Monthly Archives: July 2013

50 billion shades of feminism 2

 The brutal gang-rape that took place on a bus in Delhi in December 2012 galvanized feminists both in India and around the world. Among them there were differing views on what this horrific incident meant and what should be done about it; but those differences did not stop women from taking united action. Rahila Gupta argues that if we keep our larger goals in sight, while also acknowledging that different contexts call for different political responses, the many shades of feminism can merge into one strong, vibrant colour*.  

It’s become fashionable, after the meteoric rise of that mediocre book, to refer to 50 shades of everything. When it’s applied to feminism, however, I worry that it underlines our divisions whilst appearing to celebrate our diversity. At the level of discussion, it’s important to tease out our differences; but at the level of action, we’re trying to build bridges and coalitions by keeping the bigger goals in sight.

Shades of opinion are not just about women squabbling among themselves about the best way forward, but about different contexts giving rise to different demands. With that in mind, I want to talk about the brutal gang rape on a bus of a 23 year-old woman who was left for dead in Delhi last December. Different shades of opinion emerged in the solidarity actions that took place in the UK, but they did not prevent a common platform of action.

A call to action

We at Southall Black Sisters decided to take action so that India, with all its aspirations to the status of world power, was shamed into doing something about sexual violence. We planned a demonstration outside the Indian High Commission. By 7 January, the day of the demonstration the story had come to dominate mainstream media coverage. There was widespread anger and a desire to do something from women of all backgrounds, because this rape came to epitomise the struggle against sexual violence everywhere. In our call to action, this is what we said:

Shocking as it is, this is only one of many acts of horrific sexual violence that take place everywhere and every day in India. The world’s largest democracy was named the worst country in the G20 countries for violence against women (after Saudi Arabia) in a recent survey. This is the heart of darkness in ‘India shining’. By drawing worldwide attention to this horror and showing our solidarity for Indian women, we hope to shame the Indian government into acting now to make public spaces safe for women, starting with implementing the laws and bringing the perpetrators to justice. However, we condemn the lynch mob mentality that is calling for capital punishment and castration in India today.

This case has opened up a much needed space to debate all forms of violence against women which we hope will be the first step towards bringing about a radical change in attitudes and culture. We condemn state condoned rapes by the army in places like Kashmir or the adivasi and dalit women raped by the upper castes or the rapes that are common in communal and religious violence. This case must not deflect attention from the sexual assault faced by women not only on the streets but in our homes as well. Violence against women is by no means an exclusively Indian phenomenon but a feature of women’s lives all over the world as we see in our day to day work.

The demo was hugely successful. In the course of three hours, over a thousand people turned up. The anger and disgust was palpable. In the media coverage and the public debates that took place around that time, several questions emerged which need to be considered so that we can maintain the momentum and influence the direction of the struggle.

Patriarchy, global and local

Why did this particular case attract the whole nation’s attention when we know that violence against women in India is endemic? People have said that it was middle class outrage, that an upwardly mobile lower middle-class woman was raped by men from the slums; others have said that rape in cities attracts more attention than the ongoing rape of dalit women in the countryside by landlords. All of this is true, but my view is that the sense of national shock came from the fact that this young woman could not be blamed for this horrific act in any shape or form (although some lone voices did try – like the religious leader who said that you cannot clap with one hand).  From a conservative point of view, she behaved in an exemplary fashion. She could not be criticised for being dressed provocatively or for being in a dangerous area late at night; in fact, she was accompanied by a male friend, the ultimate protection that we are all advised to undertake. And yet she was not safe.

I believe that this particular rape represents a kind of vigilante action by young men who want to reclaim public spaces. The end of the siege economy in the early 90s and the rapid and uneven economic transition that has taken place in cities like Delhi has created employment for educated, young women to work in call centres and transnational manufacturing zones.  These women are exposed to harassment and violence from men because public spaces have historically been seen as male spaces and men have found it particularly difficult to deal with the fact that an increasing number of women—armed with their own resources—want to share such spaces on equal terms.

Rapid, neo-liberal economic development has realigned the interface between the public and private domains and created starkly different communities with starkly different value systems – the new India shining, technologically advanced, leading the field in the new economies, and the old India driven by superstition, religion and conservatism. Although the two are not mutually exclusive, change has given rise to parallel, niche lives.  Women find themselves trapped in an explosive mix of traditional attitudes and new roles when overlapping economic and social systems – a feudal, agrarian economy and neo-liberal capitalism – come crashing into each other. These different Indias, living side by side, are like gated communities: they rarely interact, but when they do, the consequences can be dire.

