Backstory: Let the Female Subject Speak

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

In the lead up to the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, words like freedom, independence, liberation hum in the air, even as many categories of citizens find themselves placed firmly outside the lofty ramparts of a freshly minted nationalism. What would the Dalit lads of Una make of 70 years of freedom? Or the children of Mohammad Akhlaq and Pehlu Khan? Or the homeless evacuees of the Narmada Valley damned in their own land? As for women – that capacious category that subsumes innumerable other categories – this could actually be seen as an era that seeks their expulsion and erasure. While sacralised forms of the feminine are venerated – gau mata, Bharat mata – the female as a rights bearing entity is looked upon with suspicion.

The gains of the past decades are today under threat as never before, even as new manacles are being forged in misogyny’s furnace. The recent Supreme Court judgement on Section 498A in Rajesh Sharma v. State of UP, disregards evidence of the everyday violence, repression and even murder of women within the matrimonial home, and argues for the dilution of a law that recognises physical and mental cruelty to a woman in her matrimonial home as a crime. The apex court also wants the institution of “family welfare committees” to vet all complaints. The very nomenclature of such a committee – “family welfare” – reveals the new regression. Judicial anxiety seems to be reserved for the great Indian family and not for women as equal citizens. As argued in The Wire piece ‘Supreme Court Order on Domestic Abuse Cases Is a Step Back for Women’s Rights Law’ (July 31), this judgement wants to send women back to violent homes. It gives priority to conciliation and the saving the marriage, not to ensuring that the woman is saved from violence. In fact, the writer notes, this verdict may well signal that the “golden run for women’s rights” of the Supreme Court – as evidenced in judgements like Mary Roy, Shah Bano or Rupan Deol Bajaj – may just be over. Could this mean that we will soon be subjected to judicial pronouncements cast in the ‘peacock-doesn’t-have-sex’ school of jurisprudence (‘‘Peacocks Don’t Have Sex’, ‘Cow a Surgeon’, Says HC Judge Who Wants Cow as ‘National Animal’’, May 31), even a women continue to severely disadvantaged (‘Urban India Has a Serious Sex Ratio Problem’, August 2)?

While there was, thankfully, some media comment on this verdict, especially in newspapers, other retrogressive steps taken by the Modi government seem to have failed to attract the necessary media attention, including from The Wire. Like the judges behind the Rajesh Sharma judgement, Minister of Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi is also extremely concerned about “false cases” being filed against men and has instructed the National Commission for Women (NCW) to register the grievances of men by opening a special window for them. This, if it happens, would be in complete contravention of the NCW mandate.

What has drawn even less media attention is the shabby manner in which ‘women’s studies’ as a discipline in Indian academics is being undermined by the University Grants Commission. Women’s studies centres across the country are facing an existential crisis today because their funding could be suspended. This would put not just the careers of numerous scholars at stake, but see the end of a discipline that has contributed immensely to mainstreaming feminist scholarship and infusing greater gender awareness within Indian academia and its curricula as a whole. Knowledge building of this kind breaches the walls of ivory towers, raises public awareness and draws media attention. If these centres, set up with so much energy and conviction by feminist scholars of an earlier generation, are dismantled it would be an irreparable loss to present and future generations.

In this the 70th year of independence – an outcome made possible, let us remember, by the participation of hundreds of thousands of women as well – pushing the female gender out of the public sphere, the academia, and the political space (‘Why Aren’t We Dealing With the Lack of Women in Indian Politics?’, August 2) constitutes a grave betrayal.

Women’s life stories are reminders of their role in weaving the warp and weft of this country’s social relations. Whether by coincidence or design, The Wire had several women-centric pieces in this pre-Independence Day period. In ‘My Mother Is a Fearless Woman’: The Story of K. Nagamma’ (July 10), a Dalit and widow of a sanitation worker killed while cleaning a septic tank – collateral damage that the Swachch Bharat campaign can never acknowledge without shaming itself – works hard to educate her two daughters, one of whom says, “If I qualify as a nurse, it will be in my father’s memory.”

