Clothing and its Discontents

(Hi, I am Atreyee, a Blank Noise member for over a decade and a loyal associate of General Patheja. Other than watching the expansion of Blank Noise with great joy, I have long debates with Jasmeen on all things related to gender and its socio-political implications. I tweet at @milagrenia. Thanks!)

I watched the Qandeel Baloch murder on the internet – first in anger, then in confusion, then in surprise. A young girl’s heinous death at the hands of her brother turned into an internet festival, not dissimilar from the Nirbhaya rape of December 16, 2012 in Munirka, Delhi. The feminine personalities at hand are entirely different. Nirbhaya was trying to get an education and eke out a living as a medical professional in Delhi. She carried the respectable expectations of her middle-class family. Except one day she took a bus at night. Qandeel craved fame and power. Un-respectable things for women to crave, even strive for. She took to the internet and an active use of her sexuality in order to generate fame and finagle a ticket to the world of celebrity. This was not alright for someone of her socio-economic strata to do, someone who had been married young and was the mother of a child. It is women like her that are supposed to become beneficiaries of upliftment programs, companies’ affirmative action programs, NGO-fodder for ‘violence against women’. Always the passive recipient of care – one whose destiny is determined by others. Qandeel rejected that image. In ways that struck many custodians of societal morality as ‘vulgar’. What kind of a feminist was Qandeel? My friend Sarover wrote on Facebook,
the relationship between feminism and sexuality is a complicated one.
if complicit to patriarchy it is oppressive,& sometimes if explicit, still continues to be complicit to patriarchy.even when we choose the liberator discourse we land up in the other jail set up for feminine, namely the exploitative gaze.i wonder if there is a way out. the same conditions do not hold for men. liberation does not depend on displaying the libido or hiding it. male space as much more an agnostic space of being, body and becoming. but our history is tainted with honor killings, mutilation, abuse and extreme conditions of oppression and exploitation. so the testament continues, the near irrational imbalance of liberatory celebratory sexuality as commodity, on one hand and the vile, vicious and violence of the everyday forms of patriarchy on the other.”

Sarover is right, in a way. And she is definitely a fire-breathing feminist. Let us examine Sarover’s argument quite carefully – she is saying, that the ability or intention to display libido should not be considered a measure of feminism. It is not. I agree with Sarover, especially in her critique of the western triumphalist in challenging and showing as un-modern, the social fabric of the Other. My only addendum there would be that women’s bodies are necessarily interpreted through the rubric of male desire and male anxiety about male desire. It has been said in feminist discourse, enough times, that female bodies are constructed as passive, devoid of the capacity to desire. But the furore over women’s definite acts of showing or hiding libido causes tremendous anxiety within all kinds of patriarchal structures as it shows women becoming live, definitive subjects. So I am not going to participate in the argument over which women is feminist and to what extent. The argument has already gone around showing that women who observe karvachauth, or give up their jobs for domesticity can also be ‘feminist’. My emphasis is on showing how paranoia ensues when women emerge as subjects, push back against a force, show the existence of an inner will, talk or observe silence to make their point of view known, embrace publicness where privacy is expected, embrace privacy when publicness is expected. Societies, of varying grades of patriarchy, allocate varied roles for different groups of women – thus, the wife and the slut are co-produced with different sexual and social functions satisfying diverse needs of men.
Qandeel disturbed this arrangement – at least in the perspective of her brother. The thousands of men who googled her and voyeurised on her internet-presence saw her role differently though, but narrated their disapproval according to societal expectation. Nirbhaya did something that disturbed her perceived role as a young woman in the city of Delhi. Took a bus in the evening. I disagree with much of the conversation around gender justice that takes a particular object of clothing and a particular act of movement and frames it in judgment of the quantum of violence or restraint attached to it by patriarchy. My point is that the patriarchal disavowal cannot be seen in a single object or act alone  - it must be seen in accordance with what perceived set of expectations for that particular woman (in her socio-economic location) are. For instance, on Indian roads and public spaces, the same clothes that pass the threshold of judgment on non-Indian-looking (often meaning mainland India, excluding the north-east) women, will not pass the threshold for Indian, or ‘local’ women. In this hypothetical example, different sets of expectation are being pinned on different women based on their ethnic, racial and cultural origin as understood by those casting the male gaze.

In this context, we come to the latest incident of the police forcing a woman to strip from her burkini on the beach of Nice, France. The burkini being similar to the wetsuit is not the talking point here. For it is not the wetsuit. It is a garment women, given their communitarian circumstances, have chosen to wear in order to the enjoy the pleasure of water-sport in keeping with the religiously coded modesty regulations that are cast on their bodies. The burkini, therefore, becomes a site of two patriarchies battling it out. One saying you’re weird and you should not be seen among our midst. The other saying if you show your skin to other men, you disrupt my claim to honor since you’re my wife, mother, daughter – my kin-territory. Strangely, I think, the police’s abhorrence of the burkini have not as much to do with the perceived submissive role played by Muslim women, but to do with their disruption of the culturally coded aesthetic of the ‘beach’. A site of peculiar westernized mode of pleasure and sexual expression. The same women could have worn their Muslim dress and stood behind a counter in a shopping mall, it would perhaps be okay. But they dared to come out on the beach in Nice. Where the west is enacting its westest self. It’s like if a woman wore a bikini to a Hindu temple. It’s a spatial disruption that this woman’s garment had inadvertently caused.

When we incessantly compare western women and non-western women’s practices and cultural codes, especially in the garb of intersectional feminism, we forget that in the grid of culture and gender there is a complicated, systematic division of images, perceptions, expectations allocated on the bodies and minds of different women. Some women are expected to lend their bodies for male aggrandizement, if they turn celibate – there will be much consternation. Other women are supposed to be submissive wives and use their sexuality entirely towards reproduction of the family and the clan. Their alteration of roles and images, as we have seen, in the Baloch case, causes violent reactions. We must, in assessing these cases, see all the women as serving diverse needs of the patriarchal machine, and their purposeful or inadvertent subversive acts causing much perplexion which at times culminates in brutality. We must also remember that a larger political and masculine battle among several imperial actors is being carried out for sovereignty over land, culture, resource and discourse. The violence on women’s bodies, is necessarily, woven into that larger battleground.

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