impact of technology in reducing their salience in many fields.
Does such evolution take place? Let us explore with an example: economic division of labour is a relic with respect to the capacity to ensure survival or welfare of a person, family or society. Nobody argues today that a woman cannot earn a living in most occupations the same as a man. Nonetheless, it may be both economically efficient & socially beneficial for women to be housewives. This is because, with respect to nurturing & raising children, the evidence still argues in favour of the mother – as well as for joint family institutions. Many tensions can arise in this way: institutions arise for one purpose, but can come to fulfill many roles, and some of these roles may outlive the original rationale. Most occupations & social spaces may not be “unsafe” for women any more (not that the current media coverage would agree) but women retain an evolutionary edge as caregivers.
The first source of this tension is the difference in timescales: species are affected by their evolution, as we saw, on geological timescales, but societal evolution is far from linear – agonizingly slow for most of the time, but increasingly rapid once underway, yet prone to relapse or reactionary pressures. Technology can also catalyse sweeping social changes, so societal evolution comes in leaps & bounds. Large periods of time can thus be “transition periods”, where society is adjusting to the net impact of evolutionary characteristics & technological developments.
The second source of this tension lies in a key difference between biological & societal evolution. Survival of the species is about survival of the gene pool (this is the leading sociobiological interpretation of altruism), which means there is no personal stake or payback from the process. Societal evolution, however, is about survival of institutions. Institutions are merely interactions between individuals in defined power structures, so there are significant personal consequences – i.e. those who are strongest in a given institution also have the strongest incentives to maintain it. This means that societal evolution is neither automatic nor inevitable – it can be (and is) resisted, by numerous powerful reactionary elements. Not till their power is suitably compromised can a new social structure replace the old one as the norm, although new structures can (and do) exist in defiance of norms long before they are accepted. Thus, the timescale of societal evolution also proceeds in leaps & bounds because a particular change can be resisted for a long time before finally achieving a breakthrough – and even after it is entrenched, still faces challenges from elements of the old order.
Where, then, does one site feminism in this complex of biological differences, societal transitions, institutional reactions, all feeding into a recursive loop of evocative interaction?
Answer: In the human rights discourse. My knowledge of the development of the feminist movement is limited, but that is the only logical position it can occupy today. Feminism is not the belief that men & women are the same. It is not the proposition that social roles should be congruent to gender differences. It is not even the argument that men & women should be treated the same in all respects. It is a very specific claim to a very specific right: Agency. Feminism is nothing more (or less – the claim is, given historical context, phenomenally audacious) than a claim to equal agency for individuals irrespective of gender.
Agency, in the simplest sense, means that the individual has first right to make any decisions pertaining to themselves. Whether it is my time, my effort, my body or my property – I, and (in the first instance) only I can decide what to do with them. It is the deepest meaning of Liberty or Freedom. Like any other freedom, it is not infinite: the harmonization of competing individual rights is precisely the realm of the law-giver & the law-keeper, and reasonable restrictions can be imposed in this respect. Minority is an obvious restriction, since we do not ascribe the capacity or judgment necessary to exercise agency to those below a certain age (or to those who, by reason of developmental or mental afflictions, have not achieved it or have been deprived of it). This is a telling restriction: its premise is that one who lacks capacity to understand the consequences of his/her own actions cannot in good conscience be made to face those consequences; this is why a guardian is appointed to make those choices for them, and presumably to inculcate such capacity in them. The principle is that those to whom agency is ascribed are competent not only to choose or act for themselves, but to face the consequences of those choices or actions.
This relationship between choice & consequence is crucial. In practice, law restrains agency in many ways. Broadly, where the consequence is interference in another’s rights, the choice is curtailed. The principle is thus that restrictions should be imposed on agency only to protect human rights the law deems unimpeachable. Consequently, the first principle of feminism is simply this: GENDER IS NOT A SUITABLE BASIS FOR RESTRICTIONS ON AGENCY.
It is easy to see why so much of the media coverage is thus harmful, also hypocritical, nonsense. Harmful because it is rooted in a patriarchal discourse of women as victims. Where is the discussion on choice & consequence? Where is the discussion on the impact of those consequences on rights, and on consequent choices? Hypocritical, because those very media are littered with advertisements premised on objectifying women. Objectification is the inherent negation of Agency, because it assumes that BOTH MEN & WOMEN are passive reactants to certain stimuli. Frankly, I don’t need to be a feminist to be insulted by the suggestion that anyone who wants to can simply lead me around by the crotch.
