Posted in Feminism

The Sea, The Sea – Iris Murdoch’s Feminism

“I think being a woman is like being Irish… Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time.”
― Iris Murdoch

Feminism, as is the nature of social movements, is powered by its writers. But what happens when a woman writer is not regarded feminist enough?  Iris Murdoch began to get published around the same time second wave feminism took off and she has been accused of not being a woman writer, but a writer who happened to be a woman. While most people would be left wondering about that distinction, it is a very serious accusation in the literary and academic world.

This is probably why I had scarcely heard a mention of Murdoch until this January, when I discovered an academic paper on her. Later on, I picked up Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea on a whim. Actually, not a whim – I picked it up for its title. I love an atmospheric novel and what best to read a chunky book set on a frosty British coast, while battling the humid heat in Chennai. Also, my recent addiction to Booktube might have led me to judge it solely based on its absolutely gorgeous cover.

Charles Arrowby, the protagonist of The Sea, The Sea, is recently retired from the Theatre. He is a celebrity in a world where cinema still lacked the label of serious Art. Though he willfully left the theatre world behind him, theatre was not ready to let him go. His friends keep dropping in and we realize that Charles is romantically connected to almost all the women who appear in the novel. But the turning point in the novel comes when Charles meets Harley, his childhood sweetheart, from before his theatre days. From then on begins an obsession that proves to be the undoing of many.

So why isn’t Murdoch feminist enough? One reason is that Murdoch herself shied away from that label; she didn’t want to be associated with any ‘-isms’. Secondly, her protagonists were all usually male and the female voice isn’t given any particular importance. Her books aren’t Greek myth retellings either (retellings are in vogue again – 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlisted two of those!). But as Murdoch says in an interview, her fiction is about the human condition. If feminism doesn’t figure in the human condition, I don’t know what does. So, I would say that Iris Murdoch is a feminist writer, knowing full well the difficulty of defining those terms satisfactorily.

The novel is about a man so obsessed with a woman that he pulls apart his whole world for it before he realizes the futility of it all. The scared and confused Harley would be the anti-thesis of a ‘feminist’ heroine, but the decision at the end of the novel is solely hers. Staying with an abusive husband might not be the best choice, but it is her choice, regardless. Charles, who sees himself as Hartley’s messiah, is shocked when he realizes that Hartley does not want him. Though the novel isn’t from Hartley’s perspective, Hartley’s will and her voice is more than heard.

The characters, plot and the setting also harks back to a genre called gothic fiction. I believe that The Sea, The Sea can be considered a feminist retelling of the Gothic novel.  A literary genre that was extremely popular in the 19th century and the most famous gothic fiction is probably Bram Stoker’s Dracula, followed by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. As the critic Maggie Kilgour explains, gothic fiction is usually identified by its stock properties than by its essence.  These novels were set in dark and mysterious places, far removed from anything ordinary – like haunted medieval castles. Similarly, Arrowby’s strange, creaky house and the ocean around it, lend it an air of mystery, danger and isolation. This effect is heightened with the appearance of certain fantastical elements early on in the story. The main consumers of Gothic fiction were women who might have had a sadistic interest in seeing beautiful, virtuous, young women being held captive by ruthless villains, which was a major trope. This is where The Sea, The Sea becomes a rewriting of Gothic fiction. Though a very confused and almost senile Hartley is held captive by Charles for days on end, she never submits to his demands and finally it is the ‘villain’ who gives in. Arrowby, the villain in the juxtaposition is definitely not ruthless, because he is aware of his actions, but tries hard to justify them with his immense love for Hartley. This makes his character ambivalent and therefore unclassifiable as a stock villain.

The novel essentially questions the idea of love and marriage and never for once, glorifies Charles’s obsession.  The novel, among other things, frees Hartley from Charles’s rosy, childhood memories and transforms her into a person in her own right. Hartley’s story escapes the trappings of male discourse, the same reason why feminist retellings exist.

Posted in Feminism, Uncategorized

Why I Am Not A Feminist – A Book Review

This is a review of the book ‘Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto‘ by Jessa Crispin.

Like I wrote in my previous post, this book got me frantic at first and thinking later on. It was an onslaught on almost everything that I believed in and it hit me too hard. So it took me some time to get to the end of the book and my feelings and opinions about it have changed drastically in the meantime.

