Seeing like a Woman Versus Seeing like a Feminist

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Seeing like a Woman Versus Seeing like a Feminist

Sunita Singh reviews 'Seeing Like a Feminist', by Nivedita Menon.

Since the 18th century, with Mary Wollstonecraft's criticism of French Revolution in her groundbreaking work ‘A Vindication of The Rights of Women’ there began tradition of feminist analysis. The first document asserting the full humanity of women and insisting upon its recognition. History it is time and again argued is written from the ruling class’ perspective, a feminist would strongly adhere that it has been always been the history of ruling class men. Feminism according to me in the light of reading Nivedita Menon’s book, certainly obtains a position of providing the most creative and insightful analysis.


There were few questions with which I began reading the text. What is the difference between seeing as a woman and seeing like a feminist? Will there be some convergence in the thoughts of the two? Would men be interested in seeing like a feminist and why would they be?

Nivedita Menon is an influential feminist writer and professor of Political thought at Jawaharlal Nehru University. At a glance to site the proposition the book follows and the intent, it would be right to say, it is “destabilizing the stable” The book in its entirety subverts the entire paradigmatic normative discourse through her knitty gritty puns and jokes and poking at privilege at every corner, takes us on an enormous ride through the library of the global and intersectional movements of feminism that defies any borders. By this problematizing the very foundations of every norm and principle, that govern our society in the name of culture, tradition and normativity, she lays bare the machinations of hierarchy that are at work, in our deeply patriarchal society. And therefore, Menon argues that “seeing like a feminist - with a gaze of feminist is rather like activating the ‘Reveal Formatting’ function in Microsoft Word.” Though the surface might look smooth and complete, a complex, strenuous formatting goes on to make it what it is.

She further adds - “When a Feminist ‘sees’ from the position of marginality he or she has deliberately chosen to occupy, it is a gesture of subversion towards power; it disorganized and disorders the settled field, resists homogenization, and opens up multiple possibilities.” What probably heightens her ability to see through the flawless nude makeup of our patriarchal culture is the fact that she was brought up in the Nair community of Kerala, which until her grandmother’s generation, was matrilineal. There are various parts in the book where she brings in her experience are crucial in my opinion. One might be writing about women since time immemorial but a woman writing about women and feminism becomes indeed an organic form of writing, much needed in every field of writing. Judith Butler laid the foundation of the performative aspect in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and Subversion of Identity, she says “gender reality is created through sustained social performances”. Menon creates an image theatre for an author to actually visualise those performatives, at the same time provides a alienation in the Brechtian sense, which does not let the reader sympathise with the characters(which is in fact their own life, rather attempts to instill the art of dialectics for breaking away these shackles of oppression.)

She cleanly divides her book into six parts, based on the grounds where power manifests blatantly , vis-a-vis the identity of a feminist and a women in our society. Namely - Family, Body, Desire, Sexual Violence, Feminists and ‘Women’ and Victims or Agents?


The book in its very beginning establishes the fact that the monogamous heterosexual family is at the centre of the patriarchal society as it sustains and reproduces the social order by policing of women’s sexuality, and reproducing strict roles around gender and marriage. What makes the family different, as opposed to the simplistic definition of it as people who love and support each other is that -‘Family’ as an institution is recognized with a legal identity by the State. And a specific set of people related in a specific way can only be termed as a family. As an institution, it is based on inequality; and hence Menon argues that - “its function is to perpetuate particular forms of private property ownership and lineage - that is, patrilineal forms of property and descent, where property and the family ‘name’ flow from fathers to sons”. But women have been historically removed from such transfers of power, for she has been assigned a different role in the erstwhile patriarchal family, and that is of doing the housework. The economic relation under this fancy word being that of the reproduction of labour power. The ideas that govern sexual division of labour are not confined to the family, but travel across the public domain as well and hence women suffer the burden of double labour, though these definitions are just sociological fiction, and do not have any biological underpinnings. According to Menon - “it is the unpaid labour of women, on which the economy is based.” And hence, if tomorrow - every woman demanded to be paid for this work that she does out of “love”, as it is believed, the economy would fall apart. Steering through the study of condition of domestic servants as a case of feminist study, the role of marriage, dowry and the family’s role in public and private sphere, and finding common points that connect it to the power relations at work, Menon points out towards the fissures, leakages and borders that are porous and vulnerable, inherent to this system. And this very knowledge creates permanent anxiety for patriarchy, an anxiety that requires these gender roles to be reproduced again and again. And therefore, she moves from structural aspects to more imminent categories where roles of being are produced, in the name of sex difference. Reading from a writer of similar cultural heritage helps the reader to familiarize and relate more. The best part about this chapter, as well as the entire book was the dialectical relationship it established between feudal remnants and capitalist dominant which exists in Indian state of affairs, especially reflected through the family structure.


