Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Female Foeticides and Limitations of Feminism: Can MEN’S LIB Provide THE ANSWER?


                    AN INDIA INDEPENDENCE DAY SPECIAL ARTICLE

When the 2001 Census brought to the fore the horrifying fact of depleting sex ratio due to the large scale female foeticide and infanticide in the country, one could not but reflect upon and get disturbed at the civilizational collapse that it depicted. Since then more than a decade has passed and the 2011 census has only reinforced the depleting sex-ratio due to the continued inhuman practice of female foeticide and infanticide. As per the provisional data of the Census 2011 released last year, the total sex ratio in India is 940 per 1000 males and the child sex ratio (children in the age group of 0-6) is 914 girl children per every 1000 boy children. Though, statistically, the overall female sex ratio has increased by 0.75 % in the Census 2011 as compared to the previous Census of 2001, an analysis at micro levels has shown trends which are quite disturbing.

While traditionally the so-called ‘women-hating’ badlands of the North India like Haryana (877 girl children per every 1000 boy children), the national capital of Delhi (866: 1000), Chandigarh (818: 1000), Punjab (893) have been in the forefront of this reverse sex-ratio trend, the problem seems to have become all the more alarming if the child sex ratio  is seen closely which is faring even worse not only in these states of the North, but also in the ‘women-friendly’ states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu. During this one decade, while the child sex-ratio has fallen down sharply in states like Punjab (from 961: 1000 to 846: 1000) and Haryana (from 954 to 830), the states like Kerala (from 965 to 959) and Tamil Nadu (from 959 to 946) have also shown a downward trend with some of the districts of these states showing much lesser average than the state average. The situation becomes all the more horrible when we are told that the trend is far stronger in urban rather than rural areas, and among the literates rather than the illiterates. In this light, the disturbing trend of Kerala with its highest literacy rate in the country can be cited. Underlining this, a Times of India report stated:

Kerala's unique sex ratio - 52% females to 48% males - is under threat from an 'invisible' quarter: the state's increasingly skewed child sex ratio. In both the 2001 and 2011 census, there has been a significant decrease in the number of girls compared to boys in the 0-6 age category. State health department statistics reveal that the child sex ratio has fallen in nine out of 14 districts in the past ten years. While the average number of girl children (the child sex ratio is calculated per 1,000 boys) in the state decreased from 963 to 959, it is the disparate district-wise figures that are troubling.

(Where have Kerala's 'missing' girl children gone? http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-03-19/thiruvananthapuram/31209985_1_female-foeticide-girl-child-ratio)

This report only re-emphasised what an Economic and Political Weekly commentary had underlined following the 2001 census. (Adverse Juvenile Sex Ratio in Kerala http://www.epw.in/commentary/adverse-juvenile-sex-ratio-kerala.html). In fact, at the national level, child sex-ratio has been decreasing in every census (from 983 in 1951 to 914 in 2011), the period during which literacy rate has increased from nearly 15% to 74%. The depleting child sex-ratio is of greater concern because it is generally believed that if a girl child can survive till the age of six or so, her chances of surviving are much brighter. Hence infanticide, which is many a time prolicide/filicide, seems to be becoming a bigger monster making murderers out of the so-called parents and guardians. The smugness with which we have come to accept that spread of education and economic growth can correct gender bias becomes all too evident here.

Men’s Lib, an ‘offspring’ of Feminism
The ‘obsession for son’ as sanctified by the Hindu faith as well as deeply entrenched socio-cultural customs permeating other faiths and girl child as a financial liability due to age-old custom of dowry prevalent in all religious-social communities in one form or the other are the twin reasons that bring out the devil in our societal attitude as expressed through female foeticide and infanticide. The hypocrisy in gender bias becomes all the more poignant when we find that despite these ground realities, the idea of women as ‘powerful’—embodiment of Shakti—is very much a part and parcel of  our patriarchal culture consecrated through religion.

