Friday, 18 January 2013

The politics of wearing white: being conscious of the patriarchy

Trigger warning - Discussion about rape 

My first post for The Handmirror was going to introduce my pseudonym and give readers a bit of an insight into why I'd chosen to name myself after the feminist thinker and activist that has touched me the most, bell hooks (look forward to that post in the coming weeks). 

Instead I've chosen to reflect on the events suceeding the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi and the assault of her friend last month. 

Coverage of largely women led protests in India and abroad has been extensive in the mainstream media and blogs. Two pieces of writing have impacted on me and are worth a look at. 

The New Yorker article stood out in particular because of the inclusion of a video of Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association (if on the off chance you understand Hindi it's well worth a watch) that dealt with the issue of sexual violence, the failure of governments to protect women and the broader issue of the regulation of women by their families and communities. 

My own personal reflection takes a very different route to these articles. Given my geographic distance from the events and that my understanding comes primarily from English medium sources I can't add much at this point to the debate about rape culture in India. Instead I'm going to focus on a small reflection that I had while attending the silent protest held in solidarity with protests in India organised by the Young Asian Feminist Association (YAFA) with support from Shakti. 

The last time I went to India I was nine years old and my experience of Indian society and culture is deeply rooted in the diaspora. My Indian education has largely been through the sporadic and adapted teachings of my parents and grandparents and a good dose of Indian pop culture though Bollywood movies and music. What I felt is probably a reflection of where I'm situated in relation to this particular tragedy. I acknowledge that it's quite a meta reflection and may seen trivial to some. However it reflects the pervasiveness but often unique manifestatiosn of patriarchy.

The leaders of the Auckland based protest, quite appropriately requested that people attending wore white as this is the colour associated with mourning in India. White symbolises the absence of colour with colour being an important part of celebrations and festivities for most communities in the subcontinent. Like in the Western tradition white also symbolises purity. 

Sitting in the heat last Saturday wearing a white dress and dupatta (scarf) that belonged to my great grandmother I contemplated the significance of us wearing white and about how this symbolic gesture fitted in with our broader attempts to fight the patriarchy.

An ever present challenge for feminists is the pervasiveness of patriarchal culture within many of our communities and that while we fight the patriarchy on on front (sorry for the masculine language) it rears it's head in other ways.

This means as feminists we must be continually conscience of the patriarchy and its manifestations particularly in our forms of resistance. Sometimes that means our behaviour or methods will need to change  and other times it simply means being mindful and taking that mindfulness forward into our lives. 

For many Indian communities particularly those still residing in the sub-continent the standard dress for funerals is white. Wearing a particular shade or type of dress is something that many cultures have with colours and forms of clothing having particular symbolic meanings relevant to those cultural and spiritual contexts. In some cultures both historically and in contemporary society widows are particularly marked in how they should dress after the death of their husbands symbolising their continual mourning and status a widow. The wearing of black, associated with Queen Victoria, in the Western tradition and in Eastern and Southern European traditions is noteworthy as is the wearing of white and pale colours in Indian contexts. As with everything family traditions, caste, class and religion has an important role to play in this community and self regulation resulting in considerable diversity in expressions of mourning. 

While I took comfort in the communal wearing of white at the protest I was reminded of the partriachial role the wearing of white has played in the lives of widows in many Indian communities. While the tradition is less prevelent the colour associated with mourning reminds me of the often young woman who find themselves without husbands but still regulated by their status as a wife. In Hindi movies such as the iconic Sholay and the more recent Baabul and the festival film Water, this highly regulated role of a widow is portrayed with sadness and frustration with little ability to make life choices (something fundamental to feminism).

It may be that in both the subcontinent and the diaspora these patriarchal structures have largely broken down (it's hard for me to know) and that white no longer has this association with the heavy regulation of women widows in the communities it once did. However I'm sure that in many places and communities it still does.

I support the decision by the protest organisers to ask people to wear white. I think it was culturally appropriate and really emphasised that this was a protest that was organised by women of colour predominately from an Asian background. But what it made me realise, something that is pointed out by Kavita Krishnan, is that when we rise up against rape culture we have to also consider the broader regulation of women within society. In this way we can really honour the memory of Jyoti Singh Pandey and other women such as her something the silent protest last Sunday did really well. 


AlisonM said...

Welcome from another THM newbie. Thanks for the really interesting post. It gels a bit with something I was working on, involving looking at what some of the so-called 2nd-wave feminist writers (mainly Western) thought later about what they had written back in the day. One comment Kate Millett made in 2000 about her 1970 book "Sexual Politics" struck me.

She suggests that back in 1970, she (and some others) underestimated the “role of force in patriarchy”. Feminists back then were intent on a “reasonable civil rights argument”, she said, and they (and Millett) didn’t look deeply enough into domestic violence and rape, which were treated more as “aberrant” behaviour than as a norm.
I won't unpick this further, or the huge area of critique of the "2nd-wave", since this is just a comment. But it made me think about how rape/sexual violence still tends to be thought of (and treated by the mainstream media) as aberrant behaviour rather than as the norm that it is, i.e. sexual violence plus the constant threat of sexual violence. (You see that in how many people will claim to be supportive at the same time as they reject the use of phrases like "rape culture".) As Millett put it in 2000:
"Only later did we become aware that there was a normative element in patriarchal violence, still later we began to understand the depth of worldwide poverty among women, even the widespread malnourishment of female children."

Anonymous said...

Just Saying:

Thank you for this thoughtful and informative post.

Although I'm just a reader, I'd like to welcome you to this corner of the blogosphere. The Hand Mirror is part of my regular reading and thinking about the world.
Looking forward to reading more form you.

tildebhooks said...

Thanks for the comments. Thankfully with the people driving the protests both in India and abroad the systemic nature of patriarchy that manifests in rape culture isn't lost on them. What I liked about the video that was in the article I linked to is that it started with the legal changes that needed to be made and the responsibility of governments to talking about the control and regulation of women in a broader sense. I think it's important to take note of the subtleties in our resistance so that we can more effectively work towards justice. There's a lot happening in what might seem mundane and ordinary, something feminists are well aware of.

tildebhooks said...

I'm looking forward to writing more and having the chance to develop my ideas with readers. My first day on the blog has been great. Thanks again.

AlisonM said...

Yes, so good to be able to have a 'conversation' about these issues. Thanks tildebhooks.