Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Bourgeois Feminism and the Case Against Tarun Tejpal

by Quincy Saul with editorial assistance by Kanya D'Almeida
January 2014

Throughout the media circus now known more or less universally as “the Tejpal Assault Case” there has been much talk of feminist principles. Everyone from the alleged victim to Tarun himself have invoked these principles, declaring them valuable and important enough to live or lacerate by; but few have dared to elaborate on what they are, where they came from, and where they are going.

Instead, most have chosen the easier route, of scoring quick ‘feminist’ points by jumping on the Tarun-bashing bandwagon. At the sight of the BJP protesting Tejpal at the airport, all we can say is, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” But this is clearly bigger than Tejpal. What's on display and on trial here is a patriarchal society trying to reckon with itself, through the distorted kaleidoscope lens of a massive celebrity scandal. So let's examine these “feminist principles,” in the hope of rescuing them from the toxic wasteland of this media spill, what one unusually astute commentator has called “an exploitation of feminism for media profits.” (Vidyut)

Very few people in today's world would deny the truth: that there is an economic, social and cultural apartheid between men and women, an apartheid born of tradition, nursed on modernity, enforced first with blows and then by laws, anointed with custom and sanctified by all the gods.

Women have always resisted patriarchy; look no further than that famous image of Kali standing over Shiva! In the 20th century, the ancient movement for the rights, dignity and integrity of women took on the name “feminism.” Today there are feminists in power – from authoritative heads of state to humble representatives of the United Nations. They all speak at great length about “women's empowerment”, and have created an uncountable multitude of organizations, initiatives and programs on behalf of women, focusing on education, law, economics, and more.

For these leaders, feminist principles are seen in isolation from the wider world. It is “the woman question,” and “the feminist perspective.” The woman's question is seen as apart from the larger human question, except insofar as women try to fit into a man's world. The goal is to “fix the error”, to achieve so-called “gender equality” by opening the doors of patriarchal institutions to women (schools, churches, corporations, governments) and appointing women to positions of power within these same institutions.

We can call this mode of thinking bourgeois feminism in the sense that it replicates the overall bourgeois outlook on society – society as an aggregate of discrete individuals, each rationally maximizing their utility according to their preference functions. As the bourgeois scientist looks only at her science, as the bourgeois artist sees only his art, and as the bourgeois economist sees only money, so bourgeois feminists do not understand how women's oppression and exploitation today is an integral expression of a historically produced political, economic, and cultural system.

The ideas of the ruling class are the ideas of the whole age: You don't have to be bourgeois to get caught up in bourgeois feminism. You just have to believe that women’s empowerment can be sponsored by the same corporations that run sweatshops, or that it can be created by the same structural adjustment programs that force developing countries into debt. You have to believe that women’s rightful place will be won through the gradual reform of the existing system, driven by powerful female individuals. Here the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Condoleeza Rice and Indira Gandhi can stand at the head of the feminist parade.

Throughout history, women like Emma Goldman have rained on the parade: “Six million women wage-earners; six million women, who have the equal right with men to be exploited, to be robbed, to go on strike; aye, to starve even. Anything more, my lord? Yes, six million age-workers in every walk of life, from the highest brain work to the most difficult menial labor in the mines and on the railroad tracks; yes, even detectives and policemen. Surely the emancipation is complete.”
Like Emma, millions of others have another take; a different set of feminist principles. They, too, want to tear down the gender apartheid. These are the “third world feminists,” (though many do not identify with the term feminism at all) the women of revolutionary movements around the world, who do not talk of “equality of the sexes”, but call for and practice a politics that breaks firmly and decisively with the whole capitalist modernity project.

These women don’t understand their oppression in isolation from the wider economic/social/cultural system, because they understand women's oppression as precisely the historical, economic, and cultural cornerstone of the entire model of civilization, culminating in present day capitalism. This very simple historical perspective is utterly distinct from bourgeois feminism. And yet those who don't think this through can suddenly find themselves making alliances with strange and dangerous allies, under a popular front banner of “feminism” that has little specific content or explanatory power.

Watch bourgeois feminism unfold in the case against Tarun Tejpal: the alleged victim has been clear in her statement about what should be done: "It is not the victim that categorizes crimes: it is the law.” It is not up to the alleged victim or rapist to define or resolve what happened. It's up to the legal system. So the answer is simple: hand Tejpal over to the state.

It is this brand of feminism that is short-sighted enough to celebrate a patriarchal state when it dresses up as feminist. It believes the accumulation of high profile cases like this one will one day open the horizon of women's liberation. It will send five-star hotels running to install CCTV cameras in their elevators, giving the international “security” establishment the perfect opportunity to inform the good citizens why constant surveillance is actually a logical and useful undertaking (even though CCTV footage of a woman being hacked with a knife inside an ATM in Bangalore has not spurred the media into a frenzy, or ensured any justice for the victim). It is the same bourgeois feminism that will count it as a victory when Tejpal goes to jail, and Tehelka is ruined in the process. These adamantine principles decree that it is worth it to ruin a magazine that has done more for women than many others in recent Indian history, in order to take down a single individual who may have in some way violated another.