What is most distressing is that the alarming imbalance in sex-ratio and pronounced social preference for son have stuck their roots despite the overall ambience of civil rights, gender equality, feminist ideas, wide-ranging constitutional reforms  under which the educated and the progressive in India have been apparently brought up in the post-independence era. The question that rankles one is that has the women’s liberation movement in the country failed to dent this deep-rooted gender prejudice that envelops our social psyche? Or has everything been left into the domain of the feminists, the women fighting for equal and dignified status for themselves in the society, making men passive partner in the longing for this change? One may ask that considering the deepness of this societal attitude, is the movement for women’s liberation enough or something called the Men’s Liberation Movement (Men’s Lib, for short) as its natural ‘offspring’ too should come into play to correct the gender bias?

Men’s Lib was perhaps first propounded by the American psychologist Joseph Pleck in the 1970s in the USA. Its basic premise is that while woman needs to be liberated from the clutches of man and his chauvinistic ideas, man as a social being also needs to be liberated from the gender prejudices that he has not built as an individual being but which have been handed down to him as something given, as some kind of universal and realised truth. Men’s Lib, as a lateral extension of the feminist movement, has had its chequered history as an academic debate in the western social and intellectual discourses and it may be interesting to look at it from the Indian perspective to underline the possibility of saving man from his ill-conceived notions of manhood with its deeply disturbing socio-political and cultural connotations.

It is also a more serious and more introspective response of men to the gender issues and to Feminism as an ‘ism’ in itself, as it tries to negotiate with the doubts expressed by male-feminists like Stephen Heath who believed that men entering into the discourses of feminism 'may be tempted to colonize it'. As Prof. Wes Chapman, Associate Professor of English, Illinois Wesleyan University quotes Heath’s following words from the latter’s work ‘Male Feminism’:

the point after all is that this a matter for women, that it is their voices and actions that must determine the change and redefinition. . . . Women are the subjects of feminism, its initiators, its makers, its force . . . Men are the objects, . . . agents of the structure to be transformed, . . . carriers of the patriarchal mode; and my desire to be a subject there too in feminism--to be a feminist--is then only the last feint in the long history of their colonization.
The idea that manhood somehow depends
on the subjugation of other people has hurt men too
(Why I Am (Not) a Feminist, Wes Chapman, http://sun.iwu.edu/~wchapman/whyfem.html)

It is a kind of realisation that a mere adoption of a patronizing tone towards women’s issues on the part of men may not take the cause of man-woman relationship much further and that a more concrete and more self-analytical response about the particular male attitudes to women is called for. The idea that manhood somehow depends on the subjugation of other people has hurt men too as the idea trains them consciously as well as unconsciously to oppress, to take upon themselves a hollow superiority complex and in turn to become brutal. Men’s Lib underlines that it is this skewed male gender role inflicted upon the men as they grow up that stifles their development as a ’wholesome’ human being.

Hence societal attitude towards man and woman seems to damage the male of the species even more fatally as this damage is neither recognized by the society nor by the individual, whereas in the case of women, the prejudiced societal attitude towards them is recognized, most certainly in theory and many a time in practice, by the society as well as the individual. As a result, while the talk of women getting liberated from male chauvinistic ideas gains currency, as it is understood because it is obvious, the mention of men themselves being in need of such liberation has the propensity to be received on a plane contrary. One may say that it is an inverted ‘White Man’s Burden’, where the White Man, as a symbol of everything dominant, needs to get off his self-imposed burden ironically treasured by him as his whiteness. Thus Men’s Lib seeks ways to liberate and disencumber man from his self-proclaimed burdens.

Steve Biddulph, an influential Australian author of books such as Secret of Happy Children, Raising Boys, and The New Manhood, activist, psychologist and one of the most eminent philosophers of the Men’s Lib, has been very emphatically able to underline how boys can be ‘trained during the first two decades’ of their life to develop into ‘mature and loving men’, while also stating ‘that this process frequently does not take place’. In his article, ‘How We Turn Boys Into Creeps’, Biddulph states

         Many men feel themselves, secretly, to be creeps; but only because they have been trapped in the inequality of      
         gender relationships. Relating to others as human beings, on equal terms, entails the risk of rejection, the need for     
         negotiation, all the incipient vulnerabilities of love. For a person who feels themself (sic) to be inferior or repulsive,
        this kind of intimacy is just too risky. The men who leer and wolf-whistle from building sites, for example, only ever
        do so from the safety of a group. (And gang rape is an extension of this pattern). One-to-one, these men lose all
        confidence -- especially around an attractive or capable woman.
Steve Biddulph

