Saturday, February 23, 2013

Is Feminism Elegant?

When the status of women is uniformly sub-optimal, with exceptions of relatively few women in substantial control of their lives (mostly because they began from privileged vantage-points), one needs to examine the driving forces behind female empowerment with renewed scrutiny. This is not to simply criticize these forces, but rather, to ascertain whether there are inherent limitations and road-blocks built into these efforts, and if so, to re-frame and rectify. The larger purpose of such examination is therefore to arrive at better ways to meet the goal of having the “average woman,” whoever she may be, of whatever ethnicity, education and economic background, have a larger say in what direction she would like her life to go.

The attribute of ‘elegance’ is widely used by disciplines both in the so-called hard and soft sciences to describe their own principles and theories in terms of aesthetics. Elegance as an aesthetic criterion is not trivial, nor superficial, for theories can be summarily dismissed because they are “not elegant.” The physiologist Ian Glynn, who wrote an entire book on the aesthetics of theory, titled Elegance in Science: The Beauty of Simplicity, described elegance as follows, in an interview on Inside Higher Ed: “…elegant proofs or theories or experiments possess most or all of the following features: they are simple, ingenious, concise and persuasive; they often have an unexpected quality, and they are very satisfying….. Perhaps the most surprising member in this list of features is the "unexpected quality"; so let me give an example. When Thomas Henry Huxley read Darwin’s account of his theory of evolution by natural selection his comment was "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!"

What constitutes elegance in a theory? The hallmark of an elegant theory is one that explains the maximum evidence with minimum effort. Newton’s Laws of Motion, for example, explain a wealth of phenomena both on earth and extra-terrestrially by invoking a mere three laws. Good linguistic theories account for grammatical phenomena in all or most of the world’s known or studied languages. In addition, while doing so, they employ the fewest principles or rules. Elegant theories, in other words, have high explanatory power. However, while explaining, they must also be parsimonious. An elegant theory must therefore be compact, yet all-encompassing. Einstein is believed to have said: “The grand aim of all science…is to cover the greatest possible number of empirical facts by logical deductions from the smallest possible number of hypotheses or axioms…”

I have always found a major goal of the feminist movement, namely, the right of women to equal work and pay to be lacking in something fundamental. But defining what it is has been a challenge. Applying aesthetics of theory to feminist ideology is an attempt at unraveling my objections. Let’s consider parsimony and explanatory adequacy.

    In applying the concept of explanatory power to feminist theory, the goal of a good theory would be to have feminist principles that can be applied to the maximum number of members of the group the theory purports to represent. By the average person’s understanding of the term ‘feminism,’ it applies to all women. Therefore, major principles of feminism must aim to be applicable to all women. A useful yardstick is to check if the tenet would be useful to you, your mother and your grandmother, or you, your boss and your household help. If the principle is hard to apply to any one, it suffers from explanatory inadequacy. It has low explanatory power. This inadequacy may be a result of shoddy language, where imprecise terminology and wording exclude certain demographics, or it may be deep-rooted.

The education of women and the rights of women to equal access to gainful employment are worthy goals of the feminist movement. This is not a critique of those goals, but a critique of the value placed on them. It is well established that education and employment are strongly co-related with the preservation of personal freedoms. This applies equally to both men and women. Financial vulnerability is gender-neutral. The point is that while this gender-neutral mode of personal empowerment may improve the status of the individual (man or woman), it is inadequate in raising the overall status of ‘the beleaguered woman.’

    Gainful employment outside the home is portrayed and perceived as the prime modus operandi of female empowerment. Understandably, in a male-dominated world, where the locus of monetary power resides overwhelmingly in the hands of men, it is natural for parity measures to begin with the assumption that if women were equally prevalent and represented in the workforce as men are, there would be fewer gender-based inequities. This assumption may turn out to be accurate. We will only know when the numbers are equally distributed.

In the meantime, the beaten path to gender equality seems to be overwhelmingly focused on following men blindly down the path of monetarily compensated occupations. If having one’s own remuneration guarantees a woman a way to break free of many areas of subordination, (in a world where power, knowledge and money are so intrinsically related), what’s the problem with it?

Let’s look at it in terms of the criteria for theoretical adequacy. Any “good” method of improving the status of women should theoretically work for women of all socio-economic backgrounds, of all races, and for women from both developed and developing countries - much like how a good linguistic theory accounts for the data in all or most known languages. Gainful, remunerative employment would not apply to many of our mothers and most of our grandmothers. It would not apply to cultures that have mutually exclusive gender roles, where the woman assumes the entire burden of domestic tasks. Gainful employment is too specific to a certain section of women from a certain time-period. One could rectify this by proposing many different principles/methods of operation that applied to women of differing times and backgrounds. However, this would violate the requirement of parsimony. This does not mean that education and lucrative careers are invalid as pathways to empowerment; it indicates, rather, that instead of being a principle of empowerment, it should be viewed as one expression or one parameter of a higher inclusive principle. This higher, inclusive principle would apply to a larger cohort of women, thereby demonstrating greater explanatory power.