The book criticizes contemporary feminism, its ideals and is a call to awaken the spirit of sisterhood which was exchanged for individualism in the recent years, according to the author.

Crispin, very rightly points at how capitalism came to benefit from the feminist movement towards individualism and choice. Sex and the City is a classic example .SATC touches upon many issues of women in relationships and makes you rejoice in your womanhood, but it would be idiotic to not see the fashion brands that pepper the script and white elite-ness that it reeks of.  Not to mention the stereotyping of it all.

The overarching argument of the book is that when by exchanging sisterhood for individualism, some women got to step into men’s shoes and had become complicit with men in their culture of subjugation. This, I believe is a critique of capitalism rather than of women or of the feminist movement. Also, entrenched in this argument is a belief in the ‘goodness’ of women – the belief that, given the chance, women would do a much better job running the world. For example, the author decries the ambition that drives women who work in the corporate world.

This is similar to the argument that used to be made against feminists who advocated a professional life for women- they were told that as many women from the upper class left their homes to begin working, their positions would be supplanted by domestic helps who were obviously again women. The problem with this argument is obvious. For one, domestic helps are paid for the work they do and so it is not the thankless job that most women have to perform at home. Secondly, the fact that domestic helps and other low tier jobs do not have job security and benefits cannot be blamed upon other working women. That is a fault with the system of which both men and women are part of. Thirdly, are men made to feel guilty about hiring other men to do jobs like plumbing and welding or whatever? This argument is based on the assumption that domestic jobs like cooking and cleaning is something that women have to do and not expect anything in return just like the former argument believes in an inherent goodness of women which really doesn’t exist.

“Breaking away from the value system and goals of the dominant culture is always going to be a dramatic, and inconvenient, act. Surface-level feminism — feminism that requires only a swapping out of labels and no real reform—requires nothing so strenuous from you. To understand how surface-level contemporary feminism really is, we need only note that the most common markers of feminism’s success are the same markers of success in patriarchal capitalism. Namely, money and power. Our metric is how many women are the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, how many bylines at The New York Times are women’s, what percentage of medical school graduates are women.” Excerpt from Chapter One.

 At this point in the book, the author is all for revolutionary changes in the system, so that women will not be part of the oppressive culture of subjugation created by men. While one is left to puzzle out how to actually revolutionize the system while not even being a part of it as the author advocates, the later chapters reverses the argument entirely. A quote from the last paragraph of Chapter Eight–

Women, if you want a better existence for your people, you must participate in the imperfect world that exists now.”

There are several individual points in the book that I agree with and have written about. For example, the author speaks against the increasing number of vigilantes that feminism seems to give birth to – talking about dealing with sexual harassment cases and social media vigilantism-

What they are doing is looking for one man to carry the weight of our entire history, to make up for all of the men who hurt us and escaped punishment. This is revenge.”

 Crispin also proposes the idea of building a community support system so that women will not be left with a just choice between being dependent on a patriarchal family system with no freedom or being independent and free, but crazy due to all the work and no emotional or mental support.

However, on the whole, this book was a disappointment as it raises many questions on the contemporary feminist strategy, but leaves all of them unanswered.


Posted in Feminism

Gender identity over bread and butter issues?

I thought I should start the first post of this year by giving a theoretical background to feminism as some readers have told me that sometimes my posts can get too theoretical and thus not accessible to all. It is imperative that Feminism become properly understood by people in general and not just the students in some arts corner of a university.

The feminist movement has been divided into the First, Second, Third and the Fourth wave which is the ongoing one. The first wave feminism focused on legal inequalities and pressed for equal rights for women, most importantly voting rights. The second wave feminism moved on from there and focused on a wider range of issues such as sexuality, abortion rights, violence against women etc. The third wave which began around the 1990s, broadened the movement which had begun in the affluent western countries, to include women from different parts of the world. It recognized the fact that women cannot be considered as a unified whole and in different parts of the world and in different communities, their needs and ways of oppression are different. From here on feminism does not have a single definition. The movement becomes more individualized in the sense that a single voice of feminism does not attempt speak for all women, but women speak for themselves. This also means that a woman’s ability to exercise choice becomes more important than anything else. The Fourth wave which began around 2012 is majorly dedicated to abolishing the rape culture, justice for rape victims etc. #metoo campaign that we saw last year and the protests in support of the Delhi gang rape victim in 2012 are all part of the fourth wave of feminism.