It is this kind of analysis of the specific conditions in which violence against women thrives that will help us steer clear of the colonialist and racist media coverage which depicts Indian men as a particular breed, ‘Hyena-like’ and ‘murderous’.  Such racist media coverage of violence in black communities makes black feminists defensive. They point to the fact that rapes take place in police stations and military bases in Britain too. (True. But the scale is completely different, and in Britain there is some accountability with regard to police violence.)  In the media interviews that I did to publicise the demo, I steered a careful path, responding to suggestions that gang-rape might be a particularly nasty Indian phenomenon by pointing out that it takes place all over the world. Patriarchy is global, and sexual violence is one of its tools of control. But we need a more nuanced position.

Taking a position: beyond racism and relativism

It is not racist to acknowledge the scale of violence in India. A girl’s struggle for survival begins in the womb – it is estimated that between 30 to 70million women are missing. If she survives foeticide and infanticide, her life chances are likely to be destroyed by less education, less food, less freedom than her brothers. The honour of her family will rest on her head, religion will defend all this, she will submit to a lifetime of sexual and domestic slavery to a man not of her choosing, her value will be measured in gold and televisions and pots and pans, she may be tortured if she doesn’t bring enough gold with her, and her body will be available 24/7 to be trampled by men both known and unknown.

Many black women will respond to this by saying that we cannot talk about it being better or worse, it is simply different.  I don’t agree. We have to acknowledge the difference in scale and degree. If we don’t have standards of better or worse, then what are we campaigning for? How do we measure the changes that we have brought about, say in the last 30 years, in the struggle for women’s rights in the UK?  We have new legislation covering violence against women, forced marriage, FGM; we have greater sensitivity and awareness in social services, the health and educational sectors, and a better police response to domestic violence, even if there are serious lapses. These are differences of degree – but each difference in degree saves countless lives.

There are different shades of opinion, different ways of framing debates on violence against women, but the differences did not stop us taking joint action.

Reforming rape law in India and Britain: different contexts, different demands

I want to look at the differences in rape legislation in India and Britain, partly because reform of the law has been a major part of the feminist struggle against sexual violence and also because it highlights the issue of different demands and different solutions being appropriate to different contexts.  The laws of each country are very revealing of how patriarchy operates in that particular society.

In India, new categories of rape such as landlord rape, caste rape and custodial rape came into being in the 1980s—a development which explicitly recognised that class oppression and state power, expressed through sexual violence against women, needed to be curbed. Custodial rape deals with men in power, whether in a police station, remand home, hospital or other institution where they may come across vulnerable women and children (though military personnel are immune from criminal action in some states, particularly where rape is used to subjugate militant struggles against the state).  Not only is patriarchy differently situated in India, but this state of affairs can also be related to the fact that the anti-rape campaign was heavily influenced by the women’s wings of the established left parties. When the left first took it up, custodial rape was seen as a relatively ‘safe’ issue, as an instrument of class oppression rather than as an act of violence against women. However, progressive Indian feminists campaigned for and welcomed the category of custodial rape, which also included the ‘radical’ proposal that the burden of proof should fall on the accused, a complete reversal of the cherished ideal of civil liberties that underpins British law where you are innocent until proven guilty.

British law does not have a category of custodial rape, in part because rape in custodial settings is not as endemic. British feminists have also resisted the introduction of different categories of rape: the principle that all rape is serious is an important one to hold on to when some kinds of rape, such as ‘date’ rapes, are not seen as real rapes. However, the absence of a category has not prevented the victims of abuse by Jimmy Savile, for example, from suing institutions like Stoke Mandeville hospital or the BBC.

Marital rape is not recognized in Indian law except in cases where the wife is aged under 15. Nor is the rape of prostitutes recognized. This suggests that the notion of consent is weakened by the conservative view that marriage or prostitution is a contractual arrangement for the continuous and non-contestable availability of a woman’s body. In England, marital rape has been recognised since 1991. This suggests a more nuanced approach to the idea of consent, though in practice, the issue remains hugely problematic—muddied by alcohol or drugs or in the process of establishing whether the man had a reasonable belief that consent was given.