The body itself is revealed to be, not simply given by nature, but made visible in specific ways by different kinds of discourses. That is, the patriarchal society, according to Menon makes us live in embodied ways. The subsequent gender, namely masculine and feminine, or male and female, are essentialist categories that come with cultural baggage of practices and assumptions, and are produced by the way of performance, as Judith Butler argued in her book Gender Trouble. Following the same line of thought is Simone De Beauvoir’s proclamation “that one is not born, but becomes a woman”.

Menon further problematizes the assumption that sex is biological, while gender is cultural/societal, by taking the argument of butler further to establish that “gender itself produces sex through a series of performances”. She goes on to explain that, just as gender is on a spectrum, sex is on a spectrum. Sexed bodies are created by societally prescribed genders: over time, we alter our bodies to fit this performance. The biology of bodies is so complex that they cannot be divided into two ‘legitimate’ types, but exist in a multitude of beautiful and true ways. We attempt to adhere to a binary that has never existed: we express a binary of sex through a binary of gender by creating a multi-layered and prescribed performance in our actions and with our bodies. Furthermore, the pervasive templates of binary genders originated in European cultures and, through colonialism, have overwritten pre-existing, nuanced, unique and diverse conceptions of gender and sex.

She goes on to describe realities that destabilize our assumptions about gender roles and bodies, and makes us question its very foundations. As she sheds light on the staggering truth that men lactate too, and how that should open up possibilities in the realm of child-rearing, instead of being something that should make men feel emasculated. And further, she shows through various examples that these categories are produced differently at different intersections of age, class, race, caste and so on. Hence, they are a part of the hierarchical matrix of power, and not natural facts. This chapter reminds me of every ‘body’ related workshop theatre practitioners do in order to undo their learnings strict codes of conduct of their body. Our everyday movements are so conditioned, it seems really heart to make coherence in mind and body, due to these immanent performative pressures of the strict codes. A line most practitioners say “Theatre is a place where we come and stop acting.” Hence, the real performance is not the staged performance, but rather the process which helps to destabilize the performatives we are imbibed with.


Since, the patriarchal society renders women an identity of being ‘asexual’ creatures, Menon links the desire and sexuality of women to a larger network of desires that are seen as ‘unnatural’ and hence ‘unacceptable’. And that is where, the term ‘queer’ steps in, indicating transgressive desire of all sorts and enabling a questioning of the supposed naturalness of heterosexual identity. Menon argues; “If we recognize that ‘normal’ heterosexuality is painfully constructed and that it is kept in place by a range of cultural, bio-medical and economic controls; and that these controls help sustain existing hierarchies of class and caste and gender, then we would have to accept that all of us are - or have the potential to be - queer.” By recounting the example of Section 377 of the Indian Penal code, and the struggle of LGBT groups against it, she shows the relation between women’s movements and such counter- heteronormative movements. Further elucidating through words from a volume subtitled Queer Politics in India, which holds that;

