Speech Through Silences
I got an invite from the Embassy Library this week, inviting me to a dinner they’re holding to celebrate Virginia Woolf’s birthday, the invite carries the stamp of the Bloomsbury Press that the Woolf’s used and there is a quote, “Arrange whatever comes your way”. Had I received this invite two years ago, I’d be squealing with enthusiasm because of the impressive logo, happy that I am a member of a library that holds such dinners — completely unaware of my privilege – I would probably even participate in the auction for the first edition pocketbooks. After all, Woolf was one of my first literary loves, I read every book she wrote in a period of six months at 18; I even presented an extremely gushy paper on her ‘stream of consciousness’ method of writing and how ‘revolutionary’ it was, considering it came from a lady, in a time ladies weren’t attributed to having many ideas or thoughts, how she situated politics of power in the Body amid other fangirly ideas. Today, I want to half-occupy that naïve girl’s space, be that ecstatic and genuinely in awe with Woolf, to not have this pesky voice in my head saying, “You know, if Woolf saw you at this dinner, she’d probably ask you to be removed out of the hall”¹; I want to unknow — in parts anyway — how her narratives construct me, always on the fringe, refusing me entry to her world. Today, were I to even forcibly re-inject ‘me’ or what ‘my body’ represents in any of Woolf’s narratives, it would be a complete waste as her construction of ‘me’ is a void, leaving gaps for Liberal Humanism to come ‘save me’. And to think a woman and a figure that set out Othering people who didn’t match her skin tone is a cult literary feminist icon drives the idea of constructing the DeTongued Third World Woman home; this Third World Woman represents a frame: one without a body or a voice.
If I were to ‘map’ this dis-voiced body, it appears everywhere from well-loved colonial texts to western feminist scholarship. If I got a paisa for the number of times any White feminist text or study references ‘the Indian dowry system’, ‘the Indonesian women working in sweat shops’ and ‘the eternally toiling Chinese farmer, who also takes the beatings of her husband with equal silence’ then I’d probably be out of ditches to feed and clothe. Most of these texts talk about oppression and inequality in predominantly First World terminology and insert the Third World woman between parentheses, marking the ‘difference’ between both in invisible neon ink; this Western Feminist theorist constructs herself as the ‘Local’ and ‘us’ as the Exotic-Global-Marginal-Animal that is brought out to make the statement stretch beyond America or Europe’s borders, theoretically speaking only, of course². Some take it a step further and go to great lengths to discuss the Devdasi traditions, bonded labour or caste-based prostitution with the feminist-as-tourist-in-an-exotic-land where the theorist exclaims, “I can’t possibly describe to you dear reader, how sad these women’s lives are! My heart gushes for them! I lived with them for about two weeks and now will go on to theorise their life though I probably took out my own interpretations, but these women won’t ever know, because people in ditches don’t read” in perhaps more culturally-appropriative language. It serves to keep the hued woman (or feminine-identifying body) under a cage of ‘difference’, this way the theorist can engage in healthy povertyporn as well as give in to their ivory-tower complex by playing the Theorist With Divine Knowledge Of Feminism That Will Save The Dusty Bodies without acknowledging the privilege it takes for anyone to see people from this anthropological distance – say, like the one I’m doing now! Privilege bites all our bums, dusty and otherwise — or to offer solutions that are theory and pitch perfect but go hollow the moment any subjectivity weighs in. Quite similar to the Dance Bar Ban of 2005 in Mumbai, in theory this ban aims to ‘liberate women’ but ends up putting sex-work, Dalit sexuality — as a big portion of bar dancers are from the Dalit community – behind stigmatised lines; making it ‘forbidden’ and impossibly ‘deviant’ in one swift blow, ignoring just how much harm it is doing to the very women it aims to ‘liberate’³. In spaces like these, the Silences of the DeTongued minority speak further and faster than any literary or theoretical mumbo-jumbo.
I’d love to live up to my reputation as a reverse-racist here and say, “These Western modes of feminism are horrid, we should burn all those books and just sit around in our ditches as Third World Women we are trained to do”, but eschewing western modes of feminisms and activism isn’t my privilege or concern. What interests this LadyBrain today is how we can take our colonially-given meanings and forms and twist it to our own cultural specifics, to make sure feminism reaches every marginalised body it has the access to or we will be re-writing yet another discourse that is designed to leave people out. Capitalism may be something Marx theorised first – only in the Eurocentric world that is – but till date, the site for production remains the bodies of dusty third world people, women in particular. More often than not, this Woman-figure becomes metonymic for the nation, her clothes become repositories of tradition, so curbing her freedom and her movement becomes synonymous with charting the body and the Nation, in any nationalist framework. Words glide glaze roam about and around her but very little voicing happens from her Body, meanwhile, the dusty realities of who ‘we’ as Third World Women live and experience step back into realms of fiction and mythology, fissuring our identities. This fissured identity fragments further under English – especially if this English term is learnt ‘by heart’ – so the colonial textual framing of this Third World Woman enters our bodies every time it is spoken aloud, every time we say words like ‘being the bottom tier of the site of production of meaning and form’4 and we absorb the narrative that is woven around us, especially in academia.
For many dusty bodies, feminism becomes another route to get tangled in Words That Are Spoken About Us and never To Us, no denying how colonial and imperial it can be – I’d rather talk about the different varied species of bullfrogs than suggest otherwise – but it doesn’t have to continue this way. Like Vandana Siva the eco-feminist says, “If we locate feminism in the Body capitalism and racism start their dislocation in, and work our way upwards, chances are we’d dismantle gender, class, caste, racial discrimination without even realizing it”. Imagine if we start with Dalit tribes, or any sexual and racial minority, how much privilege are we undoing? The Subaltern, the Third World Woman, The Marginal-Animal-Slave-Object doesn’t have to exist if we focus on the words that come out between cracks, if we see speech that comes from absences this very Third World Woman re-presents to us.
1. See Woolf’s Selected Letters or Diaries for her intolerance towards Indians.
2. See Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts And Everyday Rebellions, Germaine Greer’s The Whole Woman, Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions, all are texts written in the late 90′s to early 10′s, so the excuse, “But they were writing in colonial times” is moot here.
3. Important to note that the feminists who supported the ban were mainstream upper-caste Hindu feminists who completely failed to see how much this law places Dalit women on a disadvantage. For more on this, see the wonderful Meenakshi Moon and Urmila Pawar’s introduction to ‘We Also Made History’.
4. This line is taken from Kristeva’s essay on Indonesian factory workers