While this is the path that western feminism has taken, in other parts of the world, the different waves of feminism are still in motion. As I wrote in an earlier post, Saudi women just won voting rights and they have a long struggle in front of them. In this context, a guardian article argued that feminism now prioritizes gender identity over bread and butter issues. Thinking in that vein, it can be said that feminism itself isn’t as important as bread and butter issues, right? It is this kind of ‘hierarchy’ among social causes that relegates feminism to some kind of elite activism, which it is not and should never be.

I also acknowledge all those people who do great work for women, but refuse to call themselves feminists.  What is important is that the female condition gets better. However, I am still wondering what’s in a label? Exactly. Let’s hope that this year Feminism becomes a less threatening word.


Posted in Feminism

Are You a Feminist??

The inevitable contortions in expression,the look of disapproval or even disappointment – you have probably faced all this when you reveal to people that you are a feminist.

The feminist struggle is nowhere near the end and people still question the need for the movement. Is the same true for every other movement for social justice?

In India, the word communist was never a taboo. Despite its embarrassing failures almost everywhere, Communism is still a positive word and reminds people of the charismatic leaders like Che Guevara, Gorbachev, Lenin, the power of the words like revolution and proletarians. Apart from academicians and American presidents who have criticized Communism, the word never was a taboo among the general populace. In India, where communists never had central power, most university students call themselves communist- in fact communism is viewed as a sign of intelligence. Whereas feminism draws all kinds of reactions from people- from old women behaving like they just heard a cuss word to young men who deem it another of those fads that ‘their women’ won’t indulge in.

Feminism simply aims to end the influence of patriarchy and transform the world into one where men and women have equal access to opportunities and have the freedom of choice. It sounds like a very noble cause to me. Feminism has achieved innumerable feats in different societies around the world. There are feminists working in all parts of the world, employing the version of feminism needed in that particular society. For example, a year before America came ‘dangerously’ close to having a female president, women in Saudi Arabia voted for the first time in the country’s history.

So why do people have to so cautious about the word or even admitting to the fact that they are feminists?  Every movement has the extremists and the moderates and every combination which falls in between. Communists are quick to defend their extremist groups saying they do not represent communists; nor do people really think they do. Though feminism and communism fight against oppression, there is an imperceptible, but inherent difference between the two- The proletarians consist of men, but in the case of feminism, theoretically, all the men are on the other side. Revolution to overthrow the massive feudal powers is exactly what working class needs, but the need for a revolution inside their own homes is something that they cannot yet digest or comprehend.

The reason feminists aren’t as popular as human rights activists or animal rights activists or communists is because they are a threat to a social order that has existed from before gods were invented, from the time man settled down to farm or maybe even before that. Nobody knows. Also, there has been a methodical backlash movement to vilify feminists – the bra burning feminists are one such example. Bra burning feminists never really burnt bras- they wanted to, but they didn’t.  Now, talking about man-hating feminists- there are no man- hating feminists. Even if there are a few of them, they are wrong about it because many of us have great men in our lives. Finally, addressing the myth that all feminists are lesbians- there have been a few feminists who advocated lesbianism. However, all feminists are not lesbians and being lesbian is not a crime (It is in India, though)

If you have any more doubts about the legitimacy of this movement, look up the meaning of feminism in the dictionary and if you get interested, there are great books out there on feminism.

Posted in Feminism

The Ethics of Shaming

The Name and Shame campaign on Facebook was started by Raya Sarkar, an Indian law student studying in the U.S.  This campaign lead to feminists doubting their ideals; several veteran feminists drew flak from younger women for not supporting the campaign and on the whole shook up the ‘Who is a Feminist’ debate all over again. The campaign circulated lists of professors in the Indian academia who were purportedly sexual harassers, while the accusers remained anonymous. The names were collected by Sarkar and her friends from Indian students who sent her texts on Whatsapp and Email naming the professors who had abused them. Feminists in India have been divided on the issue and for more information on the debate, I have included some links at the end of the post.

This campaign came after the #metoo campaign which received an overwhelming response from women who have been sexually harassed. While the #metoo campaign was about showing solidarity with women who had been sexually harassed, the Name and Shame campaign gets into unchartered territory by accusing people of harassment without any proof whatsoever.  When an individual is named and shamed publicly, it becomes a transgression of his rights. Guilty until proven innocent is clearly against the spirit of any constitution.  Raya Sarkar says that this list was prepared in order to warn women against these dangerous professors. However, women have been warning each other of predatory men for centuries in whispers. This list, which in Sarkar’s words is ‘not aimed at institutional action’ just encourages the tendency to keep quiet and whisper among themselves in the face of sexual harassment.  In my opinion, this list is a huge distraction from the debate surrounding sexual harassment and impunity of the assailants. And it led to feminists justifying why they are still feminists.