Further down in the article, Biddulph suggests “a men’s movement/women’s movement alliance” so that society as a whole can come upto comprehensive solutions to gender bias as expressed in our daily lives, representations in the media etc.                                                                                                                                      (http://www.manhood.com.au/manhood.nsf)

The socialization process of a boy getting groomed to become a man, thus, needs a paradigm shift. And more than learning new ways, the paradigm shift involves unlearning of centuries old prejudices and hollow gender elitism to overcome male anxiety of fitting in a particular social mould is quite akin to the feminist movement that empowers women to overcome the female anxiety to overcome prescribed gender roles. Hence it looks at the possibility of an alliance between men’s movement and women’s movement for a broader sensitizing of man-woman relationship.

The premises of Men’s Lib also take some burden off the feminists who invariably took upon themselves the twin responsibility of walking together with men as well as reforming them, thereby granting men the role of a reactionary in the whole process. In fact, if one tries to look at the some of the earlier feminist writings, one realises that the feminists envisaged an equal role for men as a way to convince them of the intentions and benefits of feminism for them. But in practice it has resulted in dragging the men along without really looking at the socio-psychological anxieties and expectations that make up their persona. For example, we find that writing in the Sunday edition of The Washington Post (June 7, 1970, the ‘International Year of Woman’), Gloria Steinem, freelance contributor to The New York Magazine stated in her article “‘Women’s Liberation’ Aims to Free Men, Too” and exhorted that the feminists “want to liberate men from… inhuman roles as well…and women’s liberation is Men’s Liberation too,” because the feminists would like to share the work of men and expect them to reciprocate.
(Gloria Steinem’s quotation taken from ‘Documents from the Women’s Liberation Movement: An On-line Archival Collection, Special Collections Library, Duke University)
Looking for an alliance between women’s lib and men’s lib

Perhaps this aspect, the aspect of Men’s Lib, would have to be primarily negotiated by men themselves with the female of the species playing the much needed supportive role. The alliance between women’s lib and men’s lib would then have to be bridged by male-feminists on the one hand and female-men’s lib advocates on the other. The possibilities of the latter brand would need to be worked out from the original feminist ideas with certain modifications thereby expanding the limiting scope of feminism as we understand it today. Thus, Men’s Lib, by insisting on not turning our boys into arrogant and foetus-killing sons and sons-in-law through a process of unlearning, can take upon itself a more positive role in supplementing the effort to achieve man-woman equality so that men are not left repeating the Wordsworthian lament “What Man has made of Man.”

Complexities of Men’s Lib in India and Dalit/Minorities/Tribal Discourses
However, in the Indian context the basic premises of Men’s Lib need to be scrutinised.  It is so because any movement worth its name must negotiate with the socio-political and cultural realities of its context. The biggest scepticism that Man’s Lib movement in India would have to suffer may come in the form of the enquiries from the margins through Dalit/Minorities/Tribal discourses. The male of the species of these communities to begin with (not bringing in women of the marginalised communities at this stage whose concerns we will handle in the following paras), cannot but be justifiably concerned about the ways to handle the stereotyping and negative image-making of the people by the dominant/forward/majority classes. These stereotypes since time immemorial create a different kind of complexity and anxiety, which may be divergent from the male of a dominant class. One may presume that a Dalit male would rather resist, revolt and assert his individual as well as community identity, rather than be obsessed with the anxiety to not fit in any prescribed gender role.

