8 The Feminist Understanding of Politics and Power

Shivani Kapoor

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This chapter begins with an overview of the feminist conception of politics. This will be followed by examining the sex-gender debate, which questions the essentialized nature of the ‘woman’. Subsequently, various themes within feminist politics like the public-private divide, debates on the body including issues like abortion and surrogacy, the sameness vs. difference debate and intersectionality within the feminist movement will be discussed.




The Union Budget of India for 2013-14 contained a fairly interesting proposal – setting up of Women’s Banks everywhere in the country1. The idea was seemingly clear. In the shadow of the December 2012 rape and murder case in New Delhi, policy measures concerning women were at their height. Suddenly, law, policy, public debate and activism seemed to have acquired a gendered perspective. In this light the policy statement regarding banks which only women could access is interesting as it throws open a series of debates around feminist politics.


Why would a society need a bank just for women? There could be several explanations. First, given that women, have traditionally been kept out of the public and the economic spheres, there seems to be no logic for women to be able to access financial institutions like banks. They simply did not need it till the gruesome rape and murder reminded us that women do inhabit the public spheres. Providing access to banks was thus one way to recognize that women also need to be able to control their spaces, finances and lives.


1 Finance Ministry seeks RBI approval for all-women bank’, The Hindu, June 2, 2013. Accessed on June 6.


URL – http://www.thehindu.com/business/Economy/finance-ministry-seeks-rbi-approval-for-allwomen-bank/article4774994.ece


Second, the assumption could also be that since the public space is not adequately designed for women or that due to many structural causes, women do not want to inhabit these public spaces, an exclusive space for women may encourage better participation. Yet, there is also a counter-argument which proposes that such a measure will increase the isolation of women from the rest of the society. Women need not be safe only in isolation but within the larger societal context.


These issues have immense significance for a feminist understanding of politics and its practice. The example of this public policy on banks is symptomatic of the way women have been thought about in philosophy, theory, law and policy. Most of these ways of thinking have treated women as an exceptional case, as the departure from the norm. In the ‘normal’ course of events such policy measures like separate banks, maternity leaves, laws on domestic violence and affirmative action policies like reservations may never have been required, if it were not for the aberration called ‘women’.


The feminist perspective on politics makes us aware of the problem with the above statement. It is precisely because a feminist perspective disrupts our understanding of the ‘normal’, of the ‘everyday’ that it is required within the realm of political theory. A feminist reading of politics and society opens up the cracks and the faults of an accepted, traditional way of doing political theory. It reveals the hugely masculine nature of the discipline even when it claims to represent the entire gamut of positions, identities and interests in society.


Feminist political theorists like Carole Pateman(1988) have asserted that the very subject of the political philosophy in the Western discourse has been ‘male’. Political theory and philosophy, or what is read and taught as political theory and philosophy, has not only been written by men but in fact they have been written keeping in mind the ‘male citizen’, the ‘male employee and employer’, the ‘male labourer’ and the ‘male voter’.


This figure of the male has been masquerading as the unmarked ‘Universal’. Thus whenever liberal theory has talked about the ‘human’ or the ‘citizen’ or even the ‘person’, it is almost always talking about the male. This means that the concerns of the female citizen, voter, mother, professional, labourer are all missing. The best example of this could be how the male pronoun, ‘his’ or ‘he’ has been treated as the universal signifier in virtually the entire printed world.


It is not as if women did not write literature or philosophy or take part in politics. The issue rather is, was their opinion considered? When the canon of literature and philosophy was being made, women were systematically kept out of it. No wonder then that much of political theory and philosophy is made up of works of men alone or much rather of a masculine perspective. The latter is important here. When women were writing, were they still writing in the framework provided by the masculine political philosophy?


A feminist perspective on politics thus simply does not ask for inclusion of more women in the canon or in the practice of politics, it demands a radically different perspective – one that includes the concerns of women, of females and of all other sexes and genders. Thus a perspective which is largely egalitarian in nature, yet is anti-foundationalist, it attacks the very foundations of disciplines and practices.


In the next sections we will examine some of the basic premises of this feminist perspective.




