Shoma Chaudhury and tales of selective Feminism
There is one big take away for me from the 5 years that I have engaged with studying Patriarchy and Feminism as a student of Sociology and Development Studies. The take away being there is no unilinear understanding of feminism and that feminisms are multiple. Having said that, gender-studies was never my favorite subject and that was simply because I could not make up my mind about what perspective should I hold on to. I could never make up my mind how to place my own opposition clearly while respecting the decisions of others. I could never figure out what qualifies as freedom, choice and does it really end where my nose begins. I could never understand how one should make the personal political while also trying to check broad generalizations.
But, there are a few things I understood. The first, being that the feminist theory is a critical theory and I am not critical enough to understand it in its entirety. Maybe if I chose to read more and engage with it in a deeper way, I would find plausible answers to all my questions.
Secondly, I understood that I can keep myself ready to learn from all while I negotiate my space through the misogyny and the sexism all around us. My feminism shall be my own. It will be open to views, opinions, and values from all while having some non-negotiable stands. But, the third most critical thing which I understood from my classes was that I shall not call myself a feminist and sermonize to the world till the point I deem myself ready to be one.
And that day shall come only when I challenge and counter the internalized misogyny and sexism in me. Yes, I am still guilty at smirking at some dumb sexist joke. Yes, sometimes spontaneously, I wonder why a girl is wearing such a short skirt and walking through a crowded street and have to forcefully remind myself to respect her choice. Yes, I still at times evaluate myself through my partners gaze and feel happy about it. I am still comfortable with many aspects of patriarchy and can relate to many views with other prominent feminists might call regressive.
It is perhaps my own lacuna, my socialization and also a part of me which I find difficult to shed. Till that time, I am not a feminist and find it beyond my moral authority to sermonize to the world. Yes, I do express my opinion, my dissent, my anger but as another citizen, not as a feminist. Because for me, feminists have a huge responsibility which they have gained by virtue of debunking all internalized patriarchy. Their views cannot be ambiguous, their outrage cannot be selective, and their conscience cannot point towards self preservation.
I see every feminist as a beacon of light, a self made leader who guides us each day towards confronting the ‘demon within’, towards making the world an equitable space one small deed at a time. That is why I chose to wait to confront my own internalized misogyny and sexism before I venture out to theorize feminism for the whole world. I wait to call myself a feminist because I am not ready for the huge role. And in my belief, Shoma Chaudhury should have waited too.
In the light of the recent Tehelka sexual assault story, a lot has to be said about Shoma Chaudhury. Things have to be stated because of her position as the head of an organization recruiting women and being vocal about issues of sexual abuse and assault. And things also have to be stated because of her position as an ’eminent feminist’ and a woman. Irony lived to smirk and narrate a tale, when the Think Fest in Goa (sarcastic comments about which, I will reserve for later) featuring brave sexual assault survivors coming out and narrating their stories, doubled up as a site for a heinous crime against another woman.
While Shoma spoke of the ‘beast in our midst’ while talking of sexual assault, the implication could have been quite literal for the young lady in question. While I do not hold Shoma responsible for any of the deeds committed by Tarun Tejpal, it is her reactions which have made her come across as a convenient feminist, who saves outrage for others and self preservation for oneself.
I have a lot of questions for Shoma, the feminist. A lot of them!! I wonder what prompted Shoma to say that the assault on the woman was an internal matter. Does domestic violence amount to internal issues? Is marital rape an internal issue? Is a rape in a school compound, an empty office, in a closed mall an internal issue? Is a father raping a young daughter or sexually assaulting his wife, an internal issue? Has not Shoma, for a large part of her life, with her journalistic ethos and with the pen that dares to speak the truth tried to shed light on how assault is not a single woman’s problem? Has she not spoken on how the personal, needs to be made into the political? Has she not outraged about how the world should know about crimes on women? Then what was the justification, Shoma for the indignant comment of ‘the assault being the woman’s problem and not the society’s problem’ coming from an eminent feminist like you? Where is your sanctimonious wisdom, sensitivity and outrage as a feminist now?
Since, when does the perpetrator have the responsibility of deciding on his own punishment? And since, when do feminists have the responsibility to support that while also saying that the survivor of the assault is satisfied? Would you have been satisfied with the quantum of punishment Tejpal had decided for himself, if this crime was way out of the doors of Tehelka? Would you not have expressed your outrage as a journalist, as a feminist, if a politician (of a certain political bent), a government servant, a guy from a slum, a young student had committed this act of depravity? Would you have allowed the woman to be satisfied, with her assaulter going on a ‘6 month holiday’, if she was not your employee? If this does not betray your feminist ethos, then I do not know what does?
Shoma, when the mail sent by the girl clearly states that she wanted a committee formed to look into her grievance, how could you state that she was satisfied with just Tejpal’s departure from Tehelka? And as a responsible feminist and as the managing editor of Tehelka how were you not stringent about a sexual harassment committee at your office according to the Vishakha guidelines? You talk about systemic changes in your multiple lectures as a feminist. You talk about constitutionally available spaces, about the law being biased against women. Your magazine has broken amazing stories about female safety amidst rising sexism. Then why the apathy, in your own front yard?
You speak of sexual assault as a crime of power and fail to believe that unequal power relations can exist in your office too. You speak of sexual harassment and assault as not just a problem of the lower classes, but have automatically sanitized your workplace out of it? And you say you are an eminent feminist?
If there was a different version which Tarun Tejpal presented, why was it not made aware to the public on the very first day? An easier and a way more honorable way out of the situation would have been to state that there are two versions to the events of those nights and the enquiry committee will take care of it. The second day sees these manipulations where easy words like ‘consent’, ‘different version’ are used with an oh-so-righteous anger while knowing that this can change the course of the proceedings completely. This is clearly not expected of an ’eminent feminist’.
And if at all there are two versions to the story, why till yesterday was the reluctance to go to the police? Hell, you did not even seem to be aware that penetration amounts to rape. Why the reluctance to call your boss an alleged rapist? You surely do not grant others such benefit of doubt? Why the spin tales, Shoma? Why the passive aggressive anger? What is being covered up?
Yes, Shoma, I agree with you that graphic details of the survivor’s story should not have made it into the public domain without her consent. But, most of your anger only seemed to be channelized towards the leak. From where I see it, had it not been for those leaks, no one could have known the extent of the crime. And that is because you were just not ready to share the details. It would have been interpreted as merely another unfriendly touch where the girl was equally responsible.
Many a times on Twitter, I have seen Shoma Choudhary speak out against people/celebrities flippantly using the word ‘rape’ as a verb. I have agreed with her and like many others have voiced my opinion against it. The opposition is needed to reverse a dominant ‘rape culture’. But, all our opposition should not end with just talk and big words and quotes from bell hooks or Judith Butler. Noticing everyday sexism and challenging it is as crucial as standing up for a friend, a colleague, a stranger who is an assault survivor. Thinking is a big part of doing. So is speaking out. But, at some point we have to transcend theorizing and let our actions speak out for what we believe in.
Feminism is to be inculcated in each one of us and that is a herculean task. It is a lifelong commitment to remain eternally vigilant and unbiased. Our criticality should begin with ourself and our opposition to misogyny should just not be reserved for others. If one can firmly decide to go against the world, against one’s own people, against one’s own sense of security to defend what one believes in, then call yourself a feminist. Or else, wait till you make yourself one and do not stop trying. I am still waiting and trying.