The genre of autobiography or autobiographical fiction that has been so effectively used by the writers from the marginalised communities to graphically narrate the inhuman practices, customs and brutalising that they have suffered since generations may not be in conformity with the kind of brutalising of male psyche that the Western psychologists as mentioned above may have in consideration. It is so, because the brutalising of the male psyche in the first case makes men feel inferior and inward looking, in the second case we are thinking of the misplaced superiority complex with which men grow up. In order to understand this, a small passage from the Dalit writer Mohandas Namishray’s autobiographical Hindi work Apne Apne Pinjarey (which may be roughly translated as ‘Our Own Isolated Cages’):

We had been slaves since generations. The moment a mother bore a child, its caste would get  imprinted on its forehead. It would be instantly made to realise its caste…Every now and then they  would call us Chamatte and women as Chamatties. When they talked with each other they would contemptuously refer to us as that Chamatta, O Chamaari, What the hell you Chamaar!
                                          (my translation of a passage on p. 17 of the book published by Vaani Prakashan, New Delhi, 1995)   

Instances of such name-calling and brutalising and far worse are more a rule and reality of life than being exceptions among the Dalit community which many other such autobiographies written across the country have been able to bring to the mainstream from the confines of the society’s best kept secrets. Hence the premises of Men’s Lib may appear to be at the odds with what the Dalits and other such marginalised communities have to experience.
Having said this, it may be instructive to quote the following para and then come to its context in order to explore as well as underline the feasibility and the possibilities of Men’s Lib in the context of the experience of the marginalised communities:

My husband was highly educated, a writer and a well- placed officer of the Government of India. He received a plaque and also pension for being a freedom fighter. But my husband never respected me, rather due to daily physical fights and abuses, I was compelled to leave the house and move court. I spent forty years in that house. During the wrecked days of my life after leaving the house, my daughter Sujata supported me. While staying with my daughter, I could summon moral courage and resources to write…   
                                                                                                                                         (my translation)
The above para has been quoted by Mohandas Nemashray from a Dalit Woman’s autobiography in his article published on anaytha.com, which is a painful narrative of the multiple colonialism that a dalit woman has to negotiate—of the upper caste male, upper caste female and dalit men, to specify a few. Dalit discourse has justifiably found a connect with the Black movement of the USA, and it may be proper to quote a para from one of the earliest writings of one of the Black feminists, Mary Ann Weathers. In an article titled ‘An Argument For Black Women’s Liberation As a Revolutionary Force originally published in No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation, Cambridge, Mass: Cell No 16,Vol.1, no. 2 (Feb 1969), she wrote what may be termed as very enlightening in the context of man-woman liberation movements with race, and one should add in Indian context, caste, minorities and tribes being the crucial denominator:

Black women, at least the Black women I have come in contact with in the movement have been expounding all their energies in ‘liberating’ Black men (if you yourself are not free, how can you ‘liberate some one else?) Consequently, the movement has practically come to a standstill…We have found that Women’s Liberation is an extremely emotional issue, as well as an explosive one. Black men are still parroting the master’s prattle about male superiority…It is really disgusting to hear Black women talk about giving Black men their manhood---or allowing them to get it. This is degrading to other Black women and thoroughly insulting to Black men (or at least it should be). How can someone ‘give’ one something as personal as one’s adulthood? That’s precisely like asking the beast for your freedom. We also chew the fat about standing behind our men. This forces me to question: Are we women or leaning posts and props? It sounds as if we are saying if we come out from behind him, he’ll fall down. To me, these are clearly maternal statements and should be closely examined.

(Quotation taken from ‘Documents from the Women’s Liberation Movement: An On-line Archival Collection, Special Collections Library, Duke University)
Feminism within the parameters of Dalit Discourse can
explore possibilities of Men's Lib too (above a photo of Tamil Dalit writer Bama)

Thus, Men’s Lib, with its emphasis on freeing men from the illusions of superiority and fixed notions about gender roles, seems to be as valid and compulsory necessity among the marginalised communities as it might be for those holding on to the centre of the things. The crucial question that it raises is that the individual man and woman have to take more responsibility in raising children, and more particularly their sons, which a socio-political movement may not be ready to accede to them as well recognise because of its own immediate necessities to assert community identities. May be some beginning, some balancing can be thought about because ultimately all socio-political assertions should end up giving power to decide and take decisions to individuals.  

This is a revised, updated, and much expanded version of my article ‘Liberating’ the Men published in Media Spectrum, January 2008, under its ‘Opinion’ column. The last section on Men’s Lib vis-à-vis the marginalised community has been the new addition.