“Queer politics does not speak of the issues of these communities as ‘majority issues’ but, instead, speaks of larger understandings of gender and sexuality in our society that affect all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation. It speaks of sexuality as politics, intrinsically and inevitably connected with the politics of class, gender, caste, religion and so on, thereby both acknowledging other movements and demanding inclusion within them’. (Narain and Bhan 2005:3-4)”. Henrik Isben’s parallels the suffrage movement, during the time women started going to the matinee shows which happen in afternoon. A men critic of the times write:
“I am a frequenter of the playhouse, and live, therefore, in the odor of chocolate. I know that without chocolates our womankind could not endure our modern drama;

and without womankind the drama would cease to exist. [. . .] But to see scores of

women simultaneously eating chocolate at the theater is an uncanny thing. They do

it in unison, and they do it with an air of furtive enjoyment, as though it were some

secret vice and all the better for being sinful.” (“Chocolate Drama” 68, 70)
It is not that only sexual desire of the women is hated by men, their presence in the public itself is an uncanny thing. Any forms of desires or movements other than hetero-normative men is found odd to be at public places.
In 1888 the feminist writer Ella Hepworth Dixon assessed the difference the new sort of privilege could make in a young woman’s life:

“If young and pleasing women are permitted by public opinion to go to college, to

live alone, to travel, to have a profession, to belong to a club, to give parties, to read

and discuss whatsoever seems good to them, and to go to theaters without masculine

escort, they have most of the privileges—and others thrown in—for which the girl

of twenty or thirty years ago was ready to barter herself for the first suitor who

offered himself and the shelter of his name.”

Sexual Violence

Menon points out that the feminist understanding of rape and a patriarchal understanding rape, are two altogether different meanings. While feminists denounce Rape as a crime against autonomy and bodily integrity of a woman, patriarchal forces think rape is evil because it is a crime against the honour of the family. And hence, has been strategically used in wars and riots. The existing laws on rape recognize penetration as the only form of assault, and renders less status to other forms of sexual assault - as it is based on the same old notions of chastity, virginity, premium on marriage and fear of female sexuality. It is because - Penis penetration may lead to pregnancies by other men and thus is greater threat to patrilineal property rights and the patriarchal power structure, than other kinds of sexual and non seuxal assaults on women. And therefore, an urgent need is to free women from the very meaning of rape as the most deadly of all forms of violence, to build up immunity to this virus - the fear of potential rape. To see rape as another kind of violence against persons, many of whom could be men. And therefore, By citing examples of the “Slut walk campaign” and the “Pink Chhaddi campaign” she claims that women must reclaim their lost spaces and subvert the very meaning of words that are flung on them for being against patriarchy. Or as Archana Verma puts it: ‘One Day, i will hear hurled at me words, loose woman. Chhinaal, prostitute…… And i will turn around and say, “Thank you for the compliment.” That day will come. And it will be a day of feminist celebration. There is an acceptance of mutilation of women’s bodies, abduction in order for revenge but her own agency of her own body is the most ‘ridiculous’ thing a woman can channelise. The worst part which seems to me from experience and on reading this chapter, it is women who are then supposed to be ashamed of their body. In that too because she has brought shame to the family, society etc but she can not right over her own body. Though, I strongly feel from my personal experience that the forms of sexual violence are more intense that what the legal state recognises. More nuanced understanding from feminists and more participation from those marginalised would help to close these gaps.

Feminists and ‘Women’

Feminism requires us to recognise that ‘women’ is neither a stable nor a homogeneous category. The question of the entanglement of ‘gender’ with other identities arises in a variety of contexts globally, and Menon considers some of these in this sphere of the book.

Since the ideas of liberation can take different meanings to women placed in different contexts, or possessing different identities of class, caste and race - therefore there is no straight forward answers, for power is layered in different forms amongst different cultures. Menon uses the argument of the ‘veil’ and the ‘miniskirt’ as one of her examples. In europe, over the past few years, the headscarf or the different forms of veil used by Muslim women has become the emotive symbol by which the West can assert its modernity, the freedom available to its citizens and its belief in gender equality. In the name of security issues, the West is prohibiting women from wearing face- covering items such as masks in public, but the real target is - Islam as linked to both ‘Terrorism’ and to ‘oppression of women.’ But laws banning the headscarf or the veil, rather than empowering Muslim women, in fact attack the freedom of those Muslim women who choose to wear it as an integral part of their religious observance.

