I recently covered the release of 21 Under 40, an anthology of twenty-one short stories by women under forty, for Mid-Day. Edited by Anita Roy and published by feminist publishing house Zubaan, the anthology features some interesting new voices including Tishani Doshi. The event was organized by Toto Funds the Arts, a Bangalore-based organization that encourages and supports young writers and artists. Four of the writers featured in the anthology – Anjum Hasan, Adithi Rao, Meena Kandasamy and Ruchika Chanana – were present and read excerpts from their stories.
The reading was followed by a discussion with the authors. The discussion itself was rather stilted; nobody in the audience seemed interested in asking questions and the writers seemed singularly unsure about their ability to say anything meaningful. I was particularly disturbed by something else – a sense that at least three of the writers felt feminism and feminist concerns were outdated, unnecessary and even slightly unseemly. Anita Roy raised the question of how this generation of writers is different from their predecessors such as Mahasweta Devi and Attia Hosain. Anjum Hasan was quick to point out that women in an earlier time were more concerned with defining the social role of women and that today’s women are reinventing women’s writing because they do not have these concerns.
A little puzzled by this, I asked Anita how many of the 200 odd submissions that she had received from women writers reflected feminist concerns. I was merely curious and hoping for an accurate reflection from someone who undoubtedly reads a lot of new writing. I was taken aback by the antipathy to the word ‘feminist’; it was insidious but unmistakable. At first, she avoided my question. Then Anjum said something about the need for women to “speak out” having significantly lessened and Ruchika Chanana nonchalantly informed us that “women in my economic position and social background” don’t really face “those problems” so her writing does not reflect them. Adithi Rao didn’t know what feminist writing was exactly and asked to be enlightened by Anita, who finally gave a garbled speech on how women’s writing (which according to her is synonymous with feminist writing) cannot be defined or analyzed and how the brave new generation of writers is breaking out of such stereotypical classifications such as feminism and creating something new. The political is no longer the personal and the political is clearly no longer art. Sounds grand.
Except that it isn’t really. I find it disturbing that the representative of a feminist publishing house is not clear about what feminism means, not to the world at large but even just to them. That she gets defensive about the word ‘feminist’. That three other writers with her believe that “women like us” don’t have “such problems” therefore, women like us don’t have to write about them. I find it especially disturbing because it reflects a trend that is common among urban educated women from upper middle class families in India. Feminism is passe. Feminism is uncool. And mostly, it is Somebody Else’s Problem.
I do not have a specific argument with women writing about things that have no political stances or that do not deal with social / gender issues at all but to deny the need for any writing of this sort, seems narrow and fallacious to me. We have come a long way since the time of writers like Mahasweta Devi, Attia Hosain and others who spoke out so eloquently and powerfully about everything ranging from women’s role in society to our power over our own bodies. But the last battles have hardly been won. It is unfortunate that women (particularly writers) feel that their tiny little universe is representative of the cosmos and some illusion of happiness here is enough. In a country where sexual harassment is laughably acceptable, female infanticide rampant, and rape a rather common incident, this narrow, self-centered world view scares me.
I suppose I have some old-fashioned and hopelessly idealistic notion that writers must give a true picture not just of themselves but of their milieu; that they must give voice not just to their own thoughts but also to those of others who cannot do so themselves; that they must transcend ordinary life and average living to point out what people will otherwise not see, hear or say. That’s why I am disappointed when women, especially the “new generation of writers”, so consciously and deliberately turn away from social concerns in their writing because they are simply not relevant for “women like us”.
Finally, I do have a problem with all women’s writing being equated with feminist writing. I am sorry but I just do not buy the essentialist viewpoint. Feminism is a very specific belief system and movement (with many shades and aspects), one that stands up for the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. To me, writing that reflects these beliefs and this movement is feminist writing. Labeling all women’s writing as feminist writing is not only misrepresentative but it also trivializes the work of millions of women who are actually writing for this cause.
Feminism is not a casual label. It is not just a form of activism but also a way of life – one that can be difficult, painful and overwhelming. It affects the choices you make and the things you forgo. It defines your attitudes to sex, marriage, relationships, your body, freedom, the streets, earning and money, love, other people, prostitutes, pornography, gay rights, hermaphrodites, cooking, cleaning, shopping, shoes, botox, beauty, the things you read, use and buy, the things you reject and the things you give your life to. Sometimes, it loses you friends. You can choose to disassociate yourself from it but for heaven’s sake, do not mislabel it, misrepresent it, or shrug it off as unnecessary. Just step into the streets, the halli, the real city out there. And you’ll know exactly why it is not.