Whether an effort is viewed as stemming from a principle or a parameter is not just a matter of labeling and semantics. How something is perceived can and does have far-reaching consequences. If the presence of women in the workforce is perceived as the result of following a principle of empowerment (as opposed to a parameter), those who do not practice it, and do not enter the mainstream workforce are viewed as somehow not sipping from the cup of empowerment. They are viewed as ideologically indifferent to the general feminist agenda, or worse, ideologically underdeveloped! Ask any woman who has chosen to not work outside the home about subtle and sometimes blatant attitudes of superiority from the “working woman.”

    By solely viewing women’s work outside the home as gainful employment, we have gravely undermined the value of women’s work inside the home, and by extension, the value of the woman herself. If you’re a woman with a regular pay-cheque, think about whether you consider yourself slightly superior to a woman who chose to not have a traditional career. If your answer is ‘Yes,’ then you contribute, however subtly, to female oppression.

    So how do we revise our perception? We ought to view women’s work, domestic or otherwise, as having monetary value. More on this issue on another day and another essay. But, I'd like to end with the opening lines from Vivien Leone’s 1970 essay titled ‘Domestics.’

The day I suddenly found out I was a lawful domestic servant I was flat on my back in a hospital bed with 47 stitches in my face and a broken arm in traction, as a result of an auto accident from which my then-husband, the driver, emerged unmarked. A lawyer was telling us that in addition to my own massive suit, hubby would be able to sue for loss of services during my hospitalization and convalescence, although these services, on which a monetary value was being placed, had been performed free of charge throughout a decade of marriage.
That was when it hit me: when you do it for free, you’re a wife; when you do it for money, you’re a maid.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Response to the Backlash Against 'Slumdog Millionaire'

(This is an old piece of writing that I am re-posting on Cactus Chronicles:)

I saw the movie in November in a small theatre that usually screens only indie films, and I enjoyed it on many levels. Weeks later, when it had hit the mainstream theatres and everybody had an opinion on it, I was surprised that there was so much of negativity surrounding the movie. To me it was a film that was essentially about determination and a boy holding on to the hope of finding his love, in a setting of poverty and squalour.

My interest in this issue is on 2 levels: As an aspiring writer, it alarms me that there are artistic boundaries that cannot be crossed in peoples' opinions. Vikas Swarup evidently crossed those, and Danny Boyle and his crew skillfully gave us a collective imagination of those boundaries. 
Secondly, the fact that a movie can be so polarizing, makes me want to dig deeper into the reasons why. If we begin with the assumption that everybody is "against" poverty and the abuse of children, how then did some people thoroughly enjoy the movie (like I did), and some think it vile and an example of 'poverty pornography', a term vile in itself?

So for those of you who think that poverty was somehow exploited in the movie/book: Are you now going to decry all books in which the protagonist is in a deprived setting? A good number of classics will have to be pulled off the shelves. You can begin with Oliver Twist! 

You must also not watch crime scene dramas. They too are exploitative for the following reasons: They are not realistic in that not all murders are solved. There are a multitude of unsolved crimes, with murderers and rapists still at large. Families are still waiting for children, wives, husbands, brothers, daughters who will never return home. The entertainment industry capitalizes on social ills to come up with plots that captivate the average viewer looking for a rush of adrenalin while sitting on his couch. Lets call it Adrenalin-rush pornography!! So the next time your favourite Crime Scene Drama comes on, turn the TV off!

The same applies to Medical Dramas. There are enough uninsured people in the US, many of them children, to warrant the application of the same sentiments underlying the uproar against Slumdog. Medical dramas tend to paint a healthier picture of things, no pun intended. They don't always show the number of families who enter hospitals with their loved ones, but leave without them, due to incurable disease, or even negligence. They don't show the thousands of patients who can't afford the treatment they need. They only show what will fly in the name of entertainment. And if you have thought this through carefully, you should know that the Television Industry exploits! So the next time your favourite doctor flashes his/her smile on your television screen, switch to the History Channel. That's your safest bet!!

And if your idea of entertainment is to step away from reality, and only watch movies that portray an India that has been filmed on the hillsides of the Alps, where the streets have no beggars, (much less blinded or mutilated ones), that's fine - because that IS the purpose of entertainment - to get away from the grimness of reality for a few hours. But don't deny a film the power to entertain via realism. Or magical realism. 