What the law on rape in India tells us about patriarchy there is that rape is seen as a ‘societal’ or ‘communal’ horror:  what is emphasized is the threat it poses to the honour of the family, the community or the caste rather than the ‘personal’ horror of violation or the breach of women’s human rights. Recognising marital rape would undermine the honour of the family from within, a breach too far perhaps for conservative Indians. The new anti-rape law, passed in March, has confirmed the status quo: marital rape is still exempt despite demands for its recognition from the Indian women’s movement. The death penalty has been introduced in ‘aggravated rape’ cases. The military’s immunity from prosecution has not been revoked. However, there were other more regressive measures in the Bill which were not passed, partly because of successful campaigning by organisations like the All-India Progressive Women’s Association.

Among the demands of the women’s movement which were met are a broader definition of rape; the recognition that acid attacks, forcibly stripping a woman in public or private, stalking and voyeurism are sexual crimes; the punishment of police officers for not registering complaints of rape; the recognition that in rape cases the accused is ‘gender specific’ (because women do not rape men and the sexual abuse of children by women is covered by other legislation); and a redefinition of rape so that a woman who does not physically resist the act of penetration, will no longer, for that reason alone, be regarded as consenting to sexual activity. The two finger medical test to check if the victim is ‘habituated to sex’ (a second rape) has also been banned.

One strong, vibrant colour

As South Asian women based in Britain, we do not know the facts on the ground. Our job was/is to express solidarity with the struggle of Indian women to live free from violence. We also kept up the momentum by bringing the issues home. So we marched through the snow in Southall, fired up by the enthusiasm of the women who use our centre, who put body and soul into organising the march, leading it, devising slogans, singing songs, playing drums, distributing leaflets to the curious bystanders, heckling local councillors who spoke at the rally and brimming over with stories of harassment in buses and trains – on top of the violence they faced in their homes.

We recognise the continuum of violence; the larger the number of women who stand against it, the greater the likelihood of change. In that unity, the 50 billion shades of feminism merge into one strong, vibrant colour.

* This article is an edited version of a talk given at the ‘Writing on the Wall’ festival in Liverpool in May 2013.   See also talk given by Liz Kelly at the same event:



Celebrity and its discontents

A few weeks ago we were all talking about Angelina Jolie’s prophylactic double mastectomy; more recently we’ve turned our attention to Nigella Lawson’s relationship with Charles Saatchi, after he was photographed with his hands around her neck. Feminists have been active in these discussions, sharing opinions on Facebook and Twitter, airing them in newspaper columns and participating in debates on radio and TV. Some of them have used the opportunity to make good points about women’s health or domestic violence. But even when I agree with what’s being said, I still have mixed feelings about this kind of conversation—the public debate which is prompted by, and revolves around, the personal problems of a female celebrity.

For a start, it feels intrusive, especially when the woman whose experience is at issue hasn’t chosen to make an issue of it herself. In this respect, there’s a difference between Angelina Jolie and Nigella Lawson. Jolie made the choice to go public about her surgery, and she evidently wanted it to prompt debate (though it might be argued that she didn’t have a completely free choice: if she hadn’t released the information herself, it’s a fair bet the media would eventually have got hold of it anyway). Lawson, on the other hand, did not choose to be involved in the incident which was caught on camera, and the fact that she made no public comment on it suggests she’d have preferred it if the story had not become a media sensation.

There’s a dilemma here for feminists. For us it’s axiomatic that ‘the personal is political’, and we’ve always resisted the once-commonplace view (apparently still shared by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg) that domestic violence should be treated as a private matter. At the same time, feminists who work with women affected by domestic violence have been committed to supporting them in making their own decisions. In the case of Nigella Lawson I’m not sure we’re living up to that commitment. Though the media coverage has been generally sympathetic, the fact remains that her life is being picked over by all kinds of people who do not know her and have no idea what she feels. In her place, I think I would regard that as a second public humiliation.

When I’ve made this point, though, I’ve quite often been met with a response along the lines of ‘lie down with dogs, get up with fleas’. If you’ve made yourself famous by courting media attention, you can’t really complain when the attention is unwelcome. For people who make this argument—essentially, that celebrities are fair game—the relationship is one of mutual exploitation; both parties have chosen to play the game, and both must abide by its rules.