“ But what about miniskirt, that symbol of liberation?” - asks Menon. “The point that many feminists, including western feminists, disturbed by the bans, have noted, is that the ‘freedom’ to dress in revealing clothes is equally located within a sexist culture - one ruled by the market - for only a particular kind of body is permitted to be revealed - young, toned, properly depilated, wearing the current style.” The point that Menon is trying to make can be understood in the words of Arundhati Roy - “When an attempt is made to coerce a women out of the burqa rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it's not about liberating her, but about unclothing her. It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. It’s not about the burqa, it's about the coercion. Coercing a woman out of the burqa is as bad as coercing her into one.” The point being, that both the societies culturally pressure women into clothing themselves with certain types of clothes. And the forces that pressure women should be in question, not the dress. This chapter was for me the most important, which I would urge everyone to read. Similar to the binary codes of the society, in our discussion those patterns of binary are prominent. There are two sides divided and you can choose any one, like in the headscarf case. We do not get to dwell in a dialectical engagement over any subject, this is prominent in every sphere of life. The acknowledgement of plural category of feminism and not a homogeneity are some of the strong arguments, young scholars, students, activists, feminist should make their tools to develop their analytical skills. Menon’s intention in the book not only seems to subvert the normative gender constructs, but to upturn these binaries of position we take on subjects.

Victims or Agents?

The final chapter of the book raised the most intense debates of the contemporary world. The topics that went under scrutiny in this chapter were sex work, Bar-Dancers, Trafficking vs Migration, Commercial Surrogacy, Pronography and Abortion. This section was a thunder wave which challenged many beliefs and also put light on many themes in ways which one would have never thought of. The section carefully highlights the agency-autonomy of women which many feminists would certainly compose as individual’s freedom of choice. However, the more envisaging perspective demonstrated the larger structural issue with the freedom of choice. Menon puts it, “freedom to choose most often simply reasserts existing dominant values which, from our point of view, are deeply problematic.” I am fascinated by Menon’s critical ability of engaging in such versatile polemics with such due respect.


Menon’s challenge to the ingrained assumptions and worn paths of Western feminism is relentless and sharply critical: one by one she dismantles the reigning discourse and challenges us to reconstruct our feminism/s as more critical, more aware, and more cognisant of other pathways and traditions, especially those irrevocably damaged by Western colonialism – our feminism/s should be a challenging journey forward without completion. She writes “Feminism is not about that moment of final triumph, but about the gradual transformation of the social field so decisively that old markers shift forever.” Her definitions are neither overly deterministic nor stagnant, she problematizes the core idea of feminism itself, to chalk out , as Foucault would point out - the capillaries and the sub capillaries, of power.
As pointed out by Hyland (2009, p. 113), textbooks rely heavily on other texts. He argues that their value hinges on them "representing the issues, ideas, current beliefs and chief findings of the discipline by borrowing and incorporating these from the original sources". Menon in the truest sense has incorporated all these characteristics into this reasonable work Her work, does not satiate our hunger with commandments like truths, but leaves us gasping, as we struggle to cope up with the entrenchment of these problems in the very ideas that govern our lives. It leaves you asking for more, it leaves us unsettled, restless and wondering. The book I believe intends to bombard our deeply ingrained thoughts, not a destructive process but a highly constructive process as it bombards us with highly imaginative thoughts. It demands us to be “open to the destabilization of our norms'' too, despite its influential and political positions which can be highly progressive.. In the words of one of my favourite poem : Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise

“Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.”

And therefore, out of this disorder that Menon’s book creates by making a dent in the dominant patriarchal narrative, new order with new meanings and grand narratives can be formed. And therefore this book becomes a tool of her interventionist politics, a hope that the violence implicit and explicit to patriarchy will end through little efforts of subversion in every field, and new definitions of every essentialized meaning. The strong problem is the reduction of subjects and oversimplification of subject matters, in theatre there is always an attempt to explore the most bacterial factors and through that making a connection with the larger problems and questions. Nivedita Menon’s book like a torch in the relay race, with her book has given the readers the torch, which is now the readers responsibility to take forward.

“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.”


Sunita Singh is a theatre practitioner based in Delhi. She graduated from the University of Delhi, and completed her Masters from School of Law, Governance and Citizenship, Ambedkar University of Delhi.

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