The reason for such a list or a measure, if one can call it that, emerged because of the difficulties women face while reporting a harassment case in an academic institution. There are several factors which make it terribly hard if not impossible for a girl to report sexual harassment – many a time the authorities don’t take the victim or her complaint seriously. Most universities have an ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) which tries to hush up the case and protect the academician, and then there is always the trauma and taboo associated with going public about a sexual harassment case. Lack of proof in such cases also leads to the dismissal of these cases.

Having explained the reason why such a campaign might be initiated, it does not justify the campaign itself. The list merely sidetracks the national debate on sexual harassment into a debate on the rationale and ethical consequences behind a list of professors accused of sexual harassment by anonymous people. And I am a young feminist who thinks ‘due process’ must be followed.

It is not that online campaigns and petitions are not effective; it is just that this particular campaigner who happens to be a law student couldn’t care less about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Also, like I said earlier, women have always warned other women of dangerous men; however this confidence is based on trust which this campaign is in dire need of.

For more information:



Posted in Feminism

Women and Shopping

My friend forwarded a ‘women and shopping’ joke on Women’s day. I lost it and I gave him a lecture on feminism. Now you might think that I was over reacting because somehow those jokes are everywhere and I should probably just get over it. I am not offended by them ( only because I have become immune to them), but I decided that I should explain the origins of and problems with these jokes. No doubt some of those jokes are funny and have a grain of truth in them. However, I have two problems with these jokes- Firstly, I belong to the group of women who don’t go crazy about shopping and secondly, what is so bad about shopping?

What people should realize is that there are historical reasons for almost everything including women and their preoccupation with their body. From the time humans settled into agricultural societies, women have been domesticated along with dogs, sheep etc. From then on, women have been dependent on men for their survival because he was in control of the food his family ate. The institution of marriage was also born out of this domestication. Marriage almost always referred to polygamy which meant a man could have multiple wives while a woman could never marry multiple men. When these women had to compete for their husband’s attention, physical attractiveness became the single demarcating feature or the yardstick to measure the worth of a woman. Women did not have education, money or status- she just possessed a body. Now, does it still seem strange that women are generally more conscious about their looks than men?  If you say that women care about ‘superficial’ things in life, I would say that they were forced to.

One could argue that times have changed and women don’t have to be so conscious about their bodies anymore. But the practice of dowry brings back the yardstick of ‘beauty’ in full glory. Let me give you a very obvious example.

Recently, a book recommended for a reputed college in Bangalore, listed some advantages of dowry. One of them was as follows-

The marriage of ugly girls, who otherwise would have gone without a partner, is made possible by offering a heavy amount of dowry

For a moment there, I was speechless. But then, I realized that it was the truth. ‘Ugly’ would translate to being dark skinned or being on the heavy side. India is a land of contrasts- However fat or dark the guy is, he would still prefer and almost always marry a fair skinned girl. Apparently, over 90 percent of Indian women cite skin lightening as a high need area.  Dark girls want to become fair and fair girls think they are not fair enough. It’s ridiculous and not so ridiculous that we have a problem with the skin we are born in.

So, girls in India, from their childhood, are prepared to be the perfect brides of tomorrow (reminds me of Broiler chicken!). Dark girls are encouraged to apply turmeric for better, fairer skin and the aunts who seem to have nothing else to do keep remarking, “Your colour has worsened or improved”. So I realized in the course of writing this post, that even though monogamy has become the rule in most communities, the historical reason that I mentioned earlier is an ongoing problem. In India it is almost a matter of survival, because unmarried women are shunned by Indian society.

Women are never allowed to forget that they are women, just like how people belonging to the lower castes can never forget their caste- someone or something constantly reminds them.  So women and shopping are not jokes, they are remnants of a survival tactic to stay relevant.

Until little girls can grow up with Barbie dolls and family members that/who, don’t make them hate their own body, the situation will be no different. Also, not having financial independence takes women back to the beginning of agricultural society, minus the polygamy, I hope.