But there’s a third party in this relationship: the public whose appetite for celebrity news and gossip keeps the hacks and the paparazzi in business. That’s the other thing that has bothered me about the discussions of the past few weeks. Are feminists critical of the values of celebrity culture, or do we share the popular fascination with it? How far does our own practice reproduce the treatment of celebrities as, on one hand, ‘fair game’, and on the other, exemplary figures whose actions and words deserve a special kind of attention?

I’m sure all the feminists I know would maintain that what happens to Angelina Jolie or Nigella Lawson is neither more nor less important than what happens to any other woman. They would deny that they are interested in celebrities simply because they are famous: the point is rather that because they are famous, stories about them have a high media profile, and that gives feminists a golden opportunity to raise awareness about issues that also affect millions of ‘ordinary’ women. Along those lines, it has been reported that the publicity given to the Lawson/Saatchi incident prompted a massive increase in calls to organizations offering support for women experiencing domestic violence.

But the power of celebrity is a double-edged sword. It’s not just events in the lives of the famous that can set an agenda for political discussion, but also their opinions on the issues of the moment. Last week, for instance, the tennis player Serena Williams was reported to have criticized the severity of the sentence given to the football players involved in the Steubenville rape case: the victim, she said, had been drinking, and so was equally to blame for what had happened. Was this a golden opportunity for feminists to raise public awareness by confronting the rape-myths Williams was recycling? Or would it have been better to not to have dignified her comments with a response? Do we have to go along with the presumption that if someone is famous for anything, then it matters what they think about everything?

If we rejected that presumption, though, we’d logically have to do so not only when celebrities express opinions we disagree with, but also when they endorse our beliefs and support our political causes. Angelina Jolie was in the news last week too, talking about the plight of refugees from the conflict in Syria. Jolie, a UN ambassador, is widely respected for the seriousness with which she takes her philanthropic commitments, and the sentiments she expresses are generally ‘progressive’. Yet it’s still the case that her views get global attention not because of what she knows or what she’s personally experienced, but because she’s an A-list Hollywood star.

That is not to suggest Jolie has nothing of value to say: her example illustrates that women who are famous as actors, singers, supermodels or athletes may also be knowledgeable about political issues and genuinely committed to certain causes. Many feminist campaigns and women’s charities are supported by celebrities, and I know their involvement can make a difference. But without wanting to criticize the women concerned, my feelings about this remain mixed.

In advertising, where celebrity endorsement is a long-established strategy, the basic idea is that people’s consumer preferences can be influenced by the preferences of individuals they admire: they will want buy the products recommended by their favourite stars. This principle has increasingly been extended to charitable and political causes too. Which is fine if what you’re doing is basically fundraising: to the Syrian refugee who desperately needs a tent, it is a matter of indifference whether the people who donate money are principled humanitarians or just fans of Angelina Jolie. But if your aim is to build a political movement, people’s motives and convictions matter more.

For feminists there’s another problem with the use of celebrities as figureheads or spokespeople. One of the goals of feminism as a radical political movement is to give a voice to ordinary women, and to insist on the importance of their experiences. Celebrities command attention precisely because they’re not seen as ordinary. True, an incident like the one involving Nigella Lawson makes clear that they are not exempt from all the problems faced by other women; but we might still feel uneasy about the idea that it will be easier for people to relate to an issue, or that they’ll care about it more, if it’s personified by someone they think of as ‘special’.

It could be argued that the same celebrity ‘dazzle factor’ which has had a positive effect in Nigella Lawson’s case, promoting increased interest in and empathy with women’s experiences of domestic violence, also played a much more negative part in the celebrity abuse scandals which have recently come to light in Britain. The perceived ‘specialness’ of someone like Jimmy Savile was one reason why some of his victims felt unable to complain, why people who did have their suspicions either suppressed them or were not taken seriously, and why the police and other authorities preferred not to probe too deeply. Yet it could also be argued that without the media’s interest in celebrity, these cases would never have been pursued, the perpetrators would never have been exposed, and the victims would not have received any kind of recognition or compensation.

I am back to where I started—pondering my own mixed feelings about celebrity culture and the way we as feminists engage with it. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t engage at all. If we want feminism to have any impact, we can’t just refuse to get involved in the conversations everyone else is having. Commenting on celebrity news stories may be a good way to get our voices heard on important feminist issues. But isn’t the cultural obsession with celebrities an issue for feminists too?