Notes from a bachelorette party in New India: Swathi Sukumar
Guest post by SWATHI SUKUMAR
Last week, I went to a bachelorette party. The party props were unbelievable to the point of being ridiculous—shot-glasses shaped like body parts, kinky trinkets, balloons in unmentionable shapes and sizes—and other items that would have made many women of another generation collapse in horror.
At the end of the party, everyone was slightly drunk and a good deal of time had been spent asking the bride-to-be embarrassing questions and cracking dirty jokes. I realized that our revelry had a close parallel in the cult classic “The Hangover”, a story of four men who go to Las Vegas to celebrate a very eventful bachelor’s party. Our party shared common themes from the script of the movie, including inebriation and the obsession with bodies, both perfect and imperfect. We missed the tiger and the stripper from the movie, but I am told that strippers are a very common feature in bachelorette parties in India.
Tigers are not common, I hope.
I was looking at a new class of Indian women: upper middle-class, educated professionals, several holding advanced degrees from reputed foreign Universities, self-aware and confident. A group of women who pay their own bills and are economically empowered. Many from the group will make it to the top of the organizations that they work at, and we will celebrate their success as an indicator of the empowerment of women.
Despite all of this, at the end of the party, I was left with some unanswered questions: What is the origin of this particular brand of fun that we have evolved that involves objectification of bodies? And what does this mean for the battle for equality that we are fighting on a daily basis?
We know that capitalism has deep links with patriarchy. Since capitalism prioritizes the value of income generation over other values, women in their traditional roles were marginalized. This lead to women, like us, who are trying to obtain legitimacy from the system through earning their keep. However, the struggle for economic independence has become a smokescreen that often conceals the misogyny of our everyday lives and social practices, which have remained largely unquestioned.
Now, in the name of equality, our interactions, ideas of recreation and entertainment often mimic those associated with men, particularly when it pertains to objectification of the human body. Men who visit a strip club on an international vacation are “just being men”, and women who have a stripper in attendance for a bachelorette party are considered empowered.
Our mimicry of dominant masculinity is problematic because it disguises the inherent misogyny within. We have adopted objectification as one of the tools to assert ourselves, to prove that we are no less than the men, without questioning this model of empowerment. We have and will continue to perpetuate the same inequities that we fight against, which become increasingly difficult to recognize as they are hidden under layers of pseudo-feminism. Ultimately, through this flawed process, we may be able to relax norms on how little we can wear without being victimized, but we will not succeed in changing patriarchal notions of what our bodies mean and what they are meant for.
Perhaps, mimicry is a form of survival. In the natural world, some species of snakes, spiders and butterflies have all evolved to look like other, more dangerous species, to ward of predators. This is called Batesian mimicry, a good example of which is a fly mimicking a bee. Birds will not attack bees, because they sting. A fly is easy prey for a bird, unless it looks like a bee, so some species of flies have evolved to mimic bees. Similarly, women have often found a way to mimic men, perhaps to feign strength and to avoid falling prey to a system run on the strength of male privilege.
All of this is not to suggest, of course, that women are asexual, and that everything sexual is masculine. However, to claim that we’re challenging patriarchal norms when we are actively propagating them would be untruthful.
All people, irrespective of whether they are male or female, must be allowed to express their identity equally. However, equality is not achieved in translation. As assertive and independent women, we need to evolve new ways in which we can celebrate femininity. The current political climate echoes deep discontent with the status of women in India, and the glaring lack of safety in our lives.
At this juncture of unrest, it would be worthwhile to think about what it means to be an independent woman today. What and who will define our identities? How do we reconcile the various social forces that operate on us? What would a world that is equal look like?
The scary truth is that in some respects, we haven’t progressed ideologically in several decades, and the fight for empowerment of women has been prematurely thwarted by the fat bank account. Our fading commitment to the real ideals to equality should be revived. This time, let’s try originality.
(Swathi Sukumar is a lawyer in New Delhi. She is grateful to discussions with Nizam Pasha and Supriya Sankaran that led to this post.)