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A gender leveller at work in Gujarat

By their very presence in politics, Jagruti Pandya and Shweta Bhatt open up space for new feminist ideologies and identities. Nandita Patel writes.

india Updated: Dec 18, 2012 23:19 IST

An interesting motif thrown up by the Gujarat elections is that of Indian feminism defined not as wife standing up to husband but as wife standing up for husband. Jagruti Pandya, widow of BJP leader Haren Pandya, and Shweta Bhatt, wife of IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt, are women who have hitherto lived domestic lives but are now wresting political agency to reverse real or perceived injustices done to their husbands. Both women, despite the risk of failure, will take on not only the ruling establishment but also deeply-entrenched male chauvinism in the system.

This phenomenon is not new to India. Sonia Gandhi picked up from where her late husband left off. What is not the same, however, is the quantum of power — or lack thereof — exercised by virtue of family associations. Although rooted in traditional notions of patni-dharam, Jagruti and Shweta’s feminism requires them to swim against the tide even among those who once supported their husbands. Jagruti and Shweta’s feminism is different. On the one hand, it’s at odds with the left/liberal view that oversimplifies the traditional Indian woman as either a willing slave, or a victim. On the other hand, it’s at odds with the right/conservative view that a woman’s best place is in a man’s shadow. Also different is the style of leadership Jagruti and Shweta’s feminism espouses. By balancing old ways with new, it promotes enlightened feminine attributes such as inclusiveness, dialogue, cooperation, and empathy.

Indian history and mythology are replete with men and women adopting feminine attributes to establish strength and political success. But today, despite many women in positions of power, the dominant style of leadership in India is masculine. Perhaps the reasons for this lie in the flawed worldview, for both regard masculine attributes as strong and feminine attributes as weak.

On the one hand, the left/liberal view valorises masculine attributes out of cynicism and self-defeat. It holds that men will not change so the best way to level the playing field is for women to do a quid pro quo, including the use of sex as currency for advancement. This view not only undermines mutual trust and respect between the sexes but also makes women internalise exploitative, oppressive power structures. It also rewards women who display masculine attributes at the expense of those who’re more “womanly”.

On the other hand, the right/conservative view valorises masculine attributes out of misogyny. It treats women as recalcitrant children, exhorts them to dress, think and behave in a manner that “inspires, not arouses men,” and arrogates to itself the authority to curb women’s rights and freedoms. It indoctrinates women into subservience, invokes religiosity as morality, cites unchangeable biological differences to confine women to pre-determined gender roles, and tells women it’s their own fault when sexually harassed or assaulted. In short, it undercuts all demands made in the name of women as a class of people that have been historically undervalued, neglected and marginalised on account of both their gender and their gender signifiers.

Jagruti and Shweta’s feminism is more feminine than others, because it offers women choices that are neither counter-intuitive nor demeaning and self-destructive. Here, women can not only be women on their own terms but also use a feminine framework to weigh the worth of their choices. This ensures that women are neither misguided to enter into mutually exploitative and opportunistic equations with men, nor coerced into roles and responsibilities thrust upon them by patriarchy.

By their very presence in politics, Jagruti and Shweta open up space and acceptability for new feminist ideologies and identities. First, they urge ordinary Gujarati women to recognise that rights come with responsibilities, and that both of these are best achieved through informed consent and self-affirming choices. Second, they urge Gujarat to lead the way in creating a society that ensures today’s men and women are more respectful and trusting with each other than before. Finally, they urge India to stop using the ends to justify the means.

Nandita Patel is a Mumbai-based writer The views expressed by the author are personal