Breaking the barrier

  • #MeToo movement has revealed the underbelly of western patriarchy—let’s wish it both good luck and balance
- Pramod Mishra
Patriarchy hasn’t allowed Western women their full personhood: In a capitalist system of economic hierarchy, women haven’t been given the equality of power that every individual is entitled to in a democracy

Jan 18, 2018-The #MeToo movement has turned into a revolution in the United States, and its repercussions are being felt all over the world. As in any revolution, unruly heads of men have rolled, bodies of women have been avenged, men’s wayward hands have been tied, and such men themselves have been kicked out of their posts. Feminist scholars have come to argue not just for notional freedom but one that is embodied as well—the freedom of women over their bodies in the world.

Who knew what had been going on behind closed doors and who knew about the interactions between American men and women before the #MeToo movement exploded and exposed not just the monsters like Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, but a whole world of unwanted interactions that had so far remained hidden from public view? The rest of the world, especially the non-Western world, had thought that American women had empowered themselves with the suffragette movement resulting in their voting rights in 1920 (by the way, the bastion of liberty, equality and fraternity, France, gave voting rights to women only in 1944), and with the Flappers (women so called for wearing loose, unconventional clothing as their new-found fashion statement) embracing the freedom to wear short skirts and sleeveless blouses in the Roaring Twenties. Then, after surviving the Great Depression, World War II and the conservative 1950s, the 60s unlocked the doors for freedom of all kinds for the young, the ethnic groups, especially African Americans through the Civil Rights movement, and the women. The contraceptive pill liberated women’s sexuality in a way that freed her for the most part from the clutches of her family, clan, marriage and procreation.

Test of compatibility 

Even though courtship and falling in love had been a longstanding precondition of marriage in the West, sexual experimentation with different eligible girls and boys (men and women, if you prefer) had not been socially accepted before. A glance through 18th century sentimental English novels will tell you that. But by the 90s, if one didn’t play around and map the field before getting married, one was considered a fool. One was not expected to get married with the man or woman whom one met for the first time. If one did not map the field, it was thought that one was immature and naïve, and sorely lacking in the training and social skills necessary for successfully navigating one’s way through life.

Here is an example:  I had a female friend at my graduate school who had fallen in love right in her first year in college at a premier American university. She stuck with the guy through college from ages 18 through 22, married him, and went to Europe with him after graduating. But in Europe, their marriage soured, and she returned to the US post-divorce and subsequently enrolled for graduate studies. But now, at an older age, having not experienced the social scene at a nimble age in college by herself, she found herself lacking the social skills to find a new partner. My friends said that she had wasted her college experience and now she didn’t know how to play the scene and find a boyfriend. In a traditional non-Western culture, I suppose, my friend’s family, extended clan and caste would have found her a partner and arranged a marriage without much hassle—with all the limitations, restrictions, expectations and comfort of an arranged marriage.

Freedom seen, the cage unseen

This realisation of individual freedom to choose the person, the act, or the degree and extent of any act one participates in is at the heart of the #MeToo movement.  My first encounter of a bar scene on Lake Erie in Buffalo, New York, on a night when we were taken bar hopping (that’s what our organisers called it) some two decades ago mesmerised me. Men and women on that warm August night with glasses of alcohol in hand seemed to me to be as free as birds; they had full sovereignty over their bodies. I thought if there was paradise anywhere on earth, this was it—the freedom to be where you want to be with whom you want to be. American men and women had achieved it after a long struggle, I had thought.

But the #MeToo movement has revealed the underbelly of Western patriarchy. To be sure, women are not free in many Muslim or Hindu majority countries because religion and history have fortified patriarchy and women are expected to stay within the patriarchal fortress of traditional rules, laws, customs and mores. Women are not individuals but part of the collective entity of family, clan, caste and religion and its denominations. And in many cases, so are men.  But while family, clan, race and religion have freed Western women more or less from their tentacles, they have also been rid of their protection. In traditional non-Western societies, the family (brothers, fathers, cousins, uncles) protect the young women of the family. A fight or even a riot would ensue if somebody violated a woman’s honour. In the West, especially in the United States, there is no such thing as honour associated with a woman’s sexuality, as it is in many non-Western societies. What women have here is their personhood, their individuality, their self and subjectivity—legal, moral, psychological, philosophical. And now, the #MeToo movement has shown that patriarchy hasn’t allowed women their full personhood and their individuality through the workings of social, political and economic power. In a capitalist system of economic hierarchy, Western women were not given the equality of power that every individual is entitled to in a democracy. This was so because even professional women suffered sexual harassment and exploitation silently because they were afraid that their career would be ruined or that they would be discredited until the dam broke and the #MeToo movement was born.

As I said, like any revolution, this too will go through some excesses, but the open flow of media and social media will stabilise it and offer American women a fresh ground to negotiate their social and sexual power over their bodies. But before this happens, this movement is sure to go through considerable twists and turns. Let’s wish it both good luck and balance.

Mishra is department Chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States

Published: 18-01-2018 07:45

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