Nestling in personal memory are also past struggles conducted against formidable feudal forces. In ‘Jayakka and the Story of the Women Rebels of Srikakulam’ (July 9), the conversation winds down to a 50-year-old peasant uprising and the image of jails “choked with women,” none of whom figure in the annals of mainstream Indian history. In another story another figure coalesces from the text: a young woman revolutionary, seven-months pregnant, who had to give up her baby in order to fight the landlords of her region (‘In Srikakulam, A Mother Relives Choices She Made 50 Years Ago – To Pick up a Gun, To Give up a Baby’, June 20). Both the Srikakulam pieces appeared originally in Malayalam in the Mathrubhumi Weekly and demonstrate how translations and reciprocal arrangements can enrich this portal immeasurably.

The pieces reminded me that 36 years have passed since the feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, brought out a remarkable set of memoirs collected by the Hyderabad-based women’s group, Stree Shakti Sanghatana, ‘We Were Making History…’ Life Stories of Women in the Telangana People’s Struggle. An entire generation of Indians have emerged since then with little idea of this rich, gendered history. It is so easy to erase the female subject and the introduction to Kali book noted the tendency of the Communist Party, to which these women owed allegiance, of framing women’s contribution as ‘supportive’. The metaphor widely used in those days was that “women supplied the stones and men used the slings,” a framing that deliberately undermined women’s many roles in struggles of this kind. It is for this reason that we need the Female Subject to speak.

And speak they will, wherever they are located. A Dalit poet takes on discrimination and glories in her female body (‘Interview: A Dalit Poet’s Explorations Into Discrimination and the Female Body’, July 16). Sukirtharani, who grew up in a village in Vellore district and writes in Tamil, warns those who seek to frame her like a picture and hang her on their walls that she will “pour down/away past you/like a river in sudden flood”. Meanwhile Aditi Mittal’s stand up comedy (‘I feel Like I’ve Let People See Me’, July 23) also punctures myths of female docility and submission, but in a different way and for a more urban audience. She sees her function as that of the “village idiot,” the “ones who say silly things to try and make people laugh so they come around and throw money at us.” She adds, “And we are the first ones also to get dragged out onto the streets and be lynched…”

These are women who are resisting “the RSS Bharat Mata” iconisation of themselves. They will not sit demurely under a gunghat waiting for fate to treat them as it will, and are more likely to assume the form of the “black goddess who predates the patriarchy normalised over centuries by Aryan migrations from the north…” as the piece from Kafila, ‘Bharat Mata and Her Unruly Daughters’ (July 18), reminds us.


Abhinay Sama who admires the journalism that The Wire does, suggest that it should consider instituting a recurring donation for interested readers.

Shivshakti Pawar, another regular reader, wishes that it had an android app to make it more readable, handy and user-friendly. If other publications can do this, why can’t The Wire, he wants to know.

Readers sometimes get back on the misses in coverage, which is a great idea. Akhil Kumar Saraogi is disappointed that The Wire did not cover the “blatant violation by CBDT of the Supreme Court’s 9th June verdict upholding the Aadhar-PAN linkage but sparing people who don’t have an Aadhar card.”

Probir Roy finds it difficult to reconcile himself to the fact that the “iconic EPW and its equally storied Board of Trustees, could not buck the first legal notice for libel and defamation”. This, he adds, is “a routine professional hazard for any media organisation”. He goes on to say that it is a different issue whether the editors should have carried the piece in the first place, seeing that EPW is not a mainstream business news or investigative periodical.

While on this subject, a clarification: The Wire republished the two articles on Adani that drew the ire of his lawyers (‘Did the Adani Group Evade Rs 1,000 Crore in Taxes?‘ and ‘Modi Government’s Rs 500-Crore Bonanza to the Adani Group’). EPW took down the second piece, not the first.

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