This is why the comment earlier this year by then head of the Women’s Rights Commission that to call someone “sexy” is a compliment, akin to calling them beautiful or graceful, is nonsense. Context matters. To call someone or something sexy today means attraction towards that person or object; advertisements should make it clear that “sexy” means “I want to possess that” – and too often, as the sexiness of the model transitions to the object sold, the objectification extends to the model, until the “person or object” distinction is blurred, even lost. Not that the role of possession in sex was particularly understated in a patriarchy to start with.
Incidentally, this is also why women who say “Chivalry is dead” should be jumping for joy. Chivalry was a step in the evolution of the rights discourse, but it was addressed entirely at men; it barely attributed to women agency to choose a champion. I just helped a co-passenger with an injured hand retrieve some luggage. Was this chivalrous? Can’t tell me without knowing it the person I helped was male or female, right? But how can gender be the basis for determining the virtue of an action? In fact, this could be the long form of the first principle: Gender is not a suitable basis for restriction on agency BECAUSE gender is not a suitable basis for determining the virtue of an action.
This should make it clear why feminism is in fact revolutionary. In a strongly patriarchal society, where great efforts in culture, religion & philosophy are devoted to considering what is an ideal daughter, ideal wife or ideal mother (as also, an ideal son, ideal husband, ideal father – remember, it’s a gender-neutral claim of agency), the idea that virtue is independent of gender is itself a challenge to the established order. The precise reason why sexual violence is an act of such significance in society is that modesty is a virtue & lust a sin only for females. Rape, molestation & harassment are forms of punishment against women for choosing to exercise their agency in ways of which society disapproves. Rape apologism inevitably centres on lust – the “natural” lust that any man must be provoked to feel, and the “unnatural” lust any immodest woman must be feeling to display herself in such fashion, which in turn somehow becomes a wholly natural lust again when physical signs of arousal are used as evidence of consent. Suffice it to say, the more frequent the clashes between patriarchal notions of modesty-as-virtue & the exercise of agency in “immodest” ways by individuals, the more the instances of sexual violence (in particular) & repression (in general) we will see.
Is that the reason for the “rise” in sexual violence today? Perhaps to a small extent, but a far greater proportion of the figures is simply a reporting & transparency effect. Simply put, it seems far more likely that more rapes are being reported than that more rapes are taking place. This may seem like a trivial point: after all, the concern is that such offences are taking place, right? True, except that such a formulation hides an important distinction. We are & have since antiquity been a society riddled with violence against women. We are not becoming more violent in consequence of modern influences, just more open about it. This also tends to debunk claims that traditional virtues are being corrupted by modern influences, leading to such violence – I freely concede that such confrontations, perceptions etc. have a role, but the premise, that the traditional system was somehow less violent, less repressive or more equitable is deeply flawed. That is what the numbers really show: the extent to which the existing systems already inflict sexual violence, especially in relation to caste. Witness increasing sex-selective abortion: modern technology has, in that instance, enabled traditional discrimination, not caused it.
This is, precisely, the challenge facing feminism today. To push for agency in a world dominated by patriarchal institutions, where such institutions control even the terms of the discourse, and will punish every attempt to deviate from their norms. In a sense, of course, this is the same challenge any subaltern movement has always faced, and it comes with the same issues of tokenism & baiting into hypocritical arguments any such movement faces. It does, however, throw up peculiar contradictions for a feminist: promoting agency for people who themselves exercise it to punish those who would exercise it in deviance of societal norms. I remember reading of reform efforts that women over a certain age were often the most vocal opponents. And what to make of informed, wealthy women still deciding on aborting a female foetus? The feminist with clarity can handle these issues, as also the next one:
Agency clearly includes taking responsibility for your own actions. So, if – being aware of social context – you choose to place yourself in the path of danger, you must accept the potentially life-shattering responses you may provoke. I cannot absolve altogether from responsibility one who deliberately challenges societal institutions. For instance, if a Slutwalk campaign had been organised here, it was unlikely to register much support – and to the contrary, I would expect the greatest numbers in attendance to be precisely those whose actions & attitudes it is supposed to protest; they would turn up for a free show, and perhaps even to mock the protesters. Indeed, Gods forbid, but if the number of women protesting as opposed to the audience were too sharply skewed, I would expect a mob situation to develop. Again, if I ever opted to commit suicide, I could think of few ways as spectacular as launching a Dating School & Speed Dating Agency in khap panchayat heartland. Where does responsibility lie in such instances? What is a suitable feminist response?
