No Campus For Women

  • Ishrat Bashir
  • Publish Date: Mar 19 2018 1:32AM
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  • Updated Date: Mar 19 2018 1:32AM
No Campus For Women

It’s tragic that the academia in Kashmir denigrates feminism as antagonistic to our culture and values

 

The dictionary definition of “feminism” is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”. Of course, this only partly defines feminism. Nowadays, we talk about “feminisms” rather than feminism – liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, French feminism, Islamic feminism, Black feminism – and look at how they are complicated by one’s location in the social hierarchy of class and caste. Feminism isn’t comprised of any one set of values; its character and constitution are determined by local and regional factors, both specific and general. For instance, the works of Arab writers like Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Assia Djebar and Nawal El Saadawi express a feministic vision characterised by their specific cultural concerns. African feminists like Hazel Carby, Hudson-Weems and Catherine Obianuju, and Asian feminists like Gayatri Spivak, similarly, have made their specific interventions. Feminism is such a prolific intellectual and political movement that it resists any effort at generalisation.

In Kashmir’s academia, however, feminism is mostly seen as monolithic, antagonistic to our culture and our values (which are, of course, mutable as per class and caste), so much so that if you talk about women, a smirk greets you. It is hard to apprise the smirking academicians of the fact that feminism generally refers to women’s movements for their rights (to education, economic independence, citizenship) and their daily struggles against a male-driven ideology that has relegated them to silence and obedience; an ideology perpetuated through folklore, custom, and mass media. The image of a woman where she is seen only in relation to man was partly propagated through her depiction in male-written literature as angel, goddess, whore, obedient wife, mother figure, and so on. Feminism further concerns itself with the social construction of gender, women’s sexuality and sexual difference, their subjectivity and social roles. It also has in its purview the problems women face with childbirth and childcare, and the strain of combining household work with work outside. These are but only a few concerns feminism deals with.

The term “feminism” has been debated since the turn of the 20th century. The writer Rebecca West once remarked cynically, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is...I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” 

Virginia Woolf declared it an insufficient word to capture the force of women’s movements of the 19th century. Today, many young women are embarrassed being called feminist and reject the term for it is considered dated, even though we are all beneficiaries of the battles and struggles fought under the banner of feminism. For instance, our maternity and paternity leaves are fruits of that struggle. If the term is debatable, it is so by virtue of intellectual, social and semantic issues. In Kashmir’s academia, however, feminism is employed as a pejorative term. If our young girls shy away from feminism, it is partly because the word has become a tool of harassment for us. Most of our male professors and other members of the so-called civil society seem to know some eternal kind of feminism that they use to mock and batter us with. For them, feminism is encouraging nudity; feminism means women abandoning the veil and wearing Western clothes; feminism means long queues of girls, outnumbering boys, applying to study or work; feminism means the threat of women refusing to cook, as if they live on sheer air and water. If you happen to refer to the landmark book The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, they will angrily enlighten you that she was Jean Paul Sartre’s mistress. If you invite a woman intellectual who happens to wear her hair in a bobcut to speak at the university, they will mock her, calling her names like Katt’e Kall’e and Baal-kati Aurat; the rest of the jokes they make in men-only company that sometimes, fortunately or unfortunately, we get to overhear. If you talk about women’s issues, they will reduce it to mother-in-law and daughter-in-law quarrels and tell us to sort it out among ourselves. The tragedy is that the worst of men consider themselves better than the best of women.

It does not stop at that. The celebrated “Kashmiri intellectuals” who we often invite for talks to universities prove to be the worst. They do not know how to engage us intellectually and no one grills them enough so that they would think 10 times before stepping on the campus again; they go on speaking rubbish and making stupid jokes and the academia, including myself, smile and laugh, so they assume they are the most eloquent and enlightened public intellectuals. A few honourable high court judges asked to speak about women’s civil rights made it about justifying four marriages even though nobody cares a damn about it; one judges told us that men have “needs”, hence the provision for four marriages in Islam. If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, he further told us that if someone’s wife fell ill, he needed another wife to take care of his children. I don’t see any problem with four marriages, or seven, so long as mutual compassion and respect nourishes relationships between the people involved. Whether that is possible in polygamy is beside the point. Perhaps, these honourable men suffer from some phobia that a question about Islam permitting multiple marriages would be shot at them and they are driven to offer ridiculous arguments to justify it. Often their best argument – which most men in the audience invariably cheer vehemently – is that Islam gave women their rights 1,400 years ago, as if the 1,400 years since have seen no oppression of women, no female foeticide, no domestic violence, no rape in so-called Muslim societies.

The failure of Jammu and Kashmir’s first woman chief minister has added another thorn to the crown of shame women are made to wear. Discussing politics, our male colleagues often attribute her failure to her gender. This to me is the funniest of all. I wonder why they do not apply the same logic of gender when talking about male politicians. By this logic, shouldn’t Papa Kishtawari, Qadir Ganderbali, Mom’kun, the patrons of Ikhwanis and so-called Task Force shame every Kashmiri male academic? 

The celebration of Women’s Day and suchlike does not make much difference to women fighting oppression daily, from within and without. But we could perhaps use such occasions to involve ourselves and our students intellectually so they will not propagate the same oppression, as opportunities to enable ourselves and our students to see that feminism is not antagonism between men and women but a way, among many ways, to see how we can help each other live fulfilling lives.

 

Ishrat Bashir is an assistant professor at the Central University of Kashmir