Indians should know better. Remember when the British used sati to justify colonialism? Decades from now, will we look back and wonder how we stood by bleating for Tejpal's blood while the journalistic conscience of a nation was ransomed for the imagined purity of an anonymous girl?

Meanwhile, this alleged victim has the attention of the nation and the world. She's clearly smart – composed, articulate, determined. What an opportunity: the media hawks will publish far and wide anything she says. She seems to be seriously misunderstanding this moment and its implications, with devastating consequences that will eventually come back to haunt her. With each day that passes, each email she leaks to the press that prolongs the circus, she loses the opportunity to speak for the millions of women who have no such privileges of publicity, or to condemn those who are trying to hijack their cause for different ends.

If we are to avoid the pitfalls of this bourgeois feminism, who is to judge the validity of the girl’s claims and the gravity of Tarun’s trespass? A real commitment to women's liberation would not see any victory or justice in throwing Tarun in jail to the cheers of the BJP, or any victory in driving a good magazine into the red – the same magazine that put its trust in an outspoken female journalist to cover a beat that most other publications ignore.

 Are there, then, living, breathing examples of a “not-so-bourgeois” feminism that answers the question of “what is to be done?” Luckily, this scene is set in India, where there are always as many solutions as there are problems. If the goal is to move away from patriarchal establishments, then why not deliver Tejpal into the hands of the Gulabi Gang? This group of matriarchs, founded in 2006, does not use the word “feminism”. Perhaps it is not a helpful concept in Bundelkhand, where child brides are the order of the day and domestic violence is so acute that few women live to the tell the tale. These women trust their justice neither to the courts nor to the media, but to the community, to the place and people that gave birth to both the aggrieved and the aggressor.

Not only would the Gulabi gang give Tarun the people's tribunal he deserves (and not the media circus that no one deserves) -- but they would likely speak the real truth about this case. In a country where men routinely thrash their wives, a country where women are raped and murdered in public on a more or less regular basis, a country where brides are married before they reach puberty, and moreover a country on the brink of a civil war and an ecological apocalypse, would the Gulabi Gang have the time for Tarun? Perhaps they would make him run their laathi gauntlet. But more likely they would remind us that, whether or not the allegations against Tejpal or true, every day, there are far more gruesome crimes being committed with impunity. That the middle class and elite have turned what is at most a small tragedy into an epic multi-million dollar parasite, an out-of-control organism that will not rest until it has sucked every drop of scandalous life out of the Tejpals, Tehelka, and the victim herself -- all in the name of “feminist principles,” but accomplishing nothing for women.

For many years, Tarun Tejpal has been calling for a middle class renaissance in India, for the return of the enlightened elite, the golden age of Nehru. Ironically, this media carnival has once and for all demonstrated the impossibility of such a renaissance. In fact, the Indian middle class is so fickle, so hopelessly adrift on the bloody winnings of proto-imperial capital accumulation, that it will turn against its own champions on a dime. While the Himalayas are melting and the biggest revolution in the world is churning in the forests...

From all of this we learn: for the future of women's liberation, we will have to look outside of bourgeois feminism, outside the middle class, and outside the framework of Indian civil society which has been the template for its leadership and development since independence.

Women's liberation will not be won by entrusting the defense of rape victims to the central institutions of patriarchal rule. Women's liberation will not be won by the reflexive regurgitation of a commitment to “feminist principles” which are neither theoretically nor historically explained or grounded. Women's liberation will not be won by destroying Tarun Tejpal, who despite any problems and failures, has done more for women than many if not most of those accusing him. Women's liberation cannot be won by the bourgeois feminists or by Tehelka, or by any other reformist gesture of a nobly intentioned middle class. This is the real uncomfortable lesson of the “Tejpal Assault Case,” which history will tell but the present sadly cannot see.

In the meantime, however, in the short-run, it is imperative that anyone and everyone who values independent journalism comes to the defense of Tehelka. Unless, that is, you want the future of Indian media entrusted to those who call Tarun's request for a fan in his cell “breaking news,” and a trip up and down an elevator “investigative journalism.” (In case you hadn't noticed, throughout this crisis, Tehelka has continued to report breaking news and analysis, because the world indeed does go on despite the society of the spectacle's best efforts.) Regardless of what Tarun Tejpal did or didn't do, or how we feel about him and men like him, we owe it to the future to defend a magazine whose name means “the tumult provoked by a daring act.” In this case the daring act must be our own, ready to enter the fray to defend a magazine whose mission is truth and transparency, ready to challenge bourgeois feminism, and ready to expose all those who are hiding behind it with less noble values and motives.