The Need To Separate Gender And Capitalism
In The Urban Indian Context
By Shreya Sanghani
11 September, 2011
In my conversations with people about women's issues in India, when I identify as a feminist, I often come up against the argument that feminism is irrelevant because so many women now have jobs. The people who make these arguments assume that a woman who holds a prestigious position in a well-known company is no longer limited because of her gender. I want to make two separate points here, or rather ask two separate questions. Firstly, is there commonplace gender discrimination happening in the work place in any form – whether it is the pay-scale gap, or with attitudes towards women and sexuality in general? Secondly, and more importantly to me, is co-opting the women's movement into the larger structure of corporate globalization really the way forward?
Let me clarify my second question. I firmly believe that the discourse of mainstream capitalism is extremely patriarchal. In the aggressive marketing of products with the profit motive, it pays to cater to mainstream belief-systems. Just because a handful of women become CEOs, does that mean that women in general, and even those CEOs themselves, are less affected by patriarchy? Does having a job save a woman from being beaten up at home by her husband, or does it make this woman have more agency with her own family? Does she have control over her own earnings? As India's third National Family Health Survey has shown, “...One in six working women nationwide has no say in how her earnings are spent, with her husband or in-laws making the decision for her. Even in the oldest age-group of working women, the wealthiest and the most highly educated, only between 28-31% said they decided how to spend their wages.”(1)
I would particularly like to focus on the issue of domestic violence and examine its relationship with working women. First of all, I would like to point out that violence can take many forms. It can be physical, wherein it takes the form of beating, punching, kicking, shoving and other kinds of physical abuse. It can be verbal, in the form of name-calling or more indirect forms of put-downs. It can be sexual, wherein sex can either be forced or withheld as a form of manipulation. It can be emotional, and mental, wherein it can take the form of withholding affection for punishment and awarding it for reward, or in controlling and/or jealous behaviour. It can be financial, wherein the perpetrator can either take away all the survivors' money, or refuse to support the survivor if the latter is dependent on the perpetrator. Now, please let me clarify that violence can be perpetrated by anyone on anyone, be it male or female, but the socio-cultural space of India (whether rural or urban) and overwhelming statistics show that domestic violence is India is largely perpetrated on women.(2)
Putting the multifarious nature of violence into perspective, can we really assume that merely having a job will protect women from violence in the household? While having financial independence and self-sufficiency can be vital to a woman who has reached the stage where she has decided to leave an abusive household, it does not necessarily prevent women from leaving such situations any more than women without jobs. It is societal attitudes and structures that fuel violence, and these deep-rooted belief systems are ingrained in the most urban of Indian women.
This is a major aspect of why domestic violence is accepted as much as it is in India. The economic realities may be different in their cases, but the social ones – the absence of a support system, the conspiracy of silence surrounding domestic violence, the sense of obligation and duty to remain in a marriage – can remain the same.
It is as if the patriarchal system is giving permission to women to have the same opportunities as men, but this is ultimately rooted in the spirit of precisely this attitude of judgment and control. I will argue that not only should it be the prerogative of each and every child to have an education and to be able to fend for oneself, it is such a basic requirement that the celebration of this very intermittent and wholly inadequate goal as the ultimate achievement of women's liberation is entirely mistaken, and appalling.
How are working women treated differently from working men? How are men and women represented in the media, in language, in popular culture? What is a “man” and what is a “woman” - and are those the only acceptable sexual and gender identities in our world? What is considered “masculine” and what is considered “feminine”, and why? Do women need to act more “masculine” in order to be considered successful? Do men and women need to be working in the corporate world and making bundles of money to be considered “successful”?
I would like to end by urging the reader to meditate on how we can separate the issues of gender and capitalism in the urban Indian context. It seems valuable to look at how gender discrimination takes place within and in spite of capitalism. I would like for us to question the entire structure of the frenzied corporatization going on in India right now, and examining not just how it serves to marginalize groups and communities based on gender, caste and class, but also how it creates these disparities to the detriment of even those who seem to benefit from it. Is it leading to human connections, and connections with nature, or is it driving us ever away from each other, and the world around us? Of course it is important to untangle the ways in which gender and capitalism have been intertwined in the reactionary discourse in urban India, but it seems to me equally vital to examine how gender discrimination is a part of the multiple disparities exacerbated by corporate capitalism.
Shreya Sanghani has a BA in English Literature from the Jadavpur University Department of English, Calcutta. She is currently studying towards an MA in the social anthropology of development at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She has been involved with a number of social intervention projects, including gender and sexuality, the environment, and forced migration, and strives to use her writing skills to facilitate a dialogue about them. She is a poet, a solo traveller, an animal lover and a feminist
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