Any understanding of the feminist perspective of politics, will either begin or come back sometime to the sex-gender debate. The split which the feminist movement made between the two concepts of sex and gender is crucial to our understanding of patriarchy and its gendered critique.


One rather simple way to understand the increasingly complex categories of sex and gender is to say that sex refers to the biological differences between women and men. These would include the anatomically different genitals or external sex organs, the presence of different sex hormones and ultimately the different chromosomal configuration of both these sexes. Gender would refer to an array of social and political meanings attached to one’s self. This is broadly what we call as the process of socialization. One is reminded hereof Simone De Bouvier’s (1988) famous invocation that one is not born a woman but becomes one. One of the biggest contributions of feminist thought was to bring forth this distinction between sex and gender.


Centuries of oppression and discrimination against women was based on the fact that they are biologically ‘different’ and thus ‘weaker’ than men. This may come across as their perceived inability to not participate in activities as diverse as physical labour and math. Women in short, are neither physically not mentally capable of competing with men. This is the rationale for having different gender and professional roles and also discriminatory pay scales for women as against men. While this discrimination seems to be resting on a biological basis, something which is natural and about which nothing much can be done – people will be born with either of the two types of sex organs (The position will be complicated a little further down the chapter), the situation is much more complex than this.


Men and women are socialized differently, even from before birth, based on which sex organ they seem to have. So people born with penises and what looks largely like a male anatomy, are this encouraged to play sports, play with guns and robots, take up subjects like math and computers in school and college. People born without penises (or with a vulva and vagina) are designated as females and are consequently taught domestic work, encouraged to remain indoors, play with dolls and talk softly. In contexts which are not middle and upper class, most of these people designated as women will probably never go to school and college, simply because of the fact that they are women and may not need that education. Those who do are almost always kept out of ‘serious’ fields like mathematics, physics and engineering.


According to Nivedita Menon (2008) , “A startling study in the USA of inter sexed infants (babies born with both ovarian and testicular tissue or in whom the sex organs were ambiguous) showed that medical decisions to assign one sex or the other were made on cultural assumptions rather than on any existing biological features. Thus, a baby might be made into a female but then still require hormonal therapy all her life to make her stay “female.” In other words, maleness and femaleness are not only culturally different, they are not even biologically stable features at all times.”



Thus the very process of ‘sexing’ at birth determines ones ‘gender’ and thus determines one’s life chances. This is broadly known as biological determinism. Another example of this could be race, where one’s skin colour, is deemed as the sole and determining marker of one’s capacities. The sex-gender distinction helps us to complicate the argument of biological determinism. Sex and gender may not always coincide in most individuals. If we were to take out the process of socialization from the process of upbringing children, then there is absolutely no scientific or philosophical logic by which males would turn out to be masculine men and females would necessarily be feminine women.


Feminist anthropologists, like Margaret Mead, have examined different cultural contexts to determine what is meant by masculinity and femininity across various cultures. According to Mead then, different societies have varied understandings of what it means to be masculine and feminine, without any direct overlapping of the biological specificities of the human body (Menon, 2008)


Roles and activities which are considered feminine, like cooking, crying, being physically weak are largely social constructions. Anyone can cook, clean and participate in care-giving provided that they are trained for it. Women are groomed for this role from even before they are born. Men are consciously kept away from the domestic front and encouraged to go out and ‘play’. Obviously then, different skill sets develop. Similarly there is nothing naturally masculine about having short hair or being muscular. These have been fixed as attributes of being male by the societal and historical processes.


Take for instance a newspaper report which came out in 2008.


She is not very educated, comes from a small town, and has nothing extraordinary about her personality”.


This is how a newspaper report, in the Indian Express (dated March 10, 2008) chose to characterize a 27 year old woman, Susheel Kumari, who helped the police arrest two burglars who had entered her house. What is even more significant, according to the report is that she did this a day before International Women’s Day, and this is an act which can inspire all (stress intentional) women in the Capital. The photograph which accompanies the news article is also worth mentioning here. It shows Susheel, sitting with her family, head covered with a dupatta, addressing four males of her family. There are no other females in the picture. The report also mentions that, ‘…covering her head with her dupatta in respect for her father-in-law who is visiting them’.


