I’m reading university vice-chancellor Vibhuti Narain Rai’s deeply sexist comments on women writers: “There is a race among women writers to demonstrate who is the greatest prostitute”, “feminist discourse has reduced to a grand celebration of infidelity”. (More here: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/Textual-violence/654764)
He’s under pressure to resign now, with women writers (including the redoubtable Krishna Sobti) and womens’ rights activists demanding that he be sacked.
It’s the language Narain Rai uses that interests me: he calls a character in a book by a Hindi woman writer a “nymphomaniac kutiya”, quips that another writer’s autobiography should have been called How Many Times in How Many Beds. Behind the classic, well-worn terms of abuse–prostitute, nymphomaniac–are the equally classic male, misogynist fears, of women going out of control, owning their sexuality, stepping out of line. All of his criticism, so to speak, is focused on sexual politics and freedoms. I’m not sure he would have made his remarks if he’d realised how glaringly it displays the anxieties and the fears of men like him: how do we handle these women who refuse to know their place?
In 1979, the writer Mridula Garg was charged for “obscene writing”, because her protagonist in Chit Cobra was a self-aware woman who explored her various freedoms, including sexual freedom, with an absolute lack of guilt. It was the absence of guilt that was offensive; what was telling was that for decades afterwards, Hindi male writers often spoke of Garg disparagingly, as the woman who “writes about sex”, even though her work covered far wider feminist terrain.
Ritu Menon and others explored the persistence of censorship–informal, but powerful–when it came to womens’ writing in The Guarded Tongue: “What is it that women can’t write about? There is a pause… Religion, politics, sex. You then wonder: what is there left to write about?”
One way of dismissing a woman writer is to say that her only subject is sex; she is twice-damned, for being a “loose woman”, and for having such a narrow mind. I love the way Ismat Chughtai fought back when she was on trial for writing about a lesbian affair in her famous short story, The Quilt. Here’s her account of the trial:
“There was a big crowd in the court. Several people had advised us to offer our apologies to the judge, even offering to pay the fines on our behalf. The proceedings had lost some of their verve, the witnesses who were called in to prove that “Lihaf” was obscene were beginning to lose their nerve in the face of our lawyer’s cross-examination. No word capable of inviting condemnation could be found. After a great deal of searching a gentleman said, “The sentence ‘she was collecting ‘ashiqs ’ (lovers) is obscene.”
“Which word is obscene,” the lawyer asked. “‘Collecting,’ or ‘‘ashiqs’?”
“The word ‘‘ashiqs,’” the witness replied, somewhat hesitantly.
“My Lord, the word ‘‘≥shiqs’ has been used by the greatest poets and has also been used in na‘ts. This word has been given a sacred place by the devout.”
“But it is highly improper for girls to collect ‘‘ashiqs,’” the witness proclaimed.
“Because … because … this is improper for respectable girls.”
“But not improper for girls who are not respectable?”
“Uh … uh … no.”
“My client has mentioned girls who are perhaps not respectable. And as you say, sir, non-respectable girls may collect ‘ashiqs.”
“Yes. It’s not obscene to mention them, but for an educated woman
from a respectable family to write about these girls merits condemnation!”
The witness thundered.
“So go right ahead and condemn as much as you like, but does it merit legal action?”
The case crumbled.”
In ‘The Past Is Another Country’, Taslima Nasreen speaks of her belief that Islam is anti-women, of her brushes with the fundamentalists, and of the importance of being a “fallen woman”. The easiest way to discredit a woman writer, or womens’ writing in general, is to call it obscene, to set yourself up as Narain Rai did, as a morality cop.
Ismat Chugtai had the right answer so many decades ago. Some of us are girls who are not respectable, who are in many ways, out of place, out of control. And much as we make men like Narain Rai, who is, incidentally, a former IPS officer, uneasy, even angry, we aren’t that easily brought back into line.