This post has been gestating for a long time now.
When I started this blog, its primary aim was to be reflexive about my fieldwork experience, and to try and organise my thoughts for the eventual thesis. Of course, another significant aim – as such of any writing on a public platform – was to inform people, both peers and otherwise, about certain realities I’ve witnessed and engaged in with my work in Dharavi.
But I also think there is a larger issue at stake here. I’ve always maintained that anthropologists should make principled and political stances as and when we can, or are required to. Indeed the history of our discipline is replete with such examples.
And, as an anthropologist engaged in researching violence against women, this post is my polemic against a particular set of ideas which, if not entirely inimical to the women’s movements, is certainly involved in misrepresenting it, and the larger structural issues of gendered violence.
In order to be up-to-date on recent events on gender-based and domestic violence in India, I have Google Alerts for the terms ‘gender-based violence, India,’ ‘domestic violence, India,’ and ‘Section 498A, India.’
Over the last few weeks there are broadly two kinds of news items that I’ve been noticing in my inbox. First, the ongoing case of Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Somnath Bharti, who is accused of domestic violence and cruelty by his wife (to which I will return later in this post); and second, the burgeoning demand by men’s rights activists (MRAs) to make certain laws that deal with cases of domestic violence and abuse more ‘gender neutral.’ These men, often falsely accused in cruelty cases by wives – who ostensibly want to see their husbands behind bars, along with monetary settlements, and even child custody – are crying out loud against a form of gender injustice that no one is talking about.
Pro-women and feminist organisations, obviously, are bad guys women here. Not only do these organisations maliciously embolden women to file false cases against their husbands (as a dystopian kind of feminist empowerment, I would suppose), they categorically refuse to help men when they’re victims of domestic abuse and violence.
To be fair, these men’s rights activists (who also want to save the ‘family’ and ‘children’) confirm an important sociological fact about how hegemonic notions of masculinity in patriarchies affect men. But their claims and politics are also bewildering.
In this post and the next, I will dissect some of these arguments in the context of the larger structural violence that I have encountered during my fieldwork in Dharavi, and argue that the MRA discourse has more to do with a sense of (male) privilege and entitlement – and how this is hurt – rather than any dystopian feminist agenda. The very selective readings of what constitutes as ‘violence’ (and thus, what is excluded and decoupled from it) partly explains the proliferation of such discourses.
The Somnath Bharti case, while ‘exceptional’ in its own regard (with the news coverage it is getting), offers pertinent insights in understanding the inherently masculinist logic of MRA polemics against ‘misuse of laws’ – and the larger, systemic systems of power it that it still partakes in.
One of the most glaring oversights in such discussions is that they do not sufficiently reflect on the relation between social vulnerability, on the one hand, and on the other, social and structural violence – and that such violence is enacted on deeply gendered lines.
That most MRA discussions in the Indian context tend to heavily focus on domestic violence laws (or rather, its abuse by women) is telling for two reasons: First of all, speaking only of domestic violence, in the contexts of misuse of laws, effectively decouples domestic abuse from the larger structural violences, within which gender-based violence and violence against women and children are situated (ironically, they tend to use the figure of children as a discursive tool – more on that later). What this does is – and this is the second point – it effectively lets these men off the hook, whilst retaining their positions of power in the larger patriarchal moral-political economy. Where these arguments emanate from is then actually a position of hurt privileges, rather than a concern with gender justice or transformation.
Of course, these men – and more importantly, their sympathisers – do not ‘support’ crimes against women (as some comments have said). They merely want the laws to be gender-neutral, which is concerned with insulating themselves and their privileges.
From a position at the ‘front-line of gender-based violence,’ however, such a decoupling of domestic violence and other forms of violence against women, and the demand for ‘gender-neutral laws’ is very, very problematic. And this is for the very simple reason that there is a very close relationship between gender differences and structures of gendered violence.
For many of the community organisers I worked with, ‘gender’ in itself was not a neutral category. It implies difference – a kind of difference that starts from the moment a girl child is the foetus – peth se hi hinsa shuru hoti hain, as one of them had explained. She’s subject to violence since the moment she is conceived. For these women, talking about gender (in advocacy sessions) is talking about the asamanta (inequality) between men and women.
Thus, the very act of making laws gender-neutral – as many MRAs claim – is highly problematic, because gender as a system of difference and inequity (which is how I interpret my colleagues’ ideas) itself engenders certain forms of violence.
Another tangential example would, of course, be the very constitution of the category of ‘men’ itself, in men’s rights activism. Yes, they do at times talk about sexual abuse of men and boys – issues raised by feminists, as well (and which also attests to the gendered nature of sexual violence) – but often, they (re)instate the figure of the usually upper-caste, middle-class heterosexual male as the victim. This makes MRA discourse deeply ironic as well, because while many of their concerns reflect how notions of hegemonic masculinity affect the wellbeing of men, they themselves are engaged in constructing another form of hegemonic masculinity (along the lines of class, caste and sexuality).
I am not saying that this renders their arguments futile (which it partly does, especially for the plethora of Facebook MRAs; or websites like 498a.in), but makes one deeply suspect their politics – which is one of entitlement masquerading as hurt (as I describe them).
In the next post, I will respond to some specific cases/arguments of MRA discourse on domestic violence, and argue how such selective readings tend to reduce the complexity and pervasiveness of violence against women.
You can read the next post here.