The report was particularly striking because the focus was the fact that a woman did such a thing rather than the fact that the crime had taken place or had been prevented. Further she has to be characterized as ‘someone who was not expected’ to do this, especially since she does not fit into the usual category of women with whom we associate such ‘acts of courage’.


Thus the whole emphasis of the report is on creating the image of a woman who is very ‘traditional’ and also subscribes to the usual notions of the Indian woman, like covering her head. Yet she did something which is not a part of her usual gendered role. The very phenomenon of ‘catching burglars’ is something which strongly resonates with the notions of protecting the family and the idea of security.


Traditionally it is men who are supposed to perform this role. While women may have been able to assert equal identity in several other fields, that of security and protection, especially in terms of physical safety is still something that we associate with males, partly because of the link to physical strength. A case like this, in some ways thus inverts that logic and could serve useful to undo certain stereotypes. But instead the feeling one gets after reading the report is that the issue here is not whether it was a male who should have been doing this. Or did the woman do it better. The focus is that a woman actually did something which is not at all ‘expected’ of her in ‘normal’ circumstances and thus she has to be portrayed as an icon.


After the arrests were made, an exhausted Susheel almost fainted and had to be supported by her neighbours”, the report went further to state. Now this is a statement which would almost never appear in any other routine crime story. This statement which comes towards the end of the narration about the day’s events, actually in a way conforms to the accepted stereotype of a woman, who is unexposed and thus unprepared for such situations. It is as if by the act of ‘fainting’ she returns to the fold of the gendered female and re- establishes any patriarchal or social hierarchies that she might have disrupted.


Sexual division of labour thus also means that women do not get paid for the work that they do. Labour activities like cooking, cleaning, rearing of children and care, are not treated at ‘labour’ at all and are hence not paid for. These are rather considered as the ‘duties’ or worse still, ‘natural inclinations’ of women. Work or paid labour activity is what happens outside the house, which constitutes the realm of serious work which only men can do. Consequently women who work only at home are largely unpaid workers.


The   distinctions   between  sex   and   gender   have   since   then   been   hugely   complicated. According to Nivedita Menon(2008) there have largely been four movements in this regard.


Menon writes,


“Firstly, Scholars like Alison Jaggar argue that “sex” and “gender” are dialectically and inseparably related, and that the conceptual distinction that earlier feminists established between the two is not sustainable beyond a point. In this understanding, human biology is constituted by a complex interaction between the human body, the physical environment and the state of development of technology and society. Thus, as Jaggar puts it, “the hand is as much the product of labour as the tool of labour.” What is meant here is that two processes are involved: human intervention changes the external environment and simultaneously, changes in the external environment shape and change the human body”.


There is nothing natural or pre-given about the bodies of a man or a women then. These bodies are a complex set of relationships and products of history, labour, environment and living conditions. Through this understanding we can safely assume then that sex and gender interact with each other in much more complex ways.


The second kind of complexity in this argument, according to Menon (2008), comes from the school of radical feminism, which argues for retaining the priority of biological differences, as this is what differentiates women from men and prevents us from falling into the unmarked category of the universal individual. Menon (2008) writes, “Radical feminists claim that on the contrary, patriarchal social values have denigrated “feminine” qualities and that it is the task of feminism to recover these qualities, and this difference between men and women, as valuable. The radical feminist position on the sex/gender distinction is that there are certain differences between men and women that arise from their different biological reproductive roles, and that therefore, women are more sensitive, instinctive and closer to nature”.


A third kind of understanding of this issues comes from the post modern perspective about the body and sexuality. Menon(2008)takes recourse to Judith Butler’s understanding of sexuality to say that, “Butler uses the term heterosexual matrix to designate the grid produced by institutions, practices and discourses, looking through which it appears to be “a fact of nature” that all human bodies possess one of two fixed sexual identities, with each experiencing sexual desire only for the “opposite sex.” From this view point, the removal of this grid or heterosexual matrix will reveal that sexuality and human bodies are fluid and have no necessary fixed sexual identity or orientation”.




