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Through the Looking Glass

Re-defining Feminisms edited by Ranjana Harish and V Bharathi Harishankar;

BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW december 6, 200843and too little of the dialogic history of the modern political subject. The Hezbollahs demonstrate why it is necessary to unpack the phenomenon of so-called Islamic Re-sistance (likewise we have to revisit the early history of the Islamic Brotherhood in the 1950s in Egypt), and see for ourselves the concrete material processes at work. We shall then see that there is much to dis-cover and work on the scientific aspects of the current dynamics of resistance. We shall also recall in that event why Lenin had spoken of the weakest link in the imperialist chain when he was pointing out that some of the events congealed the conflagration that the imperialist order was causing, in his words, “the impending catastrophe and how to combat it”. If the history of the Roman Empire is incomplete without its other history, that of the Christians and Christianity, today’s empire’s history will also remain incomplete without the history of its other being written – the history of the Muslims today and Islam, particularly the emergence of the Muslim masses as the collective political actor. All these must be candidly discussed, and this is where we shall have to discard much of the body of thought known as post-war European Marxism, and inte-grate critical post-colonial political con-sciousness in the main framework of revo-lutionary theory. The post-colonial pre-dicament is everywhere in this world of globalisation – Europe, Asia, everywhere. Does it mean that contrary to what this book says I am arguing that national resistance is still the path? No, not in the old sense, for against the given dominance of the nation over classes and masses, we are witnessing today a surge for autonomy (a question completely ignored by this book). But in another sense, yes I indicate that: nation as the mark of autonomy against the empire, as the mark of the local. In this strange displacement of mean-ings we have the lead as to how to use old ideas in new contexts, how to discuss empire, the mystifying huge space strewn with pockets of emptiness within – the voidfrom which the subject makes its appearance.Email: rsamaddar@hotmail.comThrough the Looking GlassJyoti AtwalThe book carries four well thought out and meaningful sections. The sections on “re-design”, “re-think”, “re-view” and “re-mark”, survey some possibilities of multifacetedness of femi-nist activism and scholarship in India. The wide variety of themes range from discus-sion on “disability and feminism” to the “masculinity” in Christ; from women in Indian soap operas to Kamala Das’ poetry. This kind of work is a continuation of what the Indian feminist scholars have setout to do in the recent years. In 2004, the second edited volume on issues in con-temporary Indian feminism (Maitreyi Chaudhuri (ed),Feminism in India,Kali for Women, 2004, Delhi) contended that although historically “modernity” was mediated through colonialism for us, the Indian women did acquire an indigenous feminist consciousness different from the western one. They have been attempting to salvage the uniqueness of the Indian feminist practice.Disabled WomenInRe-defining Feminisms, in her thought-provoking essay on an under-researched theme – disability, Shilpa Das looks at how women with disabilities across the globe and India have been invisible in the disa-bility movement as well as the women’s movement. She builds a case for why per-sons with disability are not a homogene-ous group and how disabled men are sub-jected to “stare”, whereas disabled women were subjected to “gaze”. In both cases, disability is seen as a disaster to be “fixed” but there is a difference in the politics of their appearances and lifestyle. Sixty per cent of the total disabled females in India did not get married, compared to 40% of their male counterparts. The commoditisation of the idea of aes-thetic body through cosmetic surgeries has only helped to promote an “ideal” fe-male body. On the one hand, while this may have aided some disabled women medically, it has further marginalised most. Considered sexually inactive and non-reproductive, the disabled women have been denied education and repro-ductive health knowledge. Research has shown that their male counterparts were in a better negotiating position than them. This calls for establishing a new branch of Feminist Disability Studies. Civic Society InterventionThere are two essays on advocating the re-form of the legal and executive processes through civic movements. The essay by Ila Pathak on Ahmedabad Women’s Action group uncovers the insensitive method employed by the police, while recording the death of married women at their in-laws’ house. The Section 498-A, which books husband or his relatives for torture, was rarely invoked in any of these cases of death. The death of a woman in her in-law’s house was mostly registered as an “accidental death”, thereby shutting downpossibilities of anyfurther criminal investigation into the matter. Although limited to Gujarat, a research carried out here by a women’s action group showed that out of a total number of 1,652 such deaths, about 1,001 were registered as accidental deaths, caused mostly by kitchen fire. The women dying of these “accidental” deaths comprised a good number of low caste women as well. This challenged the myth that it is the up-per caste woman who suffers the most, whereas the lower caste woman was a lesser victim as she had choices due to her economic independence. Through strategic activism, this Gujarat-based women’s group with the permission of the director general of police sensitised the state police force on domestic violence and Re-defining Feminisms edited by Ranjana Harish and V Bharathi Harishankar;Rawat Publications, Jaipur, 2008; pp 278, $ 32 (hardcover).
BOOK REVIEWdecember 6, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly44registration of cases. Legal aid and coun-selling centres were also established to educate women on legal rights. Resultantly, the number of registration of unnatural deaths went up and several cases of domestic violence were reported and registered and action was taken.Contrary to this regional level success, Vibhuti Patel paints a regrettable picture of the post-Vishakha (1997 guideline) period.Vishakha guidelines which pro-posed to redefine Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) on “outraging women’s modesty”, was implemented with ex-tremely limited success in women’s work-place in India. The two models confirm that intervention of civil society move-ment is a must for ensuring success of any law against domestic violence and sexual harassment. Feminist Art and CultureThere are two contentious views on women writers/artists and feminism, one that in the post-feminism phase, we must understand the creativity of female artists on its own terms and complexity; the oth-er that there is a possibility of looking at women’s writing in terms of phases of feminist articulation (ie, submissive, pro-gressive, regressive and assertive). Javed Khan intervenes between the two positions. He revisits Kamala Das’ poem called the ‘The Looking Glass’, where she describes how a man-woman relationship is fash-ioned by a sexual encounter between the two, yet the two differ in their responses. The woman with her excessive sensitivity and emotion is rendered vulnerable and helpless. Man’s lack of a similar sensitivity makes the two unequal. It is, therefore, through her writing on the most intimate times between man and woman, that Das develops her discourse on feminism. The section on visual culture and thea-tre has essays on novel ways of looking at the constitution of “masculinity” and “feminity”. Esther David reinterprets Michelangelo’s 16th century work The Original Sin, where the Biblical satan has been portrayed as a female serpent. The serpent satan had been depicted as a male prior to this. This complements the nega-tive image of Eve in the Bible as a sinner responsible for the expulsion of Adam and herself from paradise. In a similar vein, Jean D’Souza looks at how Christ can be seen as androgynous. The church had adopted a strategy to rep-resent Christ as a “masculine” and as the son of god, whereas in his image as Jesus of Nazareth in canonical gospel as forgiv-ing and healing, is overtly a “feminine” one. These essays, although problematic in the application of terms such as “femi-nine” and “masculine”, convey a strong need for further research on theology and construction of gender. The essays by Mangai and Patel prob-lematise theatre and feminism. The parti-cipation of women in theatre and their performance as “womanly” characters does not simply ensure a feminist asser-tion. Theatre needs a feminist reorienta-tion. Some Indian women playwrights have effectively portrayed the “assertion” and “struggle” in their women characters. This is marked by recasting historical Sage

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