The answer has this in common: I must answer for the consequences of my actions. And those who choose to act against me, in violation of my rights, &/or in violation of the law, must answer for theirs. Under most such circumstances, their violence against the “deviant” element is the consequence – but their own actions must attract retribution just as swift, sure & unforgiving. So the response is not so much “teach your sons to be respectful, not your daughters how to dress”, but both: until the world is safe enough for your daughters to dress as they wish, please, do teach them to choose their clothes keeping in mind what they plan to do, and what they expect to encounter.
One of the tragedies of this encounter is how the word “sensible” has come to be so loaded with political connotations. It really means what I wrote above – behave in a rational way GIVEN WHAT YOU KNOW IS THE CONTEXT, even as you try to alter the context to something more positive. Sadly, it has become the rape apologist’s tool of choice, and taboo for a sensible writer to use.
Then again, that’s probably the least of the tragedies playing out here.
 Of course every salesman insists that he has no agenda in selling you anything. The reader has no reason to believe me when I declare no motivation beyond annoyance with the prevailing media climate. I will only say that almost all my writing happens when someone or something affects me deeply enough that I MUST write a response. The reader can – indeed, ought to – judge for him/herself if this article does push any agenda.
 Skip to Para 10 if you just want to read the answers to those questions. If you disagree, come back & read the rest!
 In the original sense of the word, being a complete submission of the individual to the society.
 The usual response to this argument is to raise ad hominem or “I know a man who” examples. Which is, once again, nonsense: we are not talking in absolutes, but about trends. “Men are physically stronger than women” is a biological fact with respect to the whole population, not each & every individual present in it. Roger Bannister’s four minute mile record was beaten by a man long before it was beaten by a woman, and more men than women have beaten it. Any of the women who did break it is, of course, a superior athlete to the vast majority of the male population. All other factors being constant, though, men are still better athletes.
So, yes, children are raised “successfully” by working couples, nuclear families, single mothers, house-husbands, even orphanages. Children are raised “unsuccessfully” by housewives & joint families (whatever success means in this context). The trend is still in favour of the latter. Further, as an economic question, even individual women or joint families have to expend less resources and effort to achieve a given result, as compared to men or nuclear families. Motherhood is a biological fact. Species that did not evolve suitable care for their young died out, & even to date the human female retains an evolutionary edge in childrearing alongside her monopoly on childbearing.
 In Indian Law, at least, “assault intended to outrage the modesty of (an adult) male” is not an aggravated offense.
 Note that this formulation of modesty being inapplicable to males has limits. Male cross-dressers are branded as eunuchs, and broadly treated as outcasts. The attribution of witch-like powers to them has granted them an odd kind of respect, born from fear, but also makes them a target for violence in the event of any misfortune in their vicinity. Forced castration has often been reported. In some places, they have little choice but commercial sex work. Even in affluent society, it seems unlikely that a cross-dresser could get professional employment – except as a sort of freak figure in television or film. Tied in with hostility towards homosexuality, this may be the reason for increasing instances of sex-change operations. I am unaware of any research or even anecdotal evidence describing society’s reactions to a “new woman” following such a procedure, but I suspect they are not welcoming.
 Intertwined with more objectification. Why does a secretary, receptionist or (if anyone still employs them) a stenographer have to be or not be of a certain age, appearance etc., depending on the company employing them & the message it wishes to convey? I’m as happy as the next man to be greeted by a pretty face, but one would think secretarial efficiency, perhaps a cheerful disposition, more important. Perhaps one of the few positive consequences, probably unintended, of such tokenism has been to a premium on appearance, grooming & presentation skills for men & women alike. I do not comment on whether this emphasis itself is a good thing, only the fact that it seems to be increasingly a gender-neutral demand.