Satyajit Ray was criticized by some for his style of realism and for "exporting poverty" to the west. If you are a part of that bitter bandwagon that thinks that realism panders to the tastes of the west, and that escapism and posturing a la Bollywood is the only Indian way of filmmaking, you are wrong. Just because Bollywood churns out more movies in numbers, their style isn't intrinsically authentic. It's time that realism too be recognized as an authentic style of (Indian) film-making, and that any deviation from the Bollywood formula not be looked upon as a way to just get "creative Global recognition" as suggested by Bollywood Bigwigs!

I think it is unfortunate that the name Slumdog has been received badly in India and by Indians abroad. A term coined by Simon Beaufoy, and an amalgam of underdog and slum, ironically, it has been lost on the citizens of the land of Sanskrit, known for its sandhis. That the residents of Dharavi and other slums are sensitive to the use of a word that is not in employment by the locals to refer to themselves, is understandable. But Slumdog Millionaire is not an expose on Dharavi, nor is it a documentary. It is fiction! And if writers, artists, directors are to work within boundaries that are so subjective, then that is equivalent to creative censorship.

What is it about poverty that makes a certain proportion of Indians want to shoot the messenger? Especially if he's white! I think what is most offensive about Slumdog Millionaire is not its employment of a setting of utter squalour, but the reaction of people to it. Who having spent any extended time in India can deny having seen not just beggars on the street, but sometimes blind or mutilated ones? I was happy that the film provided me with plausible answers to questions that have crossed my mind during some point in my life encountering a scarred beggar: Have they been maimed to garner extra sympathy and bring in more cash while begging? 

So instead of being outraged that the movie was set in a slum and showed the seamier side of India as a part of the plot, be outraged that such things exist!


Friday, February 8, 2013

The Problem With Women

Since the Dec 16th gang rape in New Delhi, there has been much commentary about the status of women in India. Many have pointed out that we are all witting and unwitting collaborators in perpetuating subtle and arrant practices of discrimination against women. From cultural ‘lakshman rekhas’ or boundaries that prevent or discourage women from participating actively in society, to social customs that dictate appropriate behaviours for women, especially in the areas of morality, sexuality, and dress code, there’s ample evidence that there are dual and separate standards for the two sexes. When the problem is everywhere, and all pervasive, as is the issue of women’s status in India, the solution must also be one that can be applied everywhere and in a pervasive manner. Top-down solutions are capable only of  ‘trickle-down’ effects, and not capable of larger brush-stroke changes. For a solution to bring about meaningful alterations within a single lifetime, it must begin with a broad base that is common to women of all ages, socio-economic, educational and ethnic backgrounds.

So how does one even begin to think about solutions to a problem that can be described as: Changing the perception that women can be violently abused and then discarded as trash – from a moving bus? While this description pertains to the specifics of one recent and well-publicized incident, the gist of it applies to a million more. The key elements are that women are abusable and then expendable. In its extreme form, the dispensability of women is nowhere more evident than in the practice of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. This is a crime in which women are equally culpable as men. When expendability is applied to adults, we see dowry deaths and bride/wife-burning. We see suicides by victims of rape, where the lack of recourse to justice and shame over the violation contribute to sending the woman down the path of complete self-destruction.  Manifestations of abuse are too varied in manner and severity to peg into a few categories, but the most prominent one, high on the severity scale is rape. It has proved to be so successful as a tool in acquiring control and power that it is now a much relied upon “weapon” of warfare in some parts of the world. Questions that have no simple answers are: Which type of rape is more dysfunctional – the one committed in isolation for no apparent tangible gain, or the ones committed as a part of a larger strategy to gain power? How are they different, and what do they have in common? On a moral level, they are both equally vile. On a social level, rapes that are not committed as a means to some larger end are perhaps more disturbing, and indicative of greater social dysfunction than the ones committed for obvious gain. What they both share in common, though, is the recognition by the perpetrators that women can be easily manipulated to work against themselves. Why else would victims of rape be subjected (by men and women) to so much shame and self-recrimination?

A paradigm shift in perception is required before any substantive changes can be observed in the position of the beleaguered women. This paradigm shift is not only about how men view women, but especially how women view themselves and other women.

A person’s identity is a complicated amalgam of associating oneself with many social groups and social roles. Social Identity Theory describes identity as the outcome of highlighting the similarities with members of the in-groups and exaggerating the differences with members of the out-groups. In trying to understand worldwide rape statistics, post-rape suicide, female foeticide/infanticide and non-violent manifestations of female oppression in the context of social identity, it is easy to see that women’s self-perception should be the logical starting-point of remediating efforts. Gender-identity should stem from meaningful differences between the sexes, and not be clouded by a blind quest for “equality.” Gender-identity should celebrate the unique characteristics, capabilities and limitations of the “weaker sex,” and not be defensive about women’s obvious conflicts of interest when motherhood and career overlap for her maximum attention. And lastly, gender-identity issues should be framed in neutral language that avoids connotations of otherness and exclusion. 

An elaboration in the next segment….