The feminist understanding of power comes from a view point of systemic oppression expressed through institutions like the different forms of patriarchies. The term ‘patriarchies’ is being used here in consciously as there seems to be no one homogenous way in which patriarchy affects men and women. Different social and historical positions makes people experience the power of patriarchy in extremely diverse ways. This kind of understanding has also shifted the debate to the idea of ‘masculinities’. The initial point was that patriarchy affects not just women, but also men and also the society in general. This understanding led us to the observation that interrogating the idea of ‘masculinity’ carries equal importance to the idea of feminism. Masculinity could be defined as the way in which the idea of the masculine has been constructed by patriarchal power in the society.


How are men affected by patriarchy? Just as women are expected to be homely, delicate, weaker in physical strength and men are expected to be strong and bread-winners. Patriarchy, which is ultimately a system of power, thus also defines the roles and capacities of men. It may appear as if men are the oppressors and women are the victims of patriarchal power, yet, interventions by various scholars have told us that men are equally victimized by patriarchy.


For instance, what happens to men who are not ‘masculine’ enough? There will be plenty of men who are not very good at physical labour, or who would want to keep their hair long, or who would like to cook and stay at home. But we do not come across many such people in everyday life, because society expects them to behave in a manner fitting to ‘men’. Men thus model themselves on this expectation of patriarchal masculinity. On the other hand, this issue of masculinity also affects people who cannot be ‘masculine enough’ even if they tried hard. Disability, caste, class and sexuality, intersect with this idea of ‘being a man’ and create increasingly complex modes of being. A Dalit man, considered inferior to an upper caste man, will not be masculine enough. He will be filthy, dirty, weak, emasculated and not a man in the same way in which an upper caste man will be.


Disability also creates its own peculiar conditions. Since, people with disability inhabit a different set of capabilities; our physical built environment may not actually allow them to exercise their abilities and capacities to the fullest. For instance, if our built environments were designed to have ramps instead of staircases, those of us who are on a wheelchair would have the best capability to navigate these spaces. While those of us using legs would find the uphill trudge increasingly tedious. Just as built environments are constituted by power relations, so is the society at large constituted by the power relationship of patriarchy. Imagine a man who is differently abled and cannot work in a typical office environment because there are no lifts or ramps or because the computers do not have screen-reading software installed on them, or simply because the management is not willing to accommodate different abilities. Now this man cannot be the traditional ‘bread-winner’ for his family, cannot participate in much of the public sphere and also thus cannot fulfill the role of a ‘man’ as expected by the society. Patriarchal norms tell this person that he is not a man enough because he cannot work in an office space, or cannot lift heavy weights. This person then is also a victim of patriarchal norms which dictate how men should be.


Sexuality is another such contested arena, which has in the recent years contributed immensely to our understanding of sex and gender roles. The queer understanding of body, sexuality and capabilities rejects the idea of males being masculine and females being feminine. This perspective largely understands the human body, capability and sexuality as a continuum rather than as poles. Thus people who are anatomically male may be considered ‘feminine’ in other attributes or have so called ‘feminine’ interests. Other groups like Hijras, present somewhat at the margins of the queer and sexuality discourse alsopose a strong challenge to our understanding of gender.




One of the central conceptions which some branches of feminism have challenged has been the divide between the public and the private spheres. This conceptual and philosophical divide has been the pivot around which liberal political theory bases itself. Consequently, the liberal feminist school of thought also upholds this divide and bases its political philosophy in the realm of rights, entitlements and a separation of the public sphere from the private arena. The challenge comes from the radical and socialist feminist schools of thoughts, which mount the argument that this artificial divide, places politics firmly in the realm of the public. Consequently, the private sphere gets de-politicized to the extent that issues like marriage, child-bearing and rearing, adoption, surrogacy, divorce, property, domestic violence and ethics of care become largely non-political issues. The significant insight that radical feminism brings to this debate is that ‘the personal is the political’.


