Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When Feminist Mothering is Easy

Today, a friend sent me this self congratulatory article Being a Feminist Mother is a Liberating Experience and I just had to take it to task. It irritated me and I wanted to understand why.

Using free association between terms such as patriarchy, agency, intersectionality, racism and gender bias, the Indian immigrant writer asserts that feminist mothering has helped her protect her daughter from society’s patriarchal expectations, especially that of immigrant cultures.

However, apart from broad general assertions, she quotes only three specific instances where she felt that feminist mothering gave her the tools to help herself and her daughter navigate a patriarchal world.

-       Her Indian mother questioned her decision to send her daughter to an expensive private school.
-       A boy questioned her daughter’s interest in politics because girls are only interested in fairies and cakes.
-       When her 17-year-old daughter wears short dresses, the Indian within her baulks but feminism gives her the tools to let her daughter be.

Since she pompously starts the article by presenting herself as someone at the intersection of race, gender and ideology – an Indian immigrant mother in the UK with a mixed race daughter (half white, half Indian) with feminist leanings – I’ll use intersectionality to examine her conflicts.

The first thing to be said is that she misses out on one critical intersection of her identity – class. As someone who is married to a white British person and can afford to send her daughter to a private school in the UK, she belongs to the educated professional class of the UK at the very least. So we can’t ignore the impact that belonging to this class would have on her own and her daughter’s conflicts and experiences.

Giving the best possible education to your child, boy or girl, among this class is a norm – in fact, it would be frowned upon to visibly discriminate between your son and daughter in providing the materials of education. (In fact, it is a norm even among the equivalent classes in India, and would have been 12 years ago when the writer placed her daughter in school). A passing patriarchal remark by her mother who had no control over her decision making, when the weight and fashions of the class that she belonged to strongly supported her decision in favour of her daughter doesn’t amount to a hard-fought conflict.

Ditto, a passing remark by a boy about girls liking fairies and cakes and not politics. If you belong to white middle class in the UK and are sending your daughter to a private school, she is already being exposed to a whole range of women role models and feminist ideology (from classroom discussions, literature, films, TV, media to more immediate examples of successful women role models). Surely, all that armour would weather a chance remark by a boy without any lasting impact. Even without the benefit of feminist mothering, her daughter would have enough strong women role models to be inspired from and to aspire to.

Feminist mothering would have surely had a stronger role to play had she belonged to white working class because even if white working class girls are inspired by women role models in society, economic considerations do not support their aspirations to become one. Having a feminist mother to bolster your dreams and support them would indeed be a huge advantage. 

Finally, we come to the writer’s daughter’s short dresses. I truly feel for her here because her immigrant background and her feminist beliefs would be at complete odds with each other here. Indian cultures place all the responsibility of sexual control on women and bestow all the privileges of sexual provocation and exploration to men. Mainstream western feminism loathes placing any responsibility of sexual control on women – from clothes to conduct to consent.  The writer’s choice would have been particularly hard given what was at stake - her daughter’s emotional and physical safety and security.

The writer doesn’t really tussle with the two oppositional stances though. She looks around and sees that short dresses are the norm as is holding men responsible for sexual transgressions, and takes comfort in the belief that her feminist daughter will be ok. However, that doesn’t answer why despite decades of feminist demands on the subject, sexual assault remains common in the West and its aftermath on women as traumatic as ever.

Perhaps a more fruitful discussion wither her daughter would involve the role of shifting contexts, places and power in sexual dynamics between men and women, and how to remain alert, aware and sensitive to them even as we assert our rights to live and experience life freely.

Words such as patriarchy, racism, intersectionality, gender discrimination have meaning and value. But every time we use them slavishly and sloppily to find comfortable, convenient and self-congratulatory positions, we rob them a little of their power and meaning and end up empowering our opponents.

Being a feminist mother is liberating indeed, especially when it gives you a comfortable look out post to view the world and asks nothing of you in return. In other worlds, it is called entitlement. 


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