Aristotle considered that the ‘political life is the highest life’. A describes a complete human being as ‘zoon politikon’ – someone who takes part in the political life of the polis. We need to examine what is meant by a political life here. For the Greeks this meant participating in the direct democratic structure of the city, through taking part in discussions, debates and finally voting. It is important to notes that only propertied men who were born in the city were actually called citizens. Slaves, women and aliens (people born outside the city) were not allowed to take part in the political process. Thus we have here a structure where public is being collated with the political and the male. Only certain kinds of men can take part in the political life of the city and thus be called ‘zoon politikon’. This situation has not changed much since then. The public is still associated with the male and the masculine so much so that even female presence in the public spaces are somewhat of an aberration. Feminist theorists like Susan Moller Okin and Carole Patemen2 have argued that the presence of women in the public sphere is a relatively new phenomenon. Thus this very ‘public’ sphere convulses every time there is a debate on issues such as breast-feeding, rape, sexual assault and maternity/paternity leaves. Okin tells of a fascinating case in the British parliament where


The debates on rape, sexual assault and safety of women in the public spaces, have almost always relied on the unsaid assumption, that if women venture out there will be consequences. The debate on domestic violence, child sexual abuse and marital rape puncture this argument of only the public being unsafe for women. In fact theorists like Cynthia Enloe propose that the violence women face in extraordinary situations like war is only an extension of the violence they face during peacetime. Women, according to Enloe, thus face a continuum of violence across war and peace. This idea of the continuum seems to be useful for the debate on the public and private spheres as well.


Again one must pause here to reiterate that the public is also not an unmarked universal for women. Women’s very access to the public is mediated by their class, caste, racial and religious locations. This is also the problem with opening banks only for women, or having women only public spaces.


This public-private divide then creeps into areas like law and public policy. Two issues will be discussed here. First is the issue of ‘abducted women’ during the partition of India and Pakistan. The other is the post-independence issue of Shah Bano.


The public-private debate also has implications for the central concept in feminism – the body. In traditional political philosophy, the body and the mind have treated as two distinct entities. Now, these are not just distinct but also hierarchical in nature. The mind has largely been treated as the superior faculty, characterized by reason, rationality, and thinking. The other is the body, which is the realm of bodily functions and emotions but more importantly, the site of un-reason and irrationality. There is not much to be discussed then in the fact that men seem to occupy the realm of the mind, while women, with the emphasis on bodily processes like menstruation, pregnancy and child rearing, inhabit the realm of the body. This


2See Okin (1987, 1989, 1994) and Pateman (2002)


division also links up to other such arbitrary divisions like public and private, culture and nature, masculine and feminine.


The other discourses on the body come from the queer and disability schools. The queer understanding of the body decenters this discourse of the mind and the body and focuses on the primacy of the latter. The disability discourse also focuses on the body.




Anne Philips, Iris Marion Young and Nancy Frasier have been part of this very complex debate on the positions of sameness and difference. The central question which this debate seeks to address is – should women be treated differently because of their histories of oppression and discrimination and their present status as ‘inferior’? The argument against this position is that if women continue to be treated differently then their position as weaker gets essentialized. This they need to be enabled or made capable to compete with the larger society.


The sameness and difference debate is being used in fields like citizenship and multiculturalism. The initial idea is that of ‘citizenship-as-common-rights’3. This has obvious problems. It leads to homogenization, an oppressive form of Universality and erasure of unique differences among people and groups. This also means that what is promoted as ‘common’ is actually a very specific form of male, white, heterosexual and upper-class perspective. This naturally harms many groups like women, African Americans, homosexuals, native inhabitants. In response Iris Marion Young proposes the concept of ‘differentiated citizenship’. This would ensure that while all the above mentioned groups will get the universal citizenship rights, they will also be entitled to certain special group rights, in order to overcome the disadvantage that incurs as a result of being part of groups such as certain genders and sexualities, ethnic identities and race.




3 See WillKymlicka. (1990). Chapter on ‘Citizenship’ in Contemporary Political Philosophy. OUP


In this analysis we have to realize that these debates do not exist in a vacuum. We exist as a continuum of various selves across caste, class, gender, sex, ethnic and race lines. Any discussion of feminist politics would be incomplete without an understanding about the intersectionality of the feminist position. Caste and gender debates in India have matured greatly over the past decade. The theoretical impulse in this field came from Gopal Guru’s evocative statement – ‘Dalit women speak differently’. Simultaneously there has also been extensive work on the body and politics of the upper caste women. Women here are seen as markers of caste and sexual boundaries. Prem Chaudhary’s work looks at the fault lines of these boundaries and what happens in cases of transgression. Dalit feminism with its very strong insights into the caste biases of the feminist movement in India is thus an important component of these debates. Scholars like Sharmila Regehave made important contributions in the field, by pitching the argument at the level of unique position and experience of the Dalit woman. An interesting intervention in this respect has been the vast number of autobiographies written by Dalit women. These works have opened up several debates around the experience of being a Dalit woman. Most notably the writings of Veerama, Bama, and others have forced social sciences to take into cognizance, the patriarchy inherent within the extremely radical Dalit movement itself. They have forced a realization that even while fighting against caste inequalities, the movement has ignored the concerns of the Dalit women, most of whom suffer what has come to be called, ‘triple discrimination’ – caste, class and gender based discrimination that these women might face at some points in their life. ‘Dalit Patriarchy’ is thus another variant, though much contested, of the larger apparatus of power relations of patriarchy.


Susie Tharu and Tesajwini Niranjana look at this issue of in India by examining issues like the Mandal agitation and the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. “In the 70’s and 80’s, an important task for feminist theory was to establish ‘gender’ as a category that had been rendered invisible in universalisms of various kinds”, write Tharu and Niranjana. This led to a series of movements around dowry, eve-teasing and rights of women in and outside the home. The writers however contend that with the coming up of issues like Mandal and the rise of the Hindu right wing, the concerns for the women’s movement in India have also changed. Tharu and Niranjana seem to be hinting at the issue of intersectionality of the gender question with issues such as caste, class, race and sexuality. The Shah Bano case in particular, brought out the difficulties in formulating a coherent feminist position in India.


Both Mandal and Shah Bano4 uncovered the deeply Universal nature of the Indian feminist movement, with its inability to handle the complex issues of religion and caste.


The experience of race and gender has also been vastly theorized. bell hooks has been largely instrumental in waging these debates.




Going back to the example which we started with – a women’s only bank, we will now be in a better position to comment on this policy initiative. Creating exclusive spaces for women can be beneficial for limited purposes and contexts. It will enhance public participation, access to public spaces and economy, which will lead to certain kinds of empowerment. However, in the longer run there is a serious need for changing the overall structure of the public and the private spheres in order for them to become more egalitarian, equal and gender friendly. However, the debate of difference vs.sameness creates a problem here. Do we want a gender-neutral environment which treats everyone equally, without due consideration to specific histories and problems? This is the condition where there is enough stress on formal equality but substantial equality lacks a bit. This is because while formally and legally everyone will be equal, yet in practice, since different people would have had different starting points in life, they would also have different life outcomes. For instance, if we look at existing public institutions like banks and schools, not every woman is able to access them because of varying life circumstances. Poverty, lack of freedom, lack of economic security and community restrictions can be the various reasons why women from certain contexts cannot access education or banks in spite of the facilities being there, i.e., substantial or actual opportunity and equality is missing even though the formal arrangements are present. A woman only school or college or bank will thus improve this state of affairs as women and their communities may feel safer and more enabled in these cordoned off spaces. Our experience with women colleges has been largely positive in this regard.


The problem with this approach is that it creates an opposition between equality and liberty. Affirmative action programs, reservations and privileges, given to minorities or special


4Look at works by Anupama Roy (2001), Nivedita Menon (1998) and Nira Yuval-Davis (1997) for a discussion on the Shah Bano and Mandal cases.


groups violate the principals of liberal equality where the citizen is an unmarked individual, worthy of a universal idea of respect, equality and freedom. However, the women’s movement has made sufficient critiques of this idea of the universal and also of liberal notions of equality, which can be used to create a much more layered and complex idea